back to top
Homepage / Landscape + Garden  / Oasis in the Desert

Oasis in the Desert

The main patio exudes a Santa Barbara ambiance with its cypress trees, fan palms, bougainvilleas, clipped hedges and pots overflowing with colorful blooms. Landscape architect Randsom Brown says the property was carefully sited for maximum views, with Pinnacle Peak visible on the left and Pinnacle Mountain on the right.

Surrounded by indigenous flora and fauna, an Arizona landscape has all the makings of a stylish master-planned resort.

By Nancy Erdmann | Photography by Art Holeman

The allure of vacationing at an upscale hotel, with its wealth of amenities, luxurious setting and well-laid-out grounds, has likely prompted a few fantasies of what it might be like to actually live in such a desirable place. While most people can only dream of such a life, others have made it their reality, including one world-traveling couple from Montana who wanted to re-create the ambience of a high-end retreat on 12 acres they had purchased in the Sonoran Desert—a place they and their family would call home for six months out of the year. 

Located within a stone’s throw of Pinnacle Peak and Pinnacle Mountain in North Scottsdale and boasting 180-degree views to the south, the hillside setting is nothing less than spectacular. Transforming the property from untouched natural desert to a private dwelling took several years, but the end result is a visually jaw-dropping destination that transports habitués and visitors alike to a realm of relaxation and unpretentious beauty. 

The magic begins at the arrival gate, where a scenic drive winds back and forth along what previously was a jeep trail. The passage is lined on both sides by indigenous plants, including many that were salvaged from the site during construction. Large specimen cacti, massive shrubs and sprawling ocotillos create the feel of a desert preserve untouched by man. Closer in and transitioning from the desert are softer drought-tolerant plants. A butterfly garden filled with milkweeds and other nectar-rich plants make up a waystation that provides a habitat for monarchs to reproduce and fuel up for migration. Then the drive veers toward the residence, where a completely new experience begins.

1. A Santa Barbara-style carved marble turnaround fountain is situated in the center of the auto court at the home’s entry. “Its bespoke tiles were made to emulate traditional handmade Moroccan fountain tiles in color and character,” Brown explains. Paving is Italian Borivali cobblestone. 2. Myriad palm varieties, thick-leafed blue succulents, leafy ferns, orangish kangaroo paw and other tropical-like vegetation softens the walkway to the front door. Although some of the plants are susceptible to frost, landscape architect Tona Alanis says that moisture and heat released during the day from the microclimates on the property keep the sensitive vegetation from being affected by the cold.
The main body of the pool is separated from a shallow play area by “floating” limestone stepping stones set just below water level. Zero, or wet, edges around the pool’s border allow swimmers to comfortably sit without worrying about burning themselves on hot decking.

Tucked between the base of two mountains, the Santa Barbara-style house is fringed with layers of blue palo verdes, Texas mountain laurels, Mediterranean fan palms and blooming orchid trees, which not only soften the hardscape but also introduce a tropical ambiance. Verdant pocket gardens, many defined by walls of thick evergreen hedges, can be found around every corner. A small private space off the master bedroom, for instance, is just right for enjoying a cup of coffee while listening to the trickle of a nearby fountain. A cozy outdoor room off the master bath offers a spa-like experience with its in-ground hot tub.

There is also a variety of open spaces for large gatherings. “The whole yard is laid out very nicely,” says the husband. Three guest casitas, measuring about 1,500 square feet each, are separated from the main house by a terraced patio that leads to a resort-size pool and a large stretch of lawn that can be utilized for games or as a backdrop for dining tables. In between are multiple furnished terraces and patios; a large pavilion with a grill, fireplace, TV and heaters; a shuffleboard court; putting green; and a desert trail for exploring. “We wanted private areas, as well as entertaining areas for our young grandchildren, friends and business associates,” he remarks.

