Pretty as a Picture
Artistic compositions of showy plants enliven an outdoor retreat.
By Cathy Cromell | Photography by Garrett Cook
Peggy De La Garza confesses that she knew nothing about plants when she started her design career, which began when she married Larry De La Garza, who owned a landscaping business. “I couldn’t even identify a common pothos houseplant before I met him,” she remembers. “Working side-by-side with Larry ignited my love for design and desert plants.”
More than three decades later, De La Garza’s lush landscape designs showcase her now encyclopedic knowledge of desert-adapted plants. She deftly blends specimens into composed vignettes worthy of a world-class botanic garden. Believing color is essential in any desert landscape, her compositions include plants that offer year-round color without relying on seasonal blooms. Some of her favorites are yellow variegated agaves, mounds of golden barrel cacti and statuesque multi-armed blue cardón gracing the front walkway of the north Scottsdale property shown here.
De La Garza’s landscapes are also defined by intricate boulder placement, creating a wild, natural ambience that mimics the boulder-strewn foothills where many of her clients live. “Flat terrain doesn’t exhibit plant groupings well, so I incorporate tons of boulders to build elevation change, natural terraces, or sites that provide backdrop to highlight plants’ unique structural characteristics,” says the Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning designer.
Collaborating closely with her crew, De La Garza fashions her vibrant vignettes on site, concentrating on one section at a time, piecing them together like jigsaw puzzles until the landscape displays a completed picture. “If an employee has an idea, I say ‘show me’ and if it works, we use it,” says the designer. “Many of my crew members have been with me for years and they are absolutely integral to my success. We work as a team.”
Carefully placed trees are another key component in her designs, providing much-needed shade as well as integrating a home’s outdoor living areas with its surroundings. “No other plants provide character and a sense of place in a Sonoran Desert landscape quite like native ironwood trees,” she notes. “Their individualistic branching and trunk shapes add a magical quality to any setting.”
This homeowner concurs, pointing out the fantastically gnarled and textured trunks on ancient ironwood trees that De La Garza selected to flank the front entrance walkway. “Trees are my pride and joy, and to me, are the most important element in my landscape,” says the owner.
To meet this client’s deep appreciation for trees, De La Garza craned in mature boxed blue palo verdes, ironwoods and mesquites to surround the backyard. Staggered along a low courtyard wall and the property line that is adjacent to a golf course, these native trees add impressive structural presence as well as seclusion. “The courtyard is my private little oasis,” says the homeowner.
Surprisingly, De La Garza has had no formal training or education in landscape design. “I am lucky that my husband has been an incredible mentor,” she says. Although he recently retired from their business, she has no immediate plans to do the same. “Why should I retire? My employees are like family, and I love what I do. I have the best job in the world.”