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For The Garden

Maximizing Space

Author: Lori A. Johnson
Issue: December, 2017, Page 34
Photos by Tom Spitz

A carefully curated selection of desert plants intertwined with hardscaping creates a lush landscape in the Saaris’ backyard.
By dividing a large Oro Valley property into distinct zones, a gardening couple makes the most out of their horticultural passions

Grow zones for a lush variety of plants and plenty of space to include whimsical artistic elements characterize one expansive Oro Valley garden. When Sue and Tom Saari chose to retire near Tucson after falling in love with the area decades earlier, they found the ideal 3.7-acre lot and had a Territorial-style house built before finally making the move permanent five years later. “During this long-distance process, I pored over garden books and magazines to learn about the possibilities for a desert garden,” Sue recalls. “Having so much space was a change from my small, shady urban garden in Madison, Wisconsin.”

A trumpet honeysuckle grows skyward behind a vignette of various potted plants.
From the Ground Up
Inspired by the landscaping at Tohono Chul Park in Tucson, the Saaris had help from a landscaper with the early phases of building the garden’s infrastructure. Retaining walls, boulders, water retention basins and a five-line irrigation system were placed to create three different grow zones based on vegetation and watering needs. Of the three, the “oasis” gardens within the courtyards closest to the house receive the most irrigation, while the transition zone just outside the walls has less irrigation but a greater need for hand-watering during dry periods.

The natural desert areas around the perimeter of the property rarely receive supplemental water, relying primarily on rainfall. With few exceptions, all of the palo verdes, mesquites, acacias, saguaros, barrel cacti and smaller plants in the perimeter areas were already in place when the Saaris started their garden. Other than adding meandering pathways throughout the desert sections, they were free to concentrate their efforts on the other two grow zones, where they continue to experiment with different types of plants and various methods of dealing with the local wildlife.

Angelita daisies (Hymenoxys acaulis), evening primrose (Oenetheta speciosa) and sundrops (Calylophus hartwegii), among other wildflowers, flourish in the front yard.
“Critter-proof front and rear courtyard walls protect a wide variety of lush plantings,” Sue says. “The walls are 4 feet high to keep out most animals that could be troublesome. Tom added weather stripping to the bottom edges of the gates a few years ago to keep out rattlesnakes. It’s worked pretty well.” Outside the walls, the Saaris catch and remove any rattlers they find near the house. “Other snakes are great and help control the rodent population without being venomous,” Sue adds.

Immediately outside the walls a transition zone blends native plants with desert-adapted species. Here, the Saaris use chicken wire cages to protect new plants from rabbits and add netting to citrus trees to prevent deer from eating the leaves, as well as birds that peck away at the fruit. Sue notes that javelina haven’t been too much of a problem, just occasionally uprooting plants. Packrats, however, are a different story—the couple continually need to trap the pesky rodents for removal and dig up their middens.

Homeowners Sue and Tom Saari.
A Personal Touch
Each grow zone also boasts its own artistic touches that accent the garden. The couple added rustic sculptures and more desert plants along their drive and installed a wooden footbridge leading to the front courtyard. Inside the front courtyard are mostly flowering plants for visual interest and pops of color alongside a few agaves and desert spoons for height. Container succulents and a collection of saguaro boots round out the seating area where the two enjoy eating breakfast al fresco in the summer.

The boot collection was entirely sourced from their own yard. When birds, usually woodpeckers, peck through the skin of a saguaro and excavate a hole for nesting, the wounded tissue calluses over and forms a hardened shell called a boot. The Saaris had a huge saguaro with more than a dozen arms on the property that was riddled with holes and leaning severely, and despite efforts to prop it up, it eventually toppled. “All our boots came from it and vary in size from very small to quite large,” Sue says. “One especially nice one is hanging on the wall by ‘el baño,’ our outdoor bathroom on the back patio.” 

Grapevines growing over the ramada offer shade from the summer sun to l’itoi onions in raised beds.
They also added a semicircular sidewalk around the garage, leading toward the rear courtyard and through the transition zone filled with art pieces nestled among what Sue calls her “more special desert plants,” including agaves, aloes and several species of flowering cacti. “The star of this garden is the large columnar Cereus grandicostatus that winds its way through a palo verde. It blooms during the summer with a profusion of pink-tinged white flowers about 5 inches in diameter that open at night and fade by midmorning the next day,” Sue says. Very little is known about this particular species, except that it’s not an Arizona native, and most research roads lead to Tohono Chul Park, which is exactly where the Saaris acquired theirs from a cutting given to them by a former plant curator at the park.

The rear courtyard features a birds-eye view of a curved retaining wall in the shape of a long, winding “S” behind the pool. “The large anchor stone reminded me of a rattlesnake head, so we call that the snake wall,” Sue says. In the planning stages of the garden, the Saaris brought home two truckloads of rocks from a quarry in all shapes and sizes. It wasn’t until later that Sue noticed a triangular shaped rock that looked like a rattlesnake head. “The low retention wall had already been planned and so it was easy to use that boulder as the beginning point of the snake,” she recalls.

A collection of saguaro boots gathered from a fallen cactus are an interesting addition to the back patio.
Passion for Produce
While the rear courtyard serves as a center of the couple’s more relaxing outdoor activities, the west side of the property is a hub for another form of gardening, complete with raised beds under a shady ramada and a packrat-proof compost bin. “Tom is the vegetable gardener,” Sue says. “He grows cool-weather plants, such as  lettuce, spinach, peas, kale, Swiss chard, radishes and beets, in the fall and winter. Spring and summer crops include tomatoes, peppers and beans. Grapevines grow over the ramada and help shade the plants from the intense summer sun. The green Thompson grapes were plentiful this year and sought after by critters, as well as humans.”

Not far from the veggie garden is a bench poised for optimal viewing of an unexpected find across the path—a small shrine inspired by a visit to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City while attending their son’s wedding. Tom was impressed by the piety of the people coming to visit the shrine to pray for cures for their afflictions and was inspired to create his own version. “It’s been fun adding the finishing touches like the roses, the bottle caps that trim the roof lines, and the inverted beer bottles that edge the base,” Sue says. “Tom shares the story of the miracle with our visitors.”
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