Category: Home & Garden

Making the Grade

One local couple and their team of landscape professionals found exciting ways to handle the elevation changes in their backyard.

By Megan Guthrie  |  Photography by Robin Stancliff

Lush plantings cascade down toward the pool.

When Steve and Laurel Brown set out to purchase their second home in 2009, they wanted an outdoor living experience. Looking at the canyon views surrounding their northside property, it is no surprise that their Midwestern friends and family are frequent guests to this Tucson abode — a property made for entertaining.

“People are truly blown away when they see the environment,” says Laurel. “Everyone says it feels like a private five-star resort.”

The property was so spectacular that Laurel’s brother held his wedding there. The elegant event surpassed many guests’ expectations. “We have hosted a few community organization fundraisers and parties, as well,” says Laurel.

The backyard wasn’t always this grand. Starting with a small patio area, overgrown landscaping, lack of shade, dirt slopes, and a pool and spa area in need of being reconfigured, Steve and Laurel knew they were embarking on a major landscape design project. “It looked like a big missed opportunity the way it was,” Laurel says. “All I thought about was changing it all!”

Magnificent mountain and desert views can be enjoyed from the home’s upper patios.

The couple enlisted the expertise of Michael Byrne, PLA, ASLA, Project Landscape Architect and co-owner of The WLB Group after being introduced by Anne Ferro and Bryan Durkin, real estate agents from Sotheby’s International Realty. “Michael presented ideas that were larger and more exciting than I originally visualized,” Laurel says.

Byrne, an expert in structural issues such as retaining walls and hardscape elements like steps, walls and building design, was interested in finding solutions to the grade changes throughout the original yard. Tens of thousands of yards of dirt were added to the property. Terraces were built, connected by steps, ramps and stairs to address the changes in elevation throughout the landscape.

Extending the interior design elements to the outdoors was integral to the overall design. Wooden planks were used for the flooring inside the house, so Laurel chose wood-look plank tiles in a pattern that intersected with stone. The interior and exterior flooring now appears to be continuous. This stone tile is one of many materials chosen for its durability and visual appeal.

“We wanted classic stone — something that would not look out of fashion in a few years,” Laurel says. “I selected materials that spoke to the colors and materials of the area. I wanted desert colors, and typical materials used in Arizona.”

As the owner of Brownhouse Design, an architecture and interior design firm, Laurel has an eye for aesthetics. Her favorite spot in the yard is the approximately 600-square-foot, newly constructed casita. For the roof, wooden beams from Wisconsin were selected (the same beams were used in the main house). Several reclaimed wooden pillars from the Middle East were placed at the entrance of the casita. Seven tin star chandeliers hang from the ceiling, inspired by light fixtures Laurel saw on a trip to Tubac. The casita features an outdoor kitchen, with a leather finish on the granite countertop and custom wooden cabinets. Six sconces, inlaid with semiprecious stones from Santa Fe, hang on the walls. The flooring is vein-cut travertine. A large wood-burning fireplace is situated next to an enclave holding stacks of mesquite firewood. Within this space, a built-in banco offers additional seating.

Décor elements include leather-finish granite countertops, custom cabinets, metal sconces, reclaimed wood doors and pillars from the Middle East.

“I love the wood-burning fireplace,” Laurel says. “We burn mesquite and love the aroma.”

Forms and geometry were thoughtfully considered for the residence. The pool and spa were reconfigured to display curved edges to complement the circular patterns found in the flooring, and the curved terraces above. There is a grade difference of approximately four feet between the terrace and the pool. A reconfigured water feature connects the pool and spa. Above the pool sits a metal fire urn with a gas jet center. When turned on at night, this showstopper casts a warm glow.

“A site that is more open and surrounded by nature, such as the Brown residence, calls for simple forms for which the surrounding natural world acts as a backdrop,” Byrne says. “The terraces and the pool seem almost to be jewels within an elaborate setting of very dramatic views.”

The vistas include an unobstructed view of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Within the yard, two saguaros were planted to add visual interest. Rosemary, lantana, plumbago, bougainvillea and Sprenger’s asparagus fill raised planters and cascade down the sides of walls.

There are six seating areas located on various terraces. A stainless steel outdoor barbecue and fountain provide a space to grill while listening to the soothing sound of flowing water.

To construct a level surface for socializing and circulation, drains were installed on the terraces. Additionally, planter walls constructed using split-face block define the elevation changes. Down lighting and step lighting fixtures illuminate the stairs, ramps and terraces during evening walks. The design process took six months, with construction requiring about a year due to the high level of site work in a hard-to-access space.

