Desert connection

Echo the natural landscape with rustic materials and native plants
Sharon Cohoon

A mountain view truly comes alive with flat grassland or desert plantings in the foreground for context. Yet Janet Simon and Ron McCoy bought a home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, where the panorama had been walled out. The long, narrow concrete-block house was sited east to west on the property, with the southern side facing Camelback Mountain. A big, deep arroyo cuts through the land to the south, so no neighboring homes block the couple's splendid vista. But the offending wall cut across that south-facing space; you could see the mountains in the distance over the wall but none of the natural landscape. And the gardens were planted with non-natives ― mostly oleanders and struggling palms. "There was no sense of living in the desert at all," Simon explains.

The couple, both partners in McCoy and Simon Architects, asked Phoenix landscape architect Christy Ten Eyck to remedy the situation. They'd seen how Ten Eyck's gardens embrace the desert and make the most of its native plants' fierce beauty, so they knew she could give them an emotional connection to their surroundings. They also wanted an entertaining area with flexible seating that would allow them and guests to fully enjoy the view and weather. "Our hope was for the house, garden, and natural landscape to all be in harmony," says Simon.

 

THE GARDEN'S SOUTH-FACING SIDE

McCoy and Simon removed the wall and stripped away non-native vegetation. Ten Eyck added broad terraces of decomposed granite edged with steel headers and used the same steel to define planted areas, most of which are filled with grids of deer grass. Rows of desert milkweed fill another steel-edged rectangle, and ocotillo and golden barrel cactus lend their sculptural presence to a steel-framed raised bed in the center terrace. Though most of these edgers simply create patterns, others act as low retaining walls for the landscape's subtle grade changes.

"We love how Christy carved the earth and made individual plant species stand out," says Simon. "The look is clean and architectural." It's also practical. Besides blending in with native soil, decomposed granite is a relatively inexpensive form of hardscape ― important when you're covering large areas.

THE NORTH SIDE

The opposite section of the garden presented a completely different problem. A neighboring house pressed in close, and the adjoining yards bled into each other without delineation. Ten Eyck enclosed this space, turning it into an intimate entry courtyard. Then, to compensate for its lack of view, she planted more lushly than she had on the south side.

"The north and south gardens are literal extensions of the house, so it's like adding two new rooms," says Simon. Best of all, the new design connects the couple to the larger landscape, so now the desert feels like their space too. "When we look out, the landscape seems to be growing up around us," she adds. "It's like being hugged by the desert."

 

OUR FAVORITE NATIVES FOR SOUTHWEST GARDENS

The following plants, all used in this landscape, are sturdy enough to stand up to the desert's demands.

SOUTHWEST NATIVES

Brittlebush ( Encelia farinosa). Small, silver aromatic shrub with yellow daisy flowers. Sunset climate zones 10-13.

Deer grass ( Muhlenbergia rigens). Bright green leaves; yellow flower spikes in fall. Zones 10-13.

Indian fig cactus ( Opuntia ficus-indica). A tall succulent with green spineless pads. Yellow to orange flowers in early summer, followed by tasty fruit. Zones 12, 13.

Ocotillo ( Fouquieria splendens). Upright thorny shrub covered with red-orange flowers in spring. Zones 10-13.

Yellow bells ( Tecoma stans). A shrub with bright yellow flowers much of the year. Zones 12, 13.

MEXICAN NATIVES

Baja fairy duster ( Calliandra californica). Midsize shrub with ferny foliage and bright red flowers. Zones 10-13.

Agave americana. Succulent with cream-striped gray-green leaves. Zones 10, 12, 13.

Golden barrel cactus ( Echinocactus grusonii). Rounded plants studded with stiff yellow spines. Zones 12, 13.

Mexican honeysuckle ( Justicia spicigera). Light green leaves and tubular bright orange flowers. Zones 12, 13.

INFO:  Landscape design Christy Ten Eyck, Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, Phoenix (602/468-0505). Design McCoy and Simon Architects, Paradise Valley, AZ (602/808-9434).