Tucson Lifestyle Home and Garden August 2012 : Page 20

Getting To The (Focal) Point Variegated agaves add a sculptural effect along the edge of a raised seating area. In the background, cement containers hold a variety of specimen cacti and succulents. 20 T ucson Lifestyle HOME & GARDEN www .tucsonlifestyle.com

Getting To The (Focal) Point

Judith Ratliff

One Pima Canyon home features spectacular views of native vegetation in creative vignettes.<br /> <br /> T"This has been a dream project," says Tray Gers, co-owner of The Garden Gate, a local design-build landscape firm. He's describing the multi-layered, succulent centered, wrap-around-the-house garden he's been designing and planting for the last two years in Pima Canyon.<br /> <br /> What makes a dream project? A dream client.<br /> <br /> "It doesn't seem like it's been two years," Gers continues. "We've been having so much fun. The owner of the home is very talented. She understands design. She knows the look she wants and is willing to experiment, if need be, to get it. She has a desire to learn, a sense of humor and a husband who's seen her put together several previous gardens and trusts her to get it right. She's involved in everything and really cares. What more could you want?"<br /> <br /> Pima Canyon's building restrictions don't allow homeowners to disturb the natural desert outside an approved building envelope. Within this rather limited space, Gers screened views of nearby homes, created striking desert plant vignettes outside the many floor-to-ceiling windows. He also revegetated along the long drive and entryway area.<br /> <br /> The home itself is almost sculptural, comprised of interlocking rectangles with an occasional sweeping curve thrown in.The furnishings also are quite contemporary and the homeowner wanted a landscape to match. When she requested something "architectural," Gers knew just what she was talking about. Never a "three of these and four of those" sort of designer, Gers favors building up plant groupings around a dynamic focal point and then repeating the plants from the grouping in varying configurations to create unity and balance within a landscape. He also frequently masses plants of a single species for sweeps of color and form.<br /> <br /> The concept of layering also is important to this project. Gers selected plants to carry the look at different times of year. Early spring bloomers give way to those that flower in hot weather, which yield the spotlight to plants showing best in fall and winter.<br /> <br /> And then there are the desert succulents. They are the backbone of every view because Gers can depend on their form as a constant. Saguaros always are strong verticals that forcefully tie a landscape to the surrounding desert. Agaves flaunt their broad leaves as a lively contrast to almost every other desert plant around them. Golden barrels show off their vivid color effects at ground level. Succulents don't lose their leaves, and don't have to be cut back for the winter.<br /> <br /> "My client and I have a joke," Gers says with a laugh. "She doesn't do 'down time.' She wants plants that look good for as much of the year as possible. She'll forgive trailing lantana for going dormant for 90 days or so in the winter, because it gives so much while it's warm and the rabbits don't eat it. But some of the salvias, for example Salvia chamaedryoides, blue salvia, that don't bloom much and get scraggly, she just pulls them up and we think of something else.<br /> <br /> "She also lacks patience with small plants. She'll say, 'I want the biggest one of those you can find.' That's been very interesting for me. Usually in new home construction the landscape budget gets clobbered because of budget overruns on the house. But here, neither the wife or the husband wanted to wait for the plants to start fulfilling their role. The house has so much glass and it depends so much on the views that they needed to see something spectacular through every window, or to them it was as if the house wasn't working."<br /> <br /> The scope of the project evolved over time as designer and client went nursery hopping together. "Sometimes I lobbied for a plant I was sure would work here or there. Sometimes we picked up things she liked the looks of with no plan in mind at all.Sometimes we'd pull in with a plant we were thinking about for a particular spot and find a better spot somewhere else. But in the end they've all fit together."<br /> <br /> Working with the microclimates created by the walls of the home has afforded some interesting opportunities. Gers and his client dared, for example, to use several cardón (Pachycereus pringlei), an iconic columnar cactus of the Sonoran Desert.Cardóns are native to the central coast along both sides of the Gulf of California and lack the cold tolerance of saguaros. But a grouping of them came through the freeze in February of 2011 - uncovered - because they were protected by warm south-facing walls and the entryway overhang.<br /> <br /> "We've tried a few things by instinct," Gers says. "For example, I'm not sure what we'll do about the Salvia clevelandii, known as Cleveland sage. You get those gorgeous purple thistle blooms in the spring and the homeowner loves the intensely herbal aroma of the foliage, but they look pretty bad through a lot of the year and need to be cut back hard. Then, they seem to die out within a few years no matter what you do. You have to answer the question, 'Are the plants so pleasing while they look great that it's worth it to keep replanting them?'"<br /> <br /> Local sculptor Steven Derks fashioned several large, eye-catching steel pieces for the landscape. They contribute significantly to the ongoing indoor/outdoor dialog that's at the heart of the house, by acting as counterpoints to the works of art by various artists installed inside.<br /> <br /> "The beauty of this landscape is all the textures," Gers says. "I don't think I'd have predicted that at the beginning. The opportunity I've had here to try things, to see different plants together has been amazing. I've been allowed to explore any and every possibility and they've all been enjoyable."<br /> <br /> Judith Ratliff, MLA is a Tucson landscape designer. She can be reached at 577-7391 for comment.

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