By the comments from both the homeowners and their visitors, it was time and money well spent.

“My midwestern friends and family cannot wait to put on shorts and get in a lounge chair by the side of our pool,” Laurel says. “We love gathering in the casita on the cool nights with a raging fire going. We are able to talk and share in a way we couldn’t do in a different type of space.”


Michael Byrne, PLA, ASLA | The WLB Group,

Brownhouse Design | 

A Noteworthy Home

On the border of Oro Valley, adjacent to Catalina State Park, sits the house that inspired the late Bobby Vee’s final album, The Adobe Sessions.

The ‘60s pop icon’s album was recorded in the adobe home built by his daughter, Jenny Vee, a general contractor and designer. “My favorite memories are making music around the campfire with my dad,” Jenny says. “We recorded The Adobe Sessions six months after my father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. It was a special time to be together and celebrate our family through music.”

A custom Rumford fireplace with adjoining concrete bancos creates a cozy corner in the Great Room.

Like the single, “Tucson Girl,” Jen designed the house as a tribute to the Old West — paying homage to the desert landscape.

“The adobe blends an ‘Old World’ charm with modern lifestyle furnishings,” she says. “I’m a Tucson girl at heart.”

Southern Arizona has held a special place in the Vee family since the late ’80s. Bobby Vee, known for hits like, “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Rubber Ball,” and “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” would take Jenny on road trips through Tucson — visiting his former producer and friend, “Snuff” Garrett, who had moved to Sonoita from Los Angeles. “I remember passing the Catalina Mountains on the drive,” Jenny says. “Seeing them for the first time struck me with complete awe — it was different than any other mountain range I had ever seen.”

By the early 2000s, Jenny, an avid horseback rider, began boarding her horses in Tucson. When a lot in Oro Valley became available in 2001 she purchased it immediately. “There is something special about the light here and the way it comes up from the mountains in bursts of pinks and purples. There is nothing like it anywhere else. When this property came up for sale, I had to have it. I bought it the next day.”

In 2009, she built a casita, designed by Isola Jacobs of Adobe Designs by Isola. The one-bedroom structure included a full kitchen, along with great views of the mountains from the wrap-around porch. “I learned that adobe is a super material for many reasons,” Jenny says. “It is sustainable, durable and beautiful.”

In 2012, she built a 1,749-square-foot retirement home for her parents, Bobby and Karen Vee, to live in on the lot adjacent to her casita. At the time, her mother was fighting a rare lung disease and her father was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  “Adobe is such a healthy material to build with. My mother needed to be around non-toxic materials as much as possible because of her environmental lung disease. I’m thankful she was able to live here and feel comfortable at the end of her life.” All of the exterior and a majority of the interior walls were created using stabilized adobe, an energy saver, according to Jenny. “With walls 16 inches thick, the home retains heat in the winter and stays cool in summer.”

Knotty alder wood cabinets, solid maple breakfast bar and granite countertops create an efficient and attractive kitchen.

Guests entering the main house are immediately struck by the open-floor-plan concept. The kitchen, living room, and dining room are all within view. In the corner resides a custom Rumford fireplace. The elevated nine-foot ceilings have 25-foot-long, hand-hewn Douglas fir beams brought in from Colorado. Natural light shines into the Great Room through two picture windows. Colored concrete floors were grouted and cut into four-foot tile squares.

In the kitchen, knotty alder wood cabinets are finished with a mix of stains to produce a rustic cherry finish. For the backsplash, Tierra y Fuego handcrafted tiles line the wall. Above the stove is a terra-cotta-colored plaster hood with a broad saguaro rib base. Two thick slabs of solid mesquite, with a live edge, from the Tumacacori Mesquite Sawmill, serve as the custom bar countertop.

Each room flows seamlessly into the next. There are no thresholds within the house —something that Jenny designed intentionally for safety.

“I had to make sure the design was perfect in advance because once the concrete was poured, that was it.”

For the master bedroom, the ceiling beams and planks were white-washed to complement the white cement/lime mortar walls. Desert tan, four-inch bricks were arranged in a herringbone pattern for the floors.

The bathroom features travertine tile floors and hand-painted shower tiles. The bold red, yellow, and blue tones were intended to reflect a Sonoran-style home.

Straw bale walls and bancos create an outdoor space for entertaining adjacent to the horse barn.

A picture of Paul McCartney with the Vee family sits in Jenny’s office. “When your father is a music legend, you get to meet some big stars,” she says. A favorite childhood memory was when her father flew her to London to see Elton John in concert. “Elvis, Paul, Elton — all of these wonderful musicians loved my dad,” she says.

