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Rock Your Yard with This Fresh Take on Xeriscape

Take inspiration from this unique public landscape.

By John Roark

Incorporating rock into garden spaces is a favorite choice for Southwestern homeowners. From fine pebbles to monolithic boulders culled from Arizona quarries, we pay homage to the majesty of the Sonoran Desert by surrounding ourselves with one its most elemental, raw and untamed resources.

The grounds of Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West feature a technique that shows us how to use rock in an unconventional way. The brainchild of landscape architects Allison Colwell and Michele Shelor, the landscape includes slabs of locally sourced Arizona brown schist laid end to end in overlapping rows reminiscent of shingles on a roof. Springing up among the order, iconic Sonoran flora adds a nod to our heritage. Stately saguaros align like sentries. Yuccas dance among the jagged edges. Here and there, clusters of desert marigolds can be seen popping up their heads.

“One of the things that attracted us to this project was the challenge of creating exterior spaces that activate a public building,” says Shelor. “Most of a museum’s spaces are internal. We wanted to make the outside compelling, and do it in a contemporary way. This is not just a museum of the Old West; it celebrates the new West as well. The building has a shingled aesthetic to it, and this was a natural way to complement that look.”

The landscape of Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West features slabs of Arizona schist carefully arranged in a shingled pattern.

The design was inspired by natural rock formations found in northern Arizona. To achieve the effect, native dirt was leveled and topped with a fine layer of decomposed granite followed by horizontal rows of schist. “It’s pretty labor-intensive,” says Colwell, who, along with Shelor, laid parts of the final installation herself. “The contractors weren’t exactly sure how to achieve the result we wanted, so we got down on our hands and knees, placing the rocks so they would understand what to do. We wanted the rocks to be perfectly horizontally aligned.

Inspiration for the museum’s grounds came from natural rock formations found in northern Arizona.

In order to show contractors how they wanted the stone slabs placed, landscape architects Allison Colwell and Michele Shelor installed portions of the shingled schist landscape themselves.

“Lifting schist can be hard on your lower back,” Colwell continues, adding that the landscape is low- maintenance and water-efficient, considerations that embrace their firm’s passion for projects that are ecological, sustainable and site-respectful.

Patterned plant material, such as grids of barrel cacti or saguaros is in vogue, says landscape architect and Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner Russell Greey. “To me, the next logical progression is taking very natural material, such as schist, and using it in an organized way.”

Incorporating a similar design in your residential setting is all about scale, Greey believes. “For a home garden application, this treatment would work well in a planter or a raised or sunken garden bed,” he says. “You don’t want to overdo it. It would not make sense to do your entire yard this way. But it would be very interesting in a contained space where you can combine sharp, crisp edges with pattern and texture. There are so many sandstone and quartz stone products on the market that you could really have fun with.”

Since the completion of installation in 2015, the response to the museum’s landscape has been very positive, garnering for its creators numerous accolades, including the 2016 American Society of Landscape Architect’s Arizona Design President’s Award and Arizona Forward’s Crescordia Award for Environmental Excellence, the highest honors bestowed by both bodies.

While they are understandably proud of their creation, the design duo says they won’t be repeating the use of shingled schist all over the Valley. “We try not to do the same thing more than once,” says Shelor. “We have moved on.”

A raised planter at the home of architect Clint Miller shows how orderly placement of native rock can be incorporated into a residential application.

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