Design Ideas from an Arizona Artist’s Garden
I'm eager for you to see the great ideas in Arizona artist Janet's Orr's garden! Janet's delightful outdoor gallery shows her eye for design, skill as a ceramic artist, and superb succulent savvy.
For over 30 years, Janet has enhanced her contemporary house and landscape with an assortment of succulents and desert-adapted trees and shrubs. Beautiful in their own right, these blend with and provide a backdrop for sculptures and mosaics---Janet's own and those by artists she admires.
This colorful, inviting garden is in Paradise Valley, an upscale suburb of Phoenix.
In my video, "See an Artist's Desert Succulent Garden," Janet takes us on a tour, shows dramatic works of art, talks plants, and...drum roll...introduces us to her 21 pets. (I won't spoil the surprise, but I will tell you the animals are intriguing, cute in their own way, and she's not at all weird for having them.)
A dozen ideas from Janet's garden
1. Repeat plants that thrive
Janet has hundreds of golden barrels and columnar totem pole cacti that she's propagated and planted over the years. Their repetition is stunning, lends cohesion to her garden, and is practical: they're supremely suited to the her area. No pampering needed!
2. Showcase your artistry and others'
You say you're not an artist? I disagree. Visit a purveyor of architectural salvage (old doors, windows, grills, grates, tiles and more) and let your imagination run. Any item that can withstand the elements has garden-decor potential.
Alternatively, hunt down sculptors in your area who create outdoor art. One or more object d'art will add personality and interest to your garden and provide a perfect focal point.
3. Add color and whimsy
Janet's garden has fun discoveries: one-dimensional metal desert tortoises traipse along the top of a wall; thumb-sized faces gaze from mosaics; stacked ceramic balls and cylinders add pops of color.
Consider: All you need are items that can be threaded onto rebar. Have the metal rods cut or curved by a metalsmith, then anchor them your garden.
4. Find a "metal guy"
No doubt in your area exist ironworkers who do welding, commission pieces, and can give wrought-iron a custom paint color ("powder coat"). Have your "metal guy" transform found objects into works of art that'll last decades outdoors.
5. Paint block walls
You can't get more basic or boring than a concrete block wall...unless you paint it, say, chocolate brown or red. Use it as a backdrop for plants or sculptural items. If you're not thrilled with the colored wall, repaint it.
6. Keep scale and proportion in mind
Avoid cluttering large spaces with little pots and other small stuff. I can't resist admonishing: "whatever you do, don't add silly decorations sold at garden centers." Yes art is subjective, but do try to avoid "cute crap" -- a term I used when expediting magazine photo shoots. The photographer's assistant would discretely remove the grinning bunny and replace it when we were done.
7. Provide a habitat
Butterflies and hummingbirds appreciate nectar, especially in hot, dry climates. Have you heard of the desert shrub chuparosa? "Chupar" means "to suck" and "rosa" means rose. "Chupparosa" is Mexican Spanish for hummingbird (although---minor clarification---hummers don't visit roses.) Flowers of chuparosa shrubs are bright red, tubular and nectar-filled.
8. Position translucent plants for drama
In Janet's garden, prickly white stems of boojum trees---leafless in spring---glow as though plugged into a light socket. Thin pods of feathery cassia (Senna artemisioides) suggest chartreuse earrings that hold seed pearls.
9. Repeat and contrast circles and lines
Creating yin to the home's linear yang are overlapping circular steps in and near the swimming pool. Also poolside are large, ball-like ceramic orbs glazed turquoise and blue. A curved wall, covered with colorful round mosaics, conceals pool equipment.
10. Use silvery gray to rest the eye
Adding contrast to the bold forms of sculptures, structures, cacti and succulents are drifts of dusty miller (Centaurea cineraria); desert snow bush (Maireana sedifolia) a shrub with rice-sized leaves; upright stems of candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphilitica) and desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata).
11. Frame your views
Seen from inside, garden areas are three-dimensional works of art framed by windows. When modifying your garden, frame areas you're arranging with a camera lens. From a vantage point (like a curve in a path or open gate), shoot the area as though for a post-card. Evaluate the image, then move plants, rocks and accessories until everything "works."
12. Provide shade ASAP
Janet is able to grow aloes and other plants susceptible to sun-scorch due to her garden's dappled shade. Trees can take years to mature, so it's wise to make them the first plants you install.
A must-have book for southwestern gardeners
Occasionally I'm asked by gardening enthusiasts who have moved to Arizona how to grow succulents they brought from California. All too often it's a futile pursuit.
Popular succulents---such as echeverias, kalanchoes, crassulas, aeoniums, haworthias---and many aloes and euphorbias---can't handle temperature extremes. If heat and strong sun don't do them in, winter cold does.
A new book demystifies desert landscaping: Dry Climate Gardening by "AZ plant lady" Noelle Johnson. She lives, gardens, and designs in the Phoenix area.
Especially valuable are the book's plant profiles. If you live inland in Southern CA as I do---where temps soar in summer and drop to freezing in winter---these trees, shrubs and succulents are bulletproof choices.
What a great garden! Thanks for sharing. I really like the design- her use of plant material is fantastic. And I’m totally jealous of her Fouquierias! The closest I’ve seen anyone grow them in So CA is at the S.D Wild Animal Park, and theirs always looked like they were probably being stretched to their limits to grow there.
Yes, they’re stunning. Sometimes a plant stubbornly doesn’t thrive, despite having what seems like ideal conditions. For example, I have several totem pole cacti in my garden, along with the cutting Janet gave me. None are doing much of anything. After 8 years the older ones are about six inches tall—the same height as when planted. They clearly prefer a desert climate, which I can’t give them. (Which makes me want them all the more.)
AND WHAT WOULD WORK AND THRIVE HERE IN LAS VEGAS?
ANY AND ALL SUGGESTIONS ARE WELCOME.
Hi Tom — Cacti, yuccas, dasylirions and agaves. For specific types, see what’s growing in neighbors’ yards and visit local specialty nurseries such as Cactus Joe’s.