True to the style of a traditional adobe home, Nichos are placed throughout the house with statues of the Virgin Mary and crosses. “I wanted to honor the look of these great old adobe homes,” she explains.

Music is not the only art created on this property. Jenny and her dad would paint together before he passed away in October 2016, at the age of 73. “In the final days, painting was one of the few ways we communicated,” she says. “It is difficult to see someone you love experience Alzheimer’s disease. You do what you can to find a connection.” Bobby Vee’s guitars and awards are displayed in the main house. The cowboy theme continues with autographed posters from Roy Rogers.

The backyard space is perfect for potlucks and horses. A Santa Fe-style block and wood barn has attached straw bale walls and bancos. The custom steel fence showcases twisted rope-like cable around the property boundary. Low-water-use succulents and roses are scattered throughout the landscape. A large courtyard attached to the main house has a campfire area, two gardens, and plenty of room for outdoor dining.

The home serves as the perfect retreat for family and friends. “Sleeping at night is so quiet that I’ve had several guests ask for the brand name of my mattress,” she says. “It’s not the mattress — it’s the adobe. It creates a bit of a cave-like feel.”

When this Tucson girl is not riding horses, you will find her creating custom homes for others via her business, Sassafras Design, Inc. Her projects include custom materials (adobe and straw bale), along with traditional building materials to meet her clients’ needs.

“I like making people feel happy. When you build these homes, you get to make someone’s dream into a reality.”

Source: Sassafras Design, Inc. |

Outside … And In

No, you aren’t seeing things: our cover image really is an outdoor room, fully appointed in a style you would expect in a beautiful interior space.

Outdoor living is one of the most valued aspects of our lifestyle, and the options for patios, gardens, and all backyard areas are nearly endless.

To enjoy other photos of Laurel and Steve Brown’s desert oasis, which includes multiple patios and an outdoor living room, turn to page 18.

Many readers will recognize the name Bobby Vee, who had a number of gold records in the 1960s, including “Devil or Angel,” “Rubber Ball” and “Take Good Care of My Baby.” I met his daughter, local designer Jenny Vee, on a previous photo shoot in Catalina, Arizona. For this issue, we visited a very personal project — the retirement home she designed for her late parents. Beginning on page 22, check out this distinctly Southwestern residence.

During the summer, escaping the heat by traveling up to Summerhaven on Mount Lemmon is a tradition for numerous Tucsonans. Starting on page 28 you can view the new cabin (a replacement for one destroyed in the Aspen Fire) that’s owned by local architect Diana Osbourne and her husband John, which was created with the help of Interior Designer Dara Davis.

Lastly, for an up-close look at some of the lizards with which we share our outdoor spaces, turn to page 34 for the story by landscape designer and garden writer Jennifer Patton, illustrated with photos by her husband Ben Wilder.

Garden Calendar

Year-Round Garden Calendar




• Vegetable seeds of beets, carrots, chard, endive, kale, leaf lettuce, onion seedlings, peas, spinach and turnips

• Containers — stock, pansies, snaps, petunias, primulas, geraniums, cyclamen, bare-root roses, verbena, viola, calendula, dianthus and sweet alyssum 

• Transplants of parsley, dill, cilantro, fennel, chervil, chamomile and French sorrel 

• Sow seeds of gaillardia and gloriosa daisy in the landscape for a summer display


• Dead, diseased and crossed branches on trees

• Lightly prune deciduous trees, deciduous fruit trees and dormant grapevines


• Where applicable, feed with ammonium nitrate or ammonium sulfate and water it in


• Supplement winter rains, especially for spring wildflowers; avoid leaving the ground cold and wet

Photo: Lobelia is a brilliant blue annual utilized as a cool season garden plant, most often grown in containers. It is prized for its compact sapphire cascading blooms. 


Desert Marigold


• Herbs such as oregano, rosemary and mint

• Summer vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash)

• Deciduous fruit trees such as peach, apricot and fig

• Perennials such as salvia, desert marigold, evening primrose and penstemon


• Lightly prune pittosporum, Indian hawthorne, photinia and myrtle

• Primrose, jasmine and Lady Banks rose

• Trim Texas ranger, trailing indigo bush, desert honeysuckle, salvias and grasses Fertilize: 

• Shrubs, deciduous fruit trees and citrus (Feb. 14); annual flowers, iris, winter vegetables


• Trees and shrubs deeply every 2-3 weeks

Photo: Desert Marigold is a native with bright daisy-like flowers that develop above clusters of gray-green foliage. It is a fast-growing, drought-tolerant perennial.




