A Site To Behold

The Mattiolis’ patio and garden provide extraordinary views of the desert landscape and mountains.

   Homeowners Frank and Joyce Mattioli.

  A small putting green was placed adjacent to the pool.


 Metal sculptures in the shape of saguaros, along with various desert-adapted plant species, create visual interest at the home’s entry. 

Flagstone pathways lead from several of the patios. Landscape niches include several arid-adapted plants that add color and texture.






One couple from Illinois found the perfect retirement spot — with spectacular views — in Vail, Arizona.

By Kurt Niece | Photography by Robin Stancliff

Frank and Joyce Mattioli have their outdoor lifestyle down. There’s a rhythm — morning coffee in the shade of the front courtyard to plan a day devoted to their latest task or project. Then at sunset, there’s wine by the fire pit. Sweeping vistas of the Rincon Valley make a fine backdrop for toasting another job well done.

Some homeowners want distance between themselves and the physical process of creating a home — leave the planning, building, finishing and landscaping to the paid professionals. But there’s something to be said for getting dirt under one’s nails, and Frank and Joyce’s home in Vail, Arizona, continues to be a “hands on” experience. The couple was instrumental in every facet of building and landscaping.

They purchased the land 12 years ago, drawn to the laid-back lifestyle and the incomparable terrain of Southern Arizona. Joyce’s family vacationed at a dude ranch in Tucson in the 1970s. Even at a young age she fell in love with the Sonoran Desert. When she married her high school sweetheart Frank, they came for a visit and he was equally captivated. They knew the Old Pueblo was where they would retire. And from that point on, the couple planned and dreamed. Starting in 1999 there were many trips to locate the perfect home site, but eventually they found the right place to put down roots.

“We love the Rincon Mountains,” explains Joyce, “and with the unobstructed panoramic views of the mountain range, we are definitely spoiled in our backyard. This is heaven on earth,” she says with a laugh.

Luckily Frank had operated earth-moving equipment back in their home state of Illinois. There, his business spent years clearing land for development. When moving to Tucson, Frank wanted to give back to Mother Nature by restoring the home site with plants and trees. He was prepared to have a hand in all aspects of the land, balancing and trenching throughout the project long before the first shovel was placed in the ground. During the project, they’d go back to Illinois and endure another winter. But they utilized other tools as well, such as Tucson Lifestyle Home & Garden. No doubt, dreaming and planning helped keep them warm during those long, cold winters.

“We’d subscribed to the magazine for over a decade,” Frank explains, “selecting photos for landscaping ideas. We didn’t keep a three-foot pile of magazines, though. We’d go through them and say, ‘Hey, this would look cool,’ and rip out that page. Even then, we ended up with a pretty thick file. When it was time to sit down and assemble a game plan, it was a little overwhelming, but worth it.”  

They started digging and planting a few years before breaking ground for the house, which gave them a jump on establishing shade trees. Desert Museum palo verdes and thornless mesquites were planted strategically in areas where they knew shade would be necessary. These trees would eventually integrate with more than 1,000 other plants that were brought to the property.  

“We had initial input from Shelley Ann Abbott of Landscape Design West,” Joyce adds. “She helped with the placement of some of the elements of our landscape. Dan Bach, from Bach’s Cactus Nursery, was involved, too. We enjoyed choosing our cacti selection from him.”

What Joyce and Frank envisioned were layers of color and texture. Their design theory was to take ordinary cacti and place them for eye appeal. The goal was to have the landscape shine year-round without many leafy plants. “Placement was key in their mission,” says Joyce.

A river of golden barrel cacti winds through the boulders along with blue green agave, Santa Rita prickly pear, and ocotillo that are staged on a large berm by the front door. Red barrel cactus punches up the color, and an abundance of palo verdes bloom bright yellow in the spring. The front of the house has wonderful curb appeal.

The backyard pool is designed to feel like a mountain pond with boulder outcroppings to blend with the natural surroundings. Flagstone, boulders and planting beds define the front and sides. The back drops off to a near negative edge, floating against a heavily, naturally vegetated ridge.

A three-hole putting green is placed in the backyard as well, and offers a blast of color, contrasting vividly with bright blue desert skies.

The gas fire pit was on the wish list for cooler desert evenings. The area is built into a recessed section on a secluded lower level to the east of the upper patio. The steps leading down from the patio are individual boulders, carefully placed by Frank.

“He’d have to flip the same boulder four or five times until the perfect flat side was sitting up, just right,” Joyce explains.

Another Arizona rock, chrysocolla — resplendent with its coppery blue surfaces — accents the walls of the lower patio. Arizona petrified wood, collected from their travels, helps add distinctive textures. Another native stone, schist rock, was used in building the fire pit, and flagstone flooring creates the perfect spot for entertaining friends.

The fire pit is perfect just for Frank and Joyce, too. What better place to celebrate another job well done with a clink of wineglasses and comfortable seats for the spectacular light show of a sunset on the Rincon Mountains? HG

Shelley Ann Abbott, Landscape Design West, LLC,
Dan Bach, Bach’s Cactus Nursery, www.bachscactus.com