This Arizona Home's Garden Showcases the More Colorful Side of the Desert
When a Los Angeleno moved to Arizona, she balked at the dry, rocky landscape, and vowed to uncover a softer, more vibrant part of the locale. Her resulting garden features waves of wildflowers, shimmering trees, and sculptural succulents that are as water-wise as they are wondrous.
Arizona wasn't supposed to be anything more than a post-college pit stop for Lauri Termansen. She moved there temporarily to help her father recover from an illness, but met her future husband, Eric, through a mutual friend, and the pit stop became permanent. Termansen was in love with Eric, of course, but the dusty landscape of her new state? Not so much. "All I saw was brown," she remembers. A few years later, when the couple began driving to California to escape the intense summer heat, she saw a different side of the desert along the way: blooming plants and colors galore, despite the high temperatures and aridity. Energized and curious, she returned home from one road trip and joined Phoenix's Desert Botanical Garden to better understand the potential of her local terrain.
By 2011, a decade after they met, the couple were building a new home in Paradise Valley, at the base of Camelback Mountain, and working with the very friend who had introduced them: architect Darren Petrucci. The time had come to plant a garden, and Termansen had strong opinions. She envisioned a lush, abundant landscape, rather than the typical combo of non-native palms and roses so often used in the region—"they look so artificial here," she says. She tapped local landscape architect Michele Shelor of the firm Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture, and after hiking the nearby mountains and visiting the botanical garden together to fine-tune her preferences, they created a place that celebrates the desert in all its diverse glory.
Out went the dense, fast-growing oleander hedges, commonly used in the 1950s and '60s to provide nearly instant privacy. Shelor replaced those blight-prone plants with paloverde and mesquite trees, which are native to the region, offer plenty of privacy, and connect the home with its surroundings. Next, Shelor planted a custom blend of wildflowers—globe mallow, chuparosa, and goldeneye—along the perimeter of the property. They took a year to become established, but now explode in a bright kaleidoscope every spring.
Closer to the striking modern home, Shelor incorporated "gallery plantings"—sculptural specimens that are artfully framed by windows when viewed from indoors. "It feels like there's a little performance piece right outside," says Termansen, who handpicked some of them, like the rare boojum tree (Fouquieria columnaris), a striking plant with leaf clusters that remind her of a favorite sequined dress—especially when it's windy. Others were rescues left on the side of the road, a common practice in the desert when new owners move in, or new pets or babies arrive. "You can't let a cactus get thrown in the garbage," declares Shelor. "You dig a little hole, and it's good to go."
That resourceful, sustainable ethos permeates the place. Native plants need little water. Porous ground surfaces allow rain to replenish the aquifer on the property and irrigate nearby planting beds. And a cistern holds stormwater harvested from the roof. On career day at her daughter's school several years ago, Termansen talked to budding environmentalists not about her work in credit-card processing, but about her home, a two-and-a-half-acre property with a lower water bill than the family had when they lived on just three-fourths of an acre.
The more locals she can convert, the better. "I think there's a lot of people who haven't given the desert a chance," says Termansen. "They move from somewhere green, and it's a letdown." But look closer, she encourages skeptics: "There's color. It's just not the green you're used to. We have purples and blues, tangerines and rusts." Welcome to a new kind of painted desert.
Termansen placed her favorite plant—a boojum tree flanked by silvery Aloe barbadensis—right outside of her floor-to-ceiling home-office window.
To mulch the planting beds, Michele Shelor of Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture uses a rock called desert pavement, which ranges in size from sand-like to four inches across; the larger stones at the edges of the bed cover the grate of a long trenched drain that directs water collected in the property's cistern to another planting area.
Cool and Colorful
Periwinkle-flowered Goodding's verbena (Glandularia gooddingii), native to Camelback Mountain, adds a burst of cool color each spring.
Shelor often chooses desert-friendly ironwood trees for their semi-evergreen nature, shiny silver bark, and lush, olive-tree-like canopy. Here, she underplanted them with spring-blooming natives: yellow, daisy-like brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), hot-pink Penstemon parryi, and more periwinkle Goodding's verbena. The garden has become a haven for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.
A multicolumned San Pedro cactus with excellent posture rises above red-flowering "Blue El" aloe, yellow-flowering Aloe barbadensis, and green swords of Yucca rupicola. Arching branches of blue-green Euphorbia rigida, topped with chartreuse flowers and fuzzy golden-torch cacti, also point skyward. Behind the structured plants, wildflowers undulate in the breeze.