• Transplants of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant

• Seeds of summer squash, melons, cucumbers, sweet corn and beans

• Native trees — desert willow, ironwood, velvet mesquite and lysiloma

Prune (After March 15):

• Mature trees lightly

• Shrubs, such as Texas ranger, chuparosa, mountain marigold and red bird of paradise

• Frost damage on bougainvillea, cape honeysuckle, hibiscus, primrose, jasmine, Banksia rose and Texas mountain laurel after the new growth starts

• Woody perennial herbs such as lavender, rosemary and Mexican oregano


• Established hibiscus, jasmine, roses and herbs


• Fruit trees, any young trees and container plants 

• All plants thoroughly after any feeding

Photo: Penstemon blooms in the spring with tall stalks and tubular flowers. Favorite varieties include pink Parry’s and red Firecracker. Prune spent blooms and retain seeds to plant in the fall.



Golden Dyssodia


• Shrubs such as red salvia, chuparosa, penstemon, Mexican bird of paradise, indigo bush, fairy duster, brittlebrush, Dalea greggii, bush morning glory and Angelita daisy

• Wildflowers, desert hibiscus, lupine, penstemon and Mexican poppy

• Cacti such as prickly pear, cholla and saguaro 

• Trees — palo verde, desert willow, velvet mesquite and ironwood


• Young citrus, remove root suckers and other unwanted growth


• New trees, summer vegetables and other plants that might need a little boost, but don’t overfeed (follow label directions)


• On a regular basis (use drip if you have it), and pay extra attention to dry, windy days that can stress out plants

Photo: Golden Dyssodia is a hardy, low-growing native with masses of tiny, daisy-like flowers. It attracts butterflies and reseeds profusely, providing color for rock gardens.



Hesperaloe “Brake Lights”


• Heat-tolerant annuals — gaillardia, periwinkle, portulaca, zinnias, salvia, amaranth, verbena

• Cacti and agaves

• Desert trees (Texas ebony, palo verde, mesquite)

• Shade trees (Chinese pistache, Arizona ash, chaste tree)

• Shrubs (desert honeysuckle, fairy duster, catclaw acacia)


• Citrus and palm trees at the end of May 


• Even native plants will need supplemental water this time of year

• Early in the morning;  instead of more water at once, increase the number of days

• Mulch existing container plantings with compost or shredded bark and in-ground plantings with compost or other organic mulches to cool the soil and help to retain water

Photo: Hesperaloe “Brake Lights” is a hybrid with long-lasting, bright red blooms and a compact size. It adds color to xeriscape gardens and is a good container plant.



Vinca or Madagascar Periwinkle


• Prickly pear, cholla 

• Seeds of heat-loving plants such as okra, squash, black-eyed peas, yard-long beans etc.


• With a light hand on hedges 

• Carefully and slowly on new shade trees from the bottom to encourage canopy growth

• Avoid heavy pruning during hot months, except for safety concerns


• Very sparingly; most plants will not need it during this season

• After conferring with the nursery on any new plants


• After checking the ground with a soil probe

• Watch for wilting that does not recover overnight, which is a sign of water stress

• Deeply to flush out salts

• In the cooler morning so plants can best utilize the moisture

Photo: Vinca or Madagascar Periwinkle is the most heat tolerant of all summer annuals. They are available in an array of brilliant sunset hues. New varieties include short compact and trailing species.





• Gourds, a second crop of cucumbers, melons and squash

• Annual and perennial herbs (all but cilantro, parsley, dill)

• A monsoon garden with seeds from Native Seeds/Search

• Basil, harvest often and prune at least 1/3 of the growth to ensure an early fall harvest


• Mesquite and palo verde trees; these trees heal more quickly during hot weather


• Blooming plants often during wet seasons with a high-phosphorous fertilizer

• Palms in wet soil during summer rains and water the fertilizer in with a hose

• Established roses with a half-strength rose or flower fertilizer. Add epsom salts at half-strength. Deep water every day if rains are scarce. Prune faded blooms


• To supplement monsoons, but don’t overdo it

Photo: Basil is a popular warm-season, culinary herb with a sweet, mild flavor. It is an easy and fast-growing shrubby plant, available in many varieties and leaf colors.



