Colors and textures of nature

Landscape architects design gardens for outdoor living, in the spirit of the way Wright enjoyed picnics in the desert at Taliesin West. “I like to think of a house as a pavilion in the garden,” says landscape architect Steve Martino. “The garden should be regarded as the biggest room of the house.”

“So many people just look at the desert from their windows,” says Phoenix landscape architect Christine Ten Eyck. “I like to get people immersed in the landscape.” To that end, Ten Eyck creates spaces for outdoor dining and relaxing in side yards, at the front entrance, and at the perimeter of the property, and she places swimming pools right in the middle of the garden, away from the house. “It makes it seem like you’re swimming in the garden, especially if you plant trees nearby,” she says.

“As much as I like to create outdoor rooms next to the house,” says Phoenix landscape architect Greg Trutza, “it’s sometimes more comfortable to be away from the building. You can catch breezes and don’t have the heat radiating back at you from the home’s walls.”

Desert landscape architects have been experimenting with new materials or using standbys in unexpected ways. Trutza uses new plaster and clay finishes for walls, which add either a patina of age or a splash of color. Ten Eyck has recycled old concrete driveways by taking the jackhammered chunks and forming them into footpaths and patios. She’s also been experimenting with gabions, rectangular wire-mesh baskets filled with rocks that are used to shore up riverbanks in the West and beyond. Ten Eyck installs them as retaining walls instead of using masonry block. Requiring no footings, the gabions are stable and add a rustic texture to gardens.

Ocotillo fencing has also become popular for privacy screens. Branches of the spiny desert plant are lashed together with wire, then sunk into the ground about 6 inches. Many of the branches eventually take root, sending out leaves and flowers.

Most local nurseries offer a wide range of desert-adapted plants. Shrubs like dodonaea and yellow bird of paradise, trees such as mesquite and palo verde, succulents and cactus, of course, and even wildflowers – all are thriving in an increasing number of desert gardens. 

Lessons for landscaping

Create outdoor rooms in side yards, at the front entrance, and at the boundaries of your property. Place major water features like pools out in the garden.

PLANT FOR EFFECT Use lush plants close to the house, then go for a more desertlike look at the perimeter. Or mass groupings of natives to create drama, employing cactus and other succulents as sculpture. Consider natural material for fencing or screening.

Take your design cues from the house’s building materials and hues. Use plaster and clay finishes for garden walls, raked texture and integral color to jazz up concrete. For a natural look, use decomposed granite for driveways and paths.

Use low walls to lead people into the landscape, higher walls to frame or block views.