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Rock Star

An abundance of boulders and indigenous flora reunify a once-tropical landscape with its desert surroundings.

By Nancy Erdmann | Photography by Art Holeman

Previously landscaped with palms, ferns and other lush vegetation, this North Scottsdale yard went through a dramatic transformation.

It isn’t often that one can lay claim to a pile of boulders so stunning in their grandeur that they not only embody the beauty of the mountainous terrain beyond but also sit right inside the very walls of their own backyard. Yet, for Gail and Larry Cavallo, such a scenario unfolds every day at their North Scottsdale home.

Situated near the Tom’s Thumb trailhead of the McDowell Mountains, the couple’s 2.5-acre property is an exceptional example of man and nature coming together. So it was no surprise that when the Illinois residents, who had already been wintering in Scottsdale for the past seven years, began their search for a vacation home in the Valley, they immediately knew that this was the property for them. “We were looking for a place with few neighbors and ample privacy, and when we saw the rock formation behind the pool and the nearby mountains forested with saguaros, we didn’t hesitate,” says Larry.

There was one problem, however. The previous owner had landscaped the lot with imported tropical plants, including palms, ferns and what the Cavallos refer to as Southern California-looking trees. “All of the vegetation was overgrown and offered little correlation to the natural terrain,” recalls landscape architect and Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner Donna Winters. “Gail and Larry wanted to bring their garden back to an authentic desert and completely change the relationship of their landscape to the surrounding scenery.”

To make their dream a reality, Winters cleared out all of the non-native plants that didn’t make sense and removed two putting greens and a high-water-use irrigation system. “My goal was to layer the yard with cacti and succulents of all varieties and bring in additional boulders to create tiered vignettes that also serve as retaining barriers,” she explains.

Numerous field trips to cactus nurseries opened the homeowners’ eyes to the diversity and multitude of choices. “Donna was instrumental in exposing us to plants we had never

1. When they first saw the property, the homeowners were immediately drawn to the unusual rock formation that sits directly behind the swimming pool. “Everything about the new plantscape was designed to focus on this magnificent feature,” says landscape architect Donna Winters. 2. Stunning in its own right, a sculptural Hercules aloe draws the eye to the spectacular mountainside setting that encompasses the 2.5-acre lot.

seen before,” says Larry. “There are two things I like, rocks and cacti, and she really understood what we were looking for.”

Winters brought in four semitruck loads of boulders and spent close to six months setting the enormous rocks into place to create a natural connection to the canyon. “It was about honoring and respecting that relationship and embracing the essence of the setting,” she notes. It wasn’t an easy task, as access to the backyard was tight and all of the boulders had to be craned in. In addition, the landscape crew, sometimes up to 10 men at a time, had to hoist each of the boxed plant specimens up the steep incline and place them just so. “It takes a lot of muscle, grit and determination to do that, but they were up for the challenge,” Winters remarks.

The existing hardscape included a circular stone-clad pool with an infinity edge, two waterfalls and boulders that wind their way up to a second-story ramada. Before the yard was renovated, it was almost impossible to see the waterfalls due to the heavy vegetation blocking their view, notes Winters.

Masses of agaves, ocotillos, barrel cacti, mammillarias, kalanchoes, aloes, organ pipes and saguaros now permeate the elevated yard with their exquisite shapes, textures and hues. “You wouldn’t believe all the shades of green that can be found in these plants and the magnificence of their blooms,” Winters exlaims. Set against the golds and browns of the paving, the boulders and the existing ramada and water features, the plantscape puts on a show year-round. For added color, oversized pots in blues, greens and terracotta serve as hosts for trailing succulents, leafy agaves and shapely cacti. “All of this can be seen from every viewing spot in the yard and house,” she points out.

“We are so fortunate to have this home and to be able to enjoy all that it—and the Sonoran Desert—has to offer, as well as share it with family and friends.”

—Gail Cavallo, homeowner

Mexican fence post cacti tucked among the boulders reflect the beauty of the native terrain surrounding the home. The massive rocks, which were craned onto the property, add layers of interest, while Vietnamese pots overflowing with heat-hardy succulents serve as colorful garden accents.

A ramada, which sits at the same level as the home’s roofline, offers Gail and Larry an ideal spot to enjoy a broad perspective of their surroundings. Below, their private oasis is filled with the beauty of the exterior desert. “The most defining element of the landscape is how it unifies the experience with a grander picture of nature beyond the confines of the exterior walls,” Winters says.

According to the Cavallos, the garden is at its best in March, when most of the vegetation is in bloom. And when the sun hits the mountains at sunrise and sunset, it is magical. Wildlife, too, finds the landscape enticing. A variety of critters often can be seen drinking from the pool or the hot tub, which is located a full story up from the swimming area. “We see roadrunners, coyotes, javalina, bobcats, mule deer and rattlesnakes,” Larry notes. “One day, our neighbor called and told us there were three mountain lions sitting on the rock formation behind our pool. How extraordinary is that?”

Winters selected such desert flora as Agave americana, chenille prickly pear and fire barrel cacti based on their unique shapes, textures and colors.

Designed to capture the distant “borrowed” scenery of the surrounding Troon Mountains, the freestanding ramada also offers access to a hot tub located behind the waterfall. The Rustic Ranch ledgestone on the shade structure and Autumn Blend flagstone used for the stairs and paving blend perfectly with the natural hues of the boulders.

“The most defining element of the landscape is how it unifies the experience with a grander picture of nature beyond the confines of the exterior walls.”

—Donna Winters, landscape architect

Now that their property reflects their visions of the Southwest, the couple are able to savor its pleasures year-round, even in the heat of summer when Gail likes to spend time at the pool with her girlfriends. “This is a great yard for entertaining, and we don’t feel like we have people on top of us anymore,” she says. “We are so fortunate to have this home and to be able to enjoy all that it—and the Sonoran Desert—has to offer, as well as share it with family and friends.”


Landscape Architect: Donna Winters, Enchanted Garden Landscape Inc.

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