Jim and Karen Dixon contacted The Garden Gate after purchasing a home in Stone Canyon, Oro Valley. The home had beautiful views of the Santa Catalina Mountains, and though the property was a blank slate, it had a severely sloping backyard with major drainage issues that seemingly limited the options for creating a formal, contemporary garden. Karen, an accomplished painter, had a very clear design vision and a great love of desert cacti and succulents, and worked closely with Garden Gate’s Landscape Architect Chris Jeffrey to bring her vison to reality. “Working with clients whose love of plants and the outdoor environment is so integral to their daily lives takes a project to a whole new level,” says Jeffrey. “Jim and Karen embraced the design process right from the start, providing great input while remaining completely open to just about all the ideas I threw their way!” The Garden Gate was responsible for both the landscape design and installation, allowing the design to evolve through to completion with subtle changes being made on site during construction.
“It was a total team effort between us and the Garden Gate designer and installers. If we wanted to change something out it was accomplished effortlessly, and any suggestions that were given to us were an improvement over the original idea,” says Karen.
Although natural desert gardens revel in uneven terrain rich in basins and mounds, formal gardens require a more even, terraced approach. Sixty granite boulders were imported on site to create natural retaining and screening walls, providing both privacy and a level canvas for the formal planting concept. The drainage issues that had eroded deep channels throughout the backyard were addressed by installing gutters and downspouts that were then piped underground and exited below the boulder retaining wall. Weathered steel panels, ranging from 6 to 12 inches, were custom welded on site to create interlocking planting terraces that work seamlessly with the rectangular pool, patios and bocce court. The clients love to entertain, and are known for their lively afternoon bocce games. Making this space a spectacular spot to spend time with neighbors and friends was a crucial element of the garden.
Plant species were then carefully selected for each terrace to provide structural interest, color and texture throughout the year.
Along the back side of the pool, looking out toward the Santa Catalinas, a double row of agaves in contrasting height and color make a bold statement. The century plants (Agave Americana) and blue glows (Agave ‘Blue Glow’) are further showcased by the soft and feathery mass of regal mist deer grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) behind them that will produce a shimmering display of pink color in the fall. Acting in concert, taller Mexican bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) provides a brilliant splash of color in the warmer months and transitions into the native desert beyond. At the end of the pool, a grove of dwarf citrus and Arizona yellow bells (Tecoma stans) provide privacy and a splash of yellow while screening the pool equipment area.
The homeowners’ love of agaves, grasses, and barrels are continued over at the bocce court area. Agave blue glows are joined by Queen Victoria and artichoke agaves (Agave victoria-reginae, Agave parryi var. truncata) at either end of the bocce court, while marching rows of golden barrels (Echinocactus grusonii) and fire barrels (Ferocactus gracilis) line the sides. Argentine giant cactus (Echinopsis candicans), candelillas (Euphorbia antisyphilitica), Moroccan mounds (Euphorbia resinifera), and purple prickly pear (Opuntia Santa Rita) add to the structure and texture of the garden. To balance out all of the cacti, masses of flowering shrubs were tiered in the middle and outer terraces. Trailing rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), autumn sage (Salvia greggii), bat-faced cuphea (Cuphea llavea) and gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida) all stay compact and needed minimal pruning. Rows of Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) provide a sea of purple color, mimicking the European fields of lavender Jim and Karen love.
“It was a pleasure to watch the plan take shape, and now, about a year later, we have this amazing garden!” Karen concludes. “We wanted to surprise our visitors but, as it turns out, Jim and I are the ones delighted every time we look outside.”