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Verdant with a View

Palo verde trees screen out neighboring homes and provide a colorful backdrop for a new stacked-stone water feature that spills into the pool. The plant piers are an enhancement added by the current owners of this property.

A desert landscape evolves into a lush native garden that dazzles with color, texture and form.

By Linda J. Barkman | Photography by Art Holeman

During a weeklong visit to North Scottsdale for a series of golf lessons, Mike Tollefson and Patricia Megason quickly came to appreciate the beauty of the area and began looking for a home they could move to when they retired. The California-based couple has a background in parks, a factor that ultimately played a significant role in determining where they would live. “My husband spent a good portion of his career actually living in various national parks, so having a view and a beautiful outside environment were very important components in our decision to buy a new home,” Patricia remarks.

About a year after they began looking, the couple found a house they liked on a 0.6-acre lot at Desert Highlands Golf Club. They were captivated by the views of Pinnacle Peak that could be enjoyed from indoors as well as from the backyard. As the property’s third owners, they decided to embark on an interior remodel to update the home and incorporate design elements that reflect the region. One thing led to another, as things often do, and the couple decided to update the landscape as well. “We loved the open space areas, which are maintained with native vegetation, and the beautiful yard, which had some wonderful established plants when we purchased the home. However, it needed to be refreshed and adapted to our taste. We wanted to create an overall soft desert environment and a more consistent flow from the front to the back,” Mike explains. “We also wanted more variety of color and textures.”

Peggy De La Garza’s knowledge of plants and her ability to locate the right ones for each area were key to the project.

Mike Tollefson, homeowner

1. Homeowners Patricia Megason and Mike Tollefson enjoy a morning cup of coffee on a front patio adjacent to a burbling water feature. 2. Landscape designer Peggy De La Garza created interest at the end of the driveway with a vignette featuring plants that include sun-loving yuccas, variegated Agave angustifolia, lantana, a cluster of golden barrels and saguaro spears tucked among boulders.

As it happens, Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning landscape designer Peggy De La Garza had created the landscape for the home’s original owners some 18 years ago and later made changes for its second owners. Given the expert’s prior work on the gardens, and having checked out some of her other projects, Mike and Patricia felt that allowing her to further enhance what was already there would be a natural chain of events.

1. To block the parking area from the street, De La Garza utilized soil and boulders to gain elevation and create two levels for planting, a practice the landscaper describes as “shelfing.” She then planted the area with different varieties of cacti, agaves and yuccas, with lantana tucked between boulders to add a cascade of color. 2. A large palo brea tree provides a sheltering canopy for a spiky Yucca elata, an Argentine giant, a cluster of barrel cacti, an Aloe rudikoppe showing off its orange blooms and, against the wall, Arizona yellow bells.

To achieve the soft, luxuriant look the couple desired, De La Garza removed plants that detracted from that look and brought in or transplanted others, including sago palms, bougainvillea, Arizona yellow bells and various species of agave. She also added vegetation to screen out views of neighboring houses and incorporated her trademark vignettes, which feature a mix of plants nestled among individually placed boulders. “I like to use drought-tolerant desert plants and cluster them in sections, tuck things like variegated agave around boulders, create elevation changes and make pockets we can plant in,” she notes. “I use all the desert plants I can.”

Included in her plant palette are saguaro spears, specimen Yucca rostrata and organ pipe cactus for height; Moroccan mound, golden barrel and natal plum for interest closer to the ground; and lantana, Argentine giants, prickly pear, coral fountain, bougainvillea and Arizona yellow bells for color, softness and a more lush feel. “I also like to use desert spoons. They are perennials, so they keep their color in the dry time of year here,” the designer adds.

Both the watering and lighting systems were supplemented with each new homeowner; however, the hardscape has changed relatively little. In fact, a lovely sitting area on a travertine-tiled patio accented by a water feature at the front of the house was put in for the original occupants and is still being enjoyed today by its current owners.

“Water trickles around boulders into a small pond, like a watering hole,” describes De La Garza. “It’s very serene, and Mike and Patricia love to sit out there and listen to the birds while having their morning coffee.”

The Argentine giant reveals its beauty at night when its magnificent blossoms open. The blooms then wilt within 24 hours.

1. Grouped behind a bed of golden lantana at the edge of the sitting area in the backyard are a pair of mature Agave weberi and a saguaro spear cactus. 2. A shallow arroyo is bordered with native Sonoran Desert specimens, including golden barrels, variegated Agave augustifolia, variegated Agave americana, Yucca rostrata and an ironwood tree. 3. A golden barrel mother plant is crowned with a growth of pups. In the foreground is a cluster of Golden Torch trichocereus.

Although the backyard pool was also original to the house, the couple enhanced it by having it retiled, adding travertine pavers over the existing deck and building a ledgestone water spillway into the pool accented with pot piers on either side. Plantings, including a mature Yucca rostrata, sago palms and bougainvillea along a low wall, were supplemented with golden barrel, Agave perryi var. truncata and additional bougainvillea.

Centered behind the stacked-stone water feature in the backyard is a magnificent multitrunked Yucca rostrata. De La Garza added pots filled with seasonal blooms for a fun pop of color. Pinnacle Peak rises in the distance.

“We wanted to create an overall soft desert environment and a more consistent flow from the front to the back.”

Mike Tollefson, homeowner

1. Located just outside a home office and overlooking the circular drive, this quiet, secluded sitting area with a travertine-tiled floor is a favorite spot of the homeowners. Nearby, a boulder water feature offers the soothing sound of gently falling water. 2. The base of a mature ironwood tree provides the perfect setting for a vignette of desert-friendly plants, including golden barrel clusters, a saguaro spear, prickly pears, variegated agaves and colorful lantana.

“My wife was very involved in the selection of plants. She made several trips to nurseries both with Peggy and without,” Mike recalls. “But Peggy’s knowledge of plants and her ability to locate the right ones for each area were key to the project. She worked hard to ensure that the yard reflected us.

“The entire landscape is pleasing to the eye and feels like it belongs in a Sonoran Desert community,” he continues when asked what he likes best about the rejuvenated outdoor spaces. “However, the backyard is the true centerpiece. The pool and fountain wall blend into the wonderful plantings that then let your eyes lift to the native trees and on to Pinnacle Peak beyond. It makes you feel like you are in your own private park surrounded by beauty at every level.”

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