Janet Orr in her garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

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

Totem pole cactus (Lophocereus schottii) (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Totem pole cactus (Lophocereus schotii)

Golden Barrel cactus in Janet Orr's garden, Paradise Valley, AZ (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Golden barrels (Echinocactus grusonii)

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'

Blue wrought iron cube in Janet Orr's garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Blue wrought iron cube

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

Tubular ceramic pincushion sculpture by Janet Orr (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Tubular ceramic pincushion sculpture by Janet Orr

Spray of ceramic poles by Janet Orr (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Spray of ceramic poles by Janet Orr

Metal tortoises atop wall in Paradise Valley garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Metal tortoises atop wall

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"

Janet Orr's desert garden with metal gate, wall art, cacti, agaves

Metal items in this area of Janet's garden include a wrought iron medallion, gate, and realistic sculptures of cacti and agaves

Agave macroacantha, golden barrels, metal butterfly in Janet Orr's garden, Paradise Valley, AZ (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Agave macroacantha, golden barrels, and a metal-and-glass butterfly create a vignette with boulders Janet brought in

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

Ceramic balls atop rebar in Janet Orr's garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Ceramic balls atop rebar that appear to undulate lend whimsy and a suggestion of motion to a side garden

Orange bougainvillea in desert garden with sculpture by Janet Orr (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Columnar white cacti (Cleistocactus strausii) repeat and contrast the form and color of a nearby sculpture

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

Ceramic ball totem by Janet Orr (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Ceramic ball totem

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

Justicia californica (chuparosa). Photo: Wikipedia, Stan Shebs

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

Fouquieria columnaris (Boojum tree) backlit (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Fouquieria columnaris (Boojum tree), backlit

Senna artemisioides (Silver senna) (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Senna artemisioides (Silver senna)

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

Pool with circles and ceramic orbs by Janet Orr (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Pool with circles and orbs

Circular mosaics in Janet Orr's Paradise Valley garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Circular mosaics on pool equipment wall

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

Maireana sedifolia (desert snow bush) (Debra Lee Baldwin

Maireana sedifolia (desert snow bush)

Centaurea cineraria (dusty miller) and aloes in desert garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Centaurea cineraria (dusty miller) and aloes

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

Windows frame succulent garden gallery (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Windows frame succulent garden gallery

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

Desert garden sitting area (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Back patio sitting area. Center: a drift of candelilla. Foreground: desert marigold, an annual that reseeds. 

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

Dry Climate Gardening book

Essential new book on desert gardening

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.

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  1. Mike Bishop on February 18, 2023 at 12:52 pm

    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.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on February 25, 2023 at 10:36 am

      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.)

  2. TOM on February 24, 2023 at 3:17 pm



    • Debra Lee Baldwin on February 25, 2023 at 6:28 pm

      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.

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