How One Project Brought This Landscape Designer from Near-Death Back to the Light
2023 MASTERS of the SOUTHWEST Award Winner - Bennett McGregor
For landscape designer Bennett McGregor, personal growth—like a seedling seeking the sun—is all about reaching for the light.
By Lauren Tyda | Portrait by Chris Loomis
On a particularly crisp winter day, landscape designer Bennett McGregor wanders one of his masterpieces, an almost five-acre North Scottsdale property that backs up to an expansive desert wash.
“This is sandpaper verbena,” he says, plucking a leaf and offering a feel of its cat tongue-like texture. “What’s crazy is I didn’t plant it here. I planted it over there,” he gestures a few feet away, toward a desert-salvaged ironwood tree. “I installed it in one place, and it seeded over to another. Embracing the desert is what I do. I’m always learning something new about this landscape, but if there’s one thing I know—it’s best to let it do its own thing.”
The garden is teeming with wildlife. Desert marigold, penstemon and brightly hued salvia dance and bob in the breeze as hummingbirds, butterflies and bees buzz and bounce from bloom to bloom. The sunlight bathes the setting in an incandescent glow that refracts off of McGregor’s dark-rimmed glasses.
He points to a verdant haze beyond the see-through vertical rebar fence. “In the summer, this is all dry, brown and gray,” he states. “But there’s so much happening underground, as though the plants are waiting. The roots are down there still growing, and anytime it rains, this place just comes alive with bright green. I have a ton of respect for anything that can live out here, the plants, the animals, anything.”
The dwelling is called the Light house because it is quite literally the surname of the owner, Brian Light. But it also holds personal significance—working on the project became a beacon of hope as McGregor lay recovering from a freak snowboarding accident in Telluride four years ago.
“I tried to stop at the edge of a trail, not even going fast, and the board spun out,” he recalls. “I flew off into a ravine, hit a tree and tore my kidney in half.”
Rescue workers airlifted McGregor to a hospital, where he spent 21 days (followed by five months at home) recovering from internal bleeding, severe sepsis and organ damage. “The half of my kidney that remained intact needed to close itself off and relearn to fully function again,” he says. “It was a really difficult time—a lot of pain, waiting and uncertainty. Any light or sound affected me adversely.”
But then came a gleaming lodestar in the form of an email from longtime collaborator and mentor, architectural designer Bob Bacon. “He said, ‘Hey do you want to be part of this project?’ I was in the darkest place in my life, and here’s this entity, the Light residence. Just to be alive to be offered it, I was psyched. It elevated me and kept me focused on getting better.”
McGregor’s foray into landscape design was also somewhat of an accident. “I was always into drawing and art,” says the Massachusetts native, whose family moved to Arizona when he was 16 years old. “As a young mind, I thought if you can draw, you can be an architect.”
It only took one semester in the architecture program at ASU to realize the profession was not his calling. “It was a lot of structure and numbers, and I wanted to deep dive into drawing and more creative things,” he states.
“As an artist, Ben is fluent in the visual elements of composition such as texture, color and shape; as a horticulturist, he understands the environmental factors and physiological needs of the plants.”
—Bob Bacon, architectural designer
The young visionary transferred to University of Arizona, where he majored in fine art, studio art and 3D design. “I found that figure drawing, life drawing is something that just comes out of me,” he ponders. “And it was this wonderful feeling that if you stay out of the way and just let it happen, then you can look at these things you put on paper and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t really plan any of that.’”
To indulge his passion for creating, McGregor took jobs with architects and landscape architects during his summer breaks. “I didn’t know anything about plants, nothing,” he says. “But I knew I wanted to make art outside.”
He amassed a wealth of knowledge under the tutelage of late architect Pam Graf and late landscape contractor Phil Hebets. “I learned from them how to work in these spaces on these types of properties, how to identify and understand desert plants and then take those designs and bring them to life.”
In 2001, four days after 9/11, he decided to take a leap of faith and start his own business. “I thought, well, if it’s meant to be, it’s going to work,” he reflects.
Over the years, McGregor has become a go-to for his low-maintenance, xeriscaped aesthetic. All of his clients are referrals, and he prefers it that way—he does not advertise his services, opting to keep his workload manageable, so he can focus on his connection with the land. “It’s definitely art for me,” he states. “It’s a form of meditation.”
The designer does not consider himself the maestro of the operations, either. He beams with pride referencing the architects, interior designers and contractors he has worked with—right down to the concrete and steel workers. “It’s like film,” he remarks. “If the storytelling is consistent between the writer, director and producer, you become absorbed and all of a sudden, two hours have gone by, and your life is changed. I want to create those spaces and environments for people—ones that are peaceful where you can relax and enjoy the Sonoran Desert. That’s fulfilling and nourishing. But it’s not all about me. This is a working group of people with ideas, and I just want to add value.”
Architect and veteran Phoenix Home & Garden Master of the Southwest David Dick says McGregor’s attention to art is what makes working with him a pleasure: “I am always impressed by the uniquely creative outlook Ben takes when approaching new designs,” Dick says. “Each project not only reflects his dedication to the craft, but also points to the way he views every landscape as a canvas filled with opportunities.”
Bacon, the aforementioned architect and unwitting bellwether in landscape designer’s recovery, reiterates the sentiment: “As an artist, Ben is fluent in the visual elements of composition such as texture, color and shape; as a horticulturist, he understands the environmental factors and physiological needs of the plants. And I also enjoy the calm harmony of his seemingly perpetual Zen state.”
Coming back to the Light house has become a mantra of sort for McGregor, who sees the project as a reminder of what kept him alive through darkness and brought him back into the light—much like desert plants waiting for the rain. He runs his fingers through the bright red stamens of a fairy duster that thrives in the designer’s chosen spot—though it’s never manicured, to ensure it grows wild and free.
“I’ve been taught by the Sonoran Desert that only what nature will allow is going to work,” he reflects softly. “There’s a ton to know, a ton to learn that’s endless. That keeps me interested and focused.”
As for snowboarding, he’s planning another trip this year. “My wife hates it,” he laughs.“But I guess I’m staying in the middle of the trail this time.”
Landscape designer: Bennett McGregor, Bennett McGregor Landscapes LLC, Phoenix, email@example.com.
PAGES 142-143—Architectural designer: Bob Bacon, R.J. Bacon Design, Phoenix, rjbacondesign.com. Builder: Tom Archer, Tom Archer Custom Homes & Design, (480) 205-4813.
PAGE 146—Architect: David Dick, David Dick Architect, Scottsdale, daviddickarchitect.com. Builder: Jeff Gatewood, Benissimo, Scottsdale, (602) 989-7337.
PAGE 147—Sculpture: Lisa Gildar, Lisa Gildar Interior Spaces, Scottsdale, lisagildar.com.
PAGES 148-149—Builder: Tom Archer Custom Homes & Design, (480) 205-4813.
PAGE 150—Architect: rjbacondesign.com. Builder: laynescottoconstruction.com.
PAGE 151—Architect: rjbacondesign.com.