Tasked with transforming the untouched, oversized lot were landscape architects Randsom Brown and Tona Alanis. Tackling a project of this magnitude was nothing new to them, as both have designed for resorts in various parts of the world, including Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and the southwest region of the U.S. “We approached this property the same way we design luxury boutique resorts,” Brown says. “We incorporated a sense of place, of fantasy and originality, luxury, comfort and color.”

One of the major goals of the planting design was to seamlessly transition from desert to formal landscape, moving from nonirrigated or seldom-irrigated areas to soft, lush gardens close to the house. “Instead of a beautiful mature tree anchoring a garden, or a collection of specimens, it was masses of mature trees and specimens coming together to create a completely new natural landscape,” Brown points out. “From there it became gardens within gardens and then microclimate gardens within those gardens. Add the seasonal potted plantings and annual beds, and the impact of all these layers is quite awe-inspiring.”

1. Outfitted with all the comforts of an indoor great room, this covered patio is decked out with furnishings designed with weather-worthy materials. Interior designer Paul Duesing says the color choices for the fabrics were made to reflect the landscape and the local sunsets. 2. The terraced garden is a showcase for mass plantings of extravagant succulents and flowering shrubs. Because the homeowners didn’t want to wait years for their landscape to mature, almost all of the plants were brought in at full size, and many needed to be craned onto the property. Below is a synthetic putting green. 3. Dense vegetation creates microclimates on the property that allow some plants, including a variety of palms and agaves, to flourish as they naturally would in places such as California, says Alanis. The main lawn area is cooled by surrounding drought-tolerant trees and bushes. 4. The homeowners wanted a lush, overgrown look in the private living areas, such as this casita patio entry, where a porch swing invites daydreaming. Each casita has its own secluded garden for guests to relax in before heading to the main house for more social activities.
It doesn’t get more resortlike than this, with a grove of palm trees as a backdrop, a shimmering pool just a short walk away from the house and casitas, and a breezy cabana setting for sun protection. The expansive grounds are actually three separate 4-acre lots that have been combined into one.

The homeowners love plants, and the landscape is a very important element to them.” 

—Tona Alanis, landscape architect

When construction on the landscape began, hundreds of native trees were relocated to a holding nursery on the property. Once revegetation started, an additional 100 fully grown varieties were installed, and an astonishing 21,000 other plants, such as cacti, succulents and shrubs, were brought in just to create the landscape’s foundation, according to Alanis. “The homeowners love plants, and the landscape is a very important element to them. They wanted everything to look mature from the very beginning,” he explains. “I would say 4 to 4.5 acres of the property were turned into actual gardens.”

Another factor was preserving and enhancing the natural desert landscape and its wildlife, which was important to the homeowners as well as the landscapers. “We designed the grounds to showcase and educate guests on native and desert-adapted plants with signage and to provide protected wildlife corridors for indigenous animals to traverse the property,” says Brown. “It was imperative that the desert and its fauna be viewable and enjoyed but that unfortunate encounters between wildlife and spiky plants, such as rattlesnakes and cholla cactus, and people be avoided.” The site is habitat to many venomous snakes, Gila monsters and Sonoran Desert toads, so Brown and Alanis made sure that any private spaces are completely protected with snakeproof barriers.

Many of the existing chollas, saguaros and organ pipe cacti, along with other native flora, were salvaged and replanted on the periphery of the 12-acre property, reminding guests of the Sonoran Desert’s unique beauty. The native vegetation provides a natural habitat for wildlife and requires almost no maintenance.
1. The 10-foot-deep diving pool is a “distillation of classic European garden pool geometries, while contemporary details, including infinity and zero edges, keep the design current,” explains landscape architect Randsom Brown. Pool builder Mike Ferraro adds, “This was a great project. The Baja area has LED color up-lights and Roman fountain bubble jets. Another nice touch is the floating steps that let you walk across the water.” The ellipse-shape spa is defined by a ledge of coping that transforms into a negative edge. 2. Pots filled with seasonal blooms in shades of red and purple, as well as a towering bougainvillea that adorns the side of the house, complement the deep turquoise hues of the pool, patio furnishings and awnings. Walls of tropical palms and lush vegetation create the sensation of being in a private paradise. 3. Situated in the center of the rose garden and surrounded by English roses, a custom-carved limestone fountain is in keeping with the look of an antique European stone wellhead. Its rough-hewn stone allows water to pool so that butterflies and other insects can enjoy a drink. 4. Another custom limestone fountain was designed with shallow shelves to create a bird bath and also attract butterflies. A thicket of white-blooming star jasmine effuses a sweet aroma in early spring.