Red Bird of Paradise


• Vegetables for the cooler season, such as snap peas, kale, beets, onions, turnips

• Early in the month, squash and cucumbers


• Back surviving tomato plants 

• By deadheading bedding flowers


• Citrus before the end of the month; avoid fertilizing frost-tender shrubs now as this will encourage new growth that may freeze later


• Deeply and infrequently if the rains have been light 

• Summer-blooming flowers and shrubs

• Large, established cacti and succulents; these will need supplemental watering every 5-6 weeks if summertime rains have been scarce. Small specimens benefit from watering every 3-4 weeks. Cut back on this as temperatures continue to drop

Photo: Red Bird of Paradise is a tall, carefree shrub that produces showy clusters of brilliant red and orange blossoms until frost. The fern-like foliage adds a tropical look in desert gardens.



Pedilanthus or Lady Slipper


• Flowering bulbs, such as amaryllis, narcissus, iris, freesia, ranunculus

• Seeds of broccoli, cauliflower, chard, brussel sprouts and collards indoors

• Carrots, radishes, spinach, lettuces, turnips, green onions by mid-Sept

• Cilantro, chives, parsley, sage, thyme, oregano in well-amended soil 

• Nasturtium and sweet peas

• Desert marigold, chuparosa, Mexican honeysuckle, anisacanthus

• Cacti – saguaro, barrel, prickly pear, hedgehog, pincushion, euphorbia, agave, yucca, hesperaloe


• Trees, shrubs and vines; be careful not to feed anything that should be dormant in the coming months


• On the summer schedule until temperatures drop, but watch for any signs of over-watering (i.e. mushy soil, change of leaf color, etc.)

Photo: Pedilanthus or Lady Slipper is an unusual succulent with tall stalks, tiny leaves and bright orange-red flowers that attract hummingbirds. Clustered stems form vertical garden accents.





• Desert wildflower seeds and annuals, such as petunias, snaps, dianthus, calendula, geranium, impatients, primrose

• Wildflower seeds, including owl clover, desert lupine, Parry penstemon and desert bluebells

• Starts of cyclamen, dianthus, pansy, Iceland poppy, snaps, stock, alyssum, verbena and violas

• Herbs like coriander, dill, fennel, parsley, catnip, lavender, rosemary, sage, lemon balm, mint and chives

• Perennials — ageratum, rudbekia, desert marigold 

• Shrubs of cassia, desert spoon, Salvia greggii, Texas ranger, fairy duster

• Transplants of kohlrabi, lettuces, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Swiss chard


• Seeds or seedlings to keep moist until established, as well as citrus trees

Photo: Ruellia is a fast-growing evergreen shrub that brings forth bright purple flowers in spring and fall. It is a low-water use plant that grows to four feet, adding a lush accent to landscapes.



Improved Meyer Lemon


• Foliage, such as Kenilworth ivy, hypoestes (polka dot), helichrysum, heuchera, lysimachia (autumn snow) and Ajuga reptans

• Poinsettias

• Salad green varieties

• Fava beans and peas

• Bare-root plants of roses, fruit trees and asparagus


• Sprouts from citrus trees and spent rose blooms


• Winter vegetables with ammonium nitrate

• Any new plants that the nursery has recommended 

• Do not feed any plants that are becoming dormant


• Citrus, but allow to dry out between waterings

• Look for signs of fungus growth where things may have become too wet

• Fall wildflowers

Photo: Improved Meyer Lemon is an easy-to-grow hybrid citrus appreciated for its thin-skinned fruit. It is very juicy, sweeter than regular lemons and grows well in containers.





• Lettuce mixes

• Cyclamen 

• In containers — snapdragons, bacopa, primula, linaria, pansies, stock, viola, diascia, Iceland poppy, alyssum, million bells, nemesia and godetia

Frost Control:

• Place Styrofoam cups on columnar cacti. Cover small citrus trees (especially limes) on freezing nights 

Pest Control:

• Watch broccoli, cabbage, etc., for aphids and little green worms. Pick off any intruders, spray them away (gently) with a hose, or use all-natural pesticide


• Citrus before freezes only if more than several days of freezing is predicted 


• Grass in the morning, fertilizing it monthly with ammonium nitrate

• Hand-water potted plants; check for disease and insects

Photo: Amaryllis is a bulb plant that produces showy flowers on a tall stalk and now is available in many colors. From bulb to blossom takes about eight weeks. They can bloom again outdoors.

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Tucson Lifestyle Magazine is the Tucson's only glossy, monthly city magazine, targeting Southern Arizona’s affluent residents. With over 35 years of publishing experience, Tucson Lifestyle is committed to highlighting the people, places, cuisine, and attractions that make our city unique.

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