Through the Looking Glass
A whimsical renovation transforms an unimaginative landscape into a fairytale fantasy.
By Lori A. Johnson | Photography by Ryan Wilson
Arizona desert meets “Alice in Wonderland”: That’s how landscape designer Jeremy McVicars describes a storybook garden in North Scottsdale that complements the homeowners’ eclectic tastes and offers visitors an enchanting experience. “The client has eccentric style, so we played that up in our design,” he says. “He let us run with it and let the creativity flow. He wanted his garden to be one of the most distinctive in his neighborhood.”
Located in the private community of DC Ranch, the residence, built 20 years ago, was the second custom home in the development. But unlike many modern bespoke abodes, it featured rather bland finishing touches reminiscent of a spec house, notes the homeowner. Over time, he and his wife realized that they wanted more opportunity for self-expression—inside and out. “Originally, our backyard consisted of concrete, flagstone, desert landscaping and a basketball court,” says the husband. “It was fine but not unique enough to reflect us. We wanted to shift the energy of our yard so that it would better embody our personal tastes and the innovative and colorful interior of our home.”
Despite homeowner association guidelines that required desert landscaping in the front yard, the couple managed to bring their personal style to the Sonoran-focused space. They injected a touch of whimsy into a large niche by replacing a dated Cantera stone fountain with an eye-catching metal sculpture that sits in front of a brilliant tile mosaic in shades of blue and turquoise. Cacti and succulent-filled beds add even more contrast, with pops of color interspersed with greenery.
While some might be tempted to linger in this desert oasis, visual delights glimpsed through a picture window entice guests through the entryway for further exploration. “The private areas allowed us to work with a broader palette of plants, including Madagascar palms, giant lady’s-slipper, ponytail palms, foxtail fern, iceberg roses and myoporum, to name a few,” says project manager Ryan Sawdey.
One goal of the redesign was to create a continuous indoor/outdoor space adjacent to the dining room that transitions smoothly from cocktail hour on the patio to dinner indoors. Visual flow is achieved by breaking up the large expanse with a checkerboard pattern comprising alternating squares of stone and grass—a motif inspired by the homeowners’ fanciful indoor dining table. Curvilinear lounge chairs by the pool contrast with the straight lines for added interest. Nearby is a newly built outdoor kitchen clad in decorative blue tile that matches the entryway niche. At the edge of the yard, a custom iron gate leads the way to a spacious parklike setting consisting of multiple garden vignettes and additional entertainment venues.
The pool itself was existing, but McVicars and Sawdey refinished its interior and added waterline tile and deck jets. At the far end, they placed a large horizontal living wall, complete with a scupper. “We filled the wall with rosemary, dwarf ruellia and variegated society garlic to play with different patterns and textures,” Sawdey says.
Situated between the pool and the house is a large rectangular fire pit; surrounding it is a cushioned seating arrangement that offers a comfortable place to gather on cool evenings. “Rather than just create a typical fire pit, we surrounded the base with annuals and LED lighting to give color and glow,” says Sawdey. Snail vine (Vigna caracalla) winds its way around a large picture window, softening the stucco wall and creating a colorful backdrop with its bright purple flowers.
A series of garden “rooms” hinge off a circular patio that was built to showcase a tall, sculptural totem. The vignette serves as a focal point and central connection between the pool area, a small patio with spa, a large tea patio/outdoor dining area and a grass conversation pit. “The sunken seating area offers a fun place where you can truly be in the garden. Spiral junipers provide a playful backdrop,” explains Sawdey. According to McVicars, the homeowners often see bobcats and other wildlife resting in the cool grassy hollow.
“You want to get lost in this charming landscape, as each garden room unfolds into another one,” says Sawdey.
Dominating a large part of the lawn is an outdoor dining area where it seems the Mad Hatter himself might host a tea party. Placed within a bed of specially imported pea gravel and framed by lush foliage and numerous potted plants, the space is highlighted by strings of bistro lights that drape overhead and add visible drama throughout the yard. “The homeowners wanted to go beyond standard landscape lighting,” says McVicars. “String lighting at the tea table, lanterns hanging in the trees and a chandelier on the east patio give an enchanted feeling day or night.”
While not your typical Scottsdale garden, the newly renovated landscape has thrilled its residents. “We love the current juxtaposition, whereby our outdoor space begins in desert landscaping and transitions to an unexpected whimsical wonderland,” says the husband. “The surprise elements and artistic diversity were cornerstones of our vision. We wanted the space to be playful and fun yet functional. When we hang out in our backyard, we are transported into a fairytale pop-up picture book. It is truly enchanting.”
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