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Watch a Once-Overgrown Landscape Become an Idyllic Outdoor Oasis

Landscape designer Peggy De La Garza’s renovation of a North Scottsdale landscape included adding seasonal color in beds and using pots as focal points. The wood door leads to the guest house, while the main residence is on the left.

Designer Peggy De La Garza adds definition and form to a once-overgrown landscape.

By Nora Burba Trulsson | Photography by Art Holeman

On a sunny afternoon, a large bobcat pads languidly toward a North Scottsdale abode, heading for a boulder-lined wash that snakes through the front yard. Since completing a major landscape renovation, homeowners Donna Becker and Chris Creager say the handsome desert feline has been a frequent visitor, often perching on a curved garden wall or, more brazenly, curling up on a welcome mat outside the kitchen’s French door, which overlooks a backyard shaded by mature desert trees and filled with native shrubs, agaves and cactus.

Like the owners, the bobcat has become enamored with the updated garden, the work of landscape designer—and Phoenix Home & Garden Master of the Southwest—Peggy De La Garza, who balanced structure and nature in the setting, easily leading the eye from front to back with strategic plantings and groupings.

Donna and Chris, soon-to-be empty nesters who are parents to two young-adult children—lived in the house for several years, tackling interior renovations first. The home, built in 1997, was designed by architect James Ashbel Rogers to meld Pueblo Revival and Spanish Colonial influences. “We’re East Coast natives,” says Chris, a telecom executive, “but here in Arizona, we wanted a home that reflects the Southwest.”

After the interior projects were completed, the couple turned their energies to the outdoors, continuing a Southwest motif for their acre-plus property—and one that was a more welcoming experience for themselves and guests. “When we first moved in, the landscape was really overgrown,” remembers Donna. “People thought our back gate was the entrance. They couldn’t find the path to our front door because of all the big shrubs.” Adds Chris, “The backyard was filled with spiky plants that looked like they would hurt us.”

They found De La Garza through the pages of Phoenix Home & Garden, as well as through their community, where she has done dozens of landscapes over the decades, including five on Chris and Donna’s street alone. “When we looked at her work, we loved the way she grouped plants,” explains Chris. “She has a good eye.” De La Garza walked the property and took stock of what could stay—and what should go. “Their landscape was basically native desert, very shrubby,” recalls De La Garza. “It was mostly overgrown jojoba, creosote, bursage and brittlebush. The wash that ran from the back of the yard to the street was just a ditch, and the backyard was filled with big agaves.” With the couple’s input, De La Garza worked on creating a setting that has curb appeal in front, a clear sense of entry and, in back, a welcoming space for relaxing and dining.

1. Agaves, golden barrel and barrel cactus serve as focal points at the edge of the property, which borders a swath of the community’s NAOS (natural area open space), populated with cholla, creosote and jojoba. 2. A procession of newly planted saguaros signals the front walk as it descends from the driveway. Agaves and prickly pear are also newly planted along the wash, which was defined with boulders and riprap. 3. The organ pipe and Argentine giant cacti are showstoppers along the curving front walk. 4. Near the back gate, agaves and cactus mingle under mature trees. 5. Pyracantha was added to the ramada walls to provide more greenery in the setting.

For the project, the landscape designer employed signature strategies that she’s used for more than four decades to create picture-perfect gardens. “I started thinking about the job as soon as I left their property,” De La Garza explains. “By the time I got back to the office, it was pretty much designed in my head, then I needed to get it on paper. But, sometimes, my best work is on the job, without even having an actual design, just using a vision.”

Indeed, for Chris and Donna’s landscape, De La Garza hand-picked the plant material from the dozen or so nurseries and backyard growers that are her go-to sources and chose each boulder, supervising the placement of all during the installation. Working with the existing hardscape, she fine-tuned the grading and drainage, added new irrigation and lighting, and defined the wash by lining it with riprap and boulders.

“We’re East Coast natives. But here in Arizona, we wanted a home that reflects the Southwest.”

—Chris Creager, homeowner

1. Lichen-covered boulders, a specimen organ pipe cactus and a palo verde tree anchor one end of the driveway in the renovated landscape. Groupings of golden barrel and fire barrel cactus, as well as agaves and desert spoon, lead the eye toward the front of the house. 2. Viewed from the master suite terrace, the backyard is a soothing green space anchored by a mature palo verde tree. The original plantings included several century plants, but the landscape designer removed all but two to make the garden space more inviting. Robellini palms in the planter at left add softness, while the lemon tree at far right was a request from the homeowners. 3-4. The backyard’s curving brick walkways, ramada, fireplace and water feature were existing, but De La Garza wove in new plantings, including annuals for spots of color. Pyracantha was added to the ramada walls to provide more greenery in the setting. 

De La Garza kept most of the property’s mature trees, including mesquites, palo verdes and Texas ebony, trimming them back to create form and structure. Most of the shrubs were torn out, and the curving front pathway was anchored at both ends by specimen organ pipe cacti. Groupings of golden barrel cactus, agaves and saguaros line the drive and front path, and a newly planted ironwood signals the start of the driveway. In the front yard, De La Garza also worked in some personal favorites of the owners, including a toothpick cactus, an Argentine giant for its showy blooms and fire barrel cactus, with its deeply hued red spikes.

Closer to the home and in the front courtyard, De La Garza added color with bougainvillea, as well as pots and beds filled with seasonal plantings.

In the backyard, where previous owners had replaced the original pool with a ramada, fireplace and water feature, the landscape designer kept several of the desert trees but removed all but two century plants. She worked in smaller agaves and cactus, softening the setting with white roses, more bougainvillea and feathery robellini palms.  She also added a lemon tree off the master suite. “We live in Arizona,” says Donna with a laugh, “so we asked Peggy to give us one citrus tree.”

When the landscape renovation was completed, it looked like it had been in place for decades, another signature De La Garza element. “This is a neighborhood filled with mature landscapes, and Chris and Donna’s house has big trees on the site,” notes De La Garza, who, among other things, brought in 98 tons of boulders and some 20 saguaros for the project. “You can’t just put in tiny trees and small plants here. We went for instant gratification.”

For Chris and Donna, once the grading, digging and planting were done, the garden gratification was, indeed, instant. Guests can easily find the front door, thanks to the artful grouping of plants leading the way, and the couple have begun spending a lot of time outdoors, enjoying meals, relaxing and even napping. “I come out here, and the sound of the water puts me to sleep,” admits Chris, pointing to a sofa in the ramada. “It’s so peaceful.” The bobcat, who has claimed the nearby welcome mat for snoozing, would likely agree.

Landscape designer: Peggy De La Garza, Trademark Landscape Inc., Phoenix,


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