Natural arroyos that run through the property were maintained during the landscape installation. “Riprap and native wash plantings were used to prevent soil erosion, and natural-looking depressions were designed into the washes to slow the additional runoff from the new buildings and patio areas,” says Brown. “These arroyos now have an abundance of native food sources for indigenous wildlife and provide cover for animals traversing the property.”

In addition to a yard filled with desert-friendly greenery, the homeowners also requested a multitude of potted plants and seasonal color. More than 70 pots, ranging from Vietnamese ceramic vessels and terra-cotta pots from Crete to cast limestone containers and cast concrete pots, decorate the gardens. Some are planted with kumquats, while others have formal evergreens or topiary olives. “In areas with more sun exposure, we found a combination of annuals and succulents works best,” notes Brown. “In fall, spectacular annual beds are planted full of color between the patios and gardens, increasing the impact of the landscape, especially while entertaining.”

This exquisite property recently had its moment in the spotlight—serving as the setting for the outdoor wedding of the couple’s daughter. “She wanted it to be in April when the desert and the gardens were all at their peak and looking their best,” says her father. More than 100 guests not only enjoyed the happy celebration, but they also were able to explore the grounds with its many alfresco spaces outfitted by interior designer Paul Duesing, whose background is in resort and hospitality design. The homeowners discovered his work while visiting a resort in the Caribbean that he had designed. Duesing just happened to be on the grounds at the time, and after meeting, the couple hired him to collaborate on their Arizona home. “I approached the design of their outdoor areas the same as I do the five-star resorts on which I work—by creating a casual, luxurious environment with an emphasis on great views and incredible vistas,” he says.

For Alanis, the garden was designed to be a discovery experience.  “One terrace is great for watching the sunset, another for smelling the roses and others for having some privacy,” he says. “These different experiences can be enjoyed throughout the day and night.” And it is ever-changing, with more and more plants being brought in each year.

“We believe a beautiful landscape enhances any house—large or small,” says the husband. “We couldn’t be more pleased with the results of our yard and how it has impacted the beauty of our home for both family and friends to enjoy.”

For more information, see Sources.

1. The rose garden, designed for the wife, flourishes with more than 225 shrub and climbing roses in multiple varieties and colors. Favorites include English, Weeks and David Austin roses. 2. Located on the north-facing “cocktail patio,” with views of both mountains, this Santa Barbara-style fountain features sparkling tiles and a carved limestone spout. The verdant setting, which was styled after an Italian parterre garden, includes a row of kumquats in terra-cotta pots and an evergreen privacy hedge. An armillary sphere on a pedestal is a replica of an ancient astrological instrument modeling celestial elements seen in the sky.
1. Although the majority of the plant palette is drought-tolerant and desert-adapted, the landscape architects put an emphasis on fall, winter and spring bloomers for their non-native choices. Selections from Arizona, Texas and Mexico fill the landscape, along with vibrant annuals that last almost half the year. 2. In this lush setting, yellow orchid vine espaliered on the wall, lanky Italian cypress trees, purple statice and rose trees produce a California vibe.


Sign up for the Phoenix Home & Garden Newsletter

Stay up to date with everything Phoenix Home & Garden!

Our newsletter subscribers will have early access to things like:

  • Upcoming Events & Pre-Sales
  • Special Promotions
  • Exclusive Giveaways!