Desert Sublime

A DROUGHT-TOLERANT GARDEN IN ORO VALLEY, ARIZONA

WRITTEN BY BLAKE MILLER PHOTOGRAPHY BY CARBO PRODUCTIONS SHELLY ANN ABBOTT, MLA

When Lynn and Dana Roper first built their custom home in the Sonoran Desert in Oro Valley, Arizona, the couple enlisted their builder to handle their new home’s landscaping efforts. Admittedly, the builder was not an expert in desert landscape florals, trees, and bushes, but went ahead and installed a basic landscape that the Ropers knew, one day, they would need to completely overhaul. cactus

Not long after the couple moved into their winter residence, they contacted landscape architect Shelly Ann Abbott, MLA of Landscape Design West, LLC, who took one look at the Ropers’ yard and knew exactly what needed to be done. “Lynn had called me after a really severe winter frost where many plants had died and others just weren’t really thriving,” says Abbott. “She basically asked me what plants I would recommend for various places in the yard and I told her, ‘I would be glad to provide a design to you, but what you have now is not a design.’ And she said. ‘Are you telling me you could do a really fabulous, colorful butterfly garden?’ I said yes, and she said, ‘Create that for us.’”
With that, the Ropers enlisted Abbott to redesign the five-acre lot, concentrating heavily on the backyard and some of the front, which included a small courtyard. The Ropers had one request: as nature lovers, they wanted their garden to feel like a seamless, secondary habitat for the local wildlife, including deer, bees, hummingbirds, and more. With the lot located high above the valley floor on Pusch Ridge, Abbott knew that her design would not only need to draw wildlife in, but it would also need to bloom year-round, especially in the winter when the Ropers are in town the most.
With an extensive knowledge of native plantings, Abbott designed an elegant butterfly garden featuring locally and regionally chair_umbnative plantings that would showcase stunning blooms throughout the year. “Year-round color and interest was the backbone of the garden’s design,” explains Abbott. “The plants I selected for this landscape are almost entirely southwestern, regional native plants. It’s important because they bring in wildlife, provide food and habitat for that same wildlife, and create aseamless dialogue with the desert beyond the walls.”

 

ABOVE: One of the homeowners’ requests: a year-round blooming butterfly garden, which Abbott designed after thoroughly researching the lot’s exposure to sun.

Southwestern Beauty
Desert gardens are the norm in the southwestern United States, but to do them correctly, you need to know which plants thrive in specific climates, explains landscape architect Shelly Ann Abbott, MLA of Landscape Design West, LLC. Here’s a list of the plantings that Abbott has found work extremely well in the Sonoran Desert.

Agave
These stunning plants serve as the ultimate in interest and texture in a yard. This succulent is great for desert landscapes because it needs little water to thrive.

Yucca
Similar to the agave, the yucca provides ample texture to one’s landscape. Depending on the species, it can grow large like a tree.

Prickly Pear
These stunning cacti not only look interesting, but they’re also quite lovely with hot pink, bright orange, or yellow blooms.

Ocotillo
Indigenous to the Sonoran Desert, the ocotillo is a tall, slender plant that one might mistake for a cactus. Boasting beautiful crimson flowers mainly after rainfall in the spring and summer months, the ocotillo is a great addition to any desert garden.

Along walkways and near some of the backyard pool areas where rock walls and stone terraces are, Abbott added plantings that softened the hardscape. While in areas where the Ropers and their guests would be sitting, dining, and relaxing, she added plantings that boasted plenty of eye-catching color and texture. The layering of various native plantings such as agave, prickly pear, saguaro, yucca, ocotillo, desert willow, and desert spoon, look and feel as though the home truly has been there forever, with desert vegetation growing all around it. One thing was consistent. “Because these plants are from this region, they look good, they’re desert-y, they fit in,” explains Abbott, who points out plantings like palm trees simply don’t thrive nor look appropriate in the southwestern part of the country. “A builder comes in, scrapes the ground flat, and builds a house. And some homeowners want a palm tree and grass, but those just don’t work well here. These plants look appropriate and they give back to the desert.”

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ABOVE: Abbott added indigenous plants to the backyard to mimic the desert setting. BELOW: Colorful planters help add much-needed color during the winter months.

planter
That giving back mentality is even more apparent in the bee habitat that Abbott had installed on the property to not only provide a dose of wildlife to the environment but also help pollinate the plantings throughout the backyard’s butterfly garden. Housed in a sculpture created by a local artist, the habitat is home to solitary bees, which neither sting nor are part of a traditional colony. Their existence is simply to pollinate, something Abbott finds extremely important when creating designs for her clients. “I’ve found that homeowners really love desert gardens, not only because they’re beautiful but also because they give back to the surrounding environment.” The addition of a riparian water feature draws deer and other animals to the property where they can drink fresh water.
Amazingly, desert gardens such as this are relatively low maintenance, requiring little water as most native desert plantings do, and less frequent manicuring than other traditional gardens. “We added boulders to areas where we can collect rain water with berms and stills to water the yard, so it’s extremely eco-friendly without impairing the garden’s overall design,” says Abbott.
In the end, the Ropers are thrilled with their desert garden. “They tell me that they look out the window and all they see are hummingbirds and butterflies and bees humming around the garden,” says Abbott. “They say, ‘I literally had no idea how beautiful this would be!’”

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