MODERNISM MEETS LOW-WATER PLANTINGS IN THE ARIZONA DESERT
WRITTEN BY KATHRYN O’SHEA-EVANS PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATT VACCA
When most people design their outdoor living areas, they forget one thing: to be truly welcoming, they need all the delights of home. “If a space isn’t useable, people won’t use it,” says Elizabeth Przygoda-Montgomery, APLD, founder and principal of Tucson, Arizona’s Boxhill & Co. LLC. “If the furniture isn’t comfortable no one will sit in it. If there isn’t a comfortable space to dine with shade, heat, lighting, fans, and comfortable seating . . . no one will want to eat out there.”
Przygoda-Montgomery should know; the landscape designer, author, and creative stylist recently designed this property in the foothills of Tucson, Arizona. The homeowners—a professor at the University of Arizona and his wife, who works at Canyon Ranch—hired her with one directive: to fashion a functional alfresco space with plenty of shade. Former residents had enclosed the grounds with walls to block out the surrounding tree-stocked slopes, concocting their own little world. Przygoda-Montgomery wisely elected to open it up. “The house had a ton of existing dark brick pavers, loads of short pony walls, and large walls surrounding the entire property,” she says. “I took all of those down and opened up those walls so you could see the city lights of Tucson. The large eucalyptus trees served as the base of the design color palette—the dusty blue-green leaves and the peeling white and sand colored bark are mimicked throughout the design.”
In a true testament to nature meets nurture, the resulting effects are transcendent—and beckon everyone outdoors. The hardscape Przygoda-Montgomery installed are artistic pavers with bits of seashells within that act as a cooling agent “so they don’t get super hot and you can walk on it in the Tucson heat.” An outdoor kitchen and fireplace allow Martha Stewart-types to entertain with gusto in the dining area; the fire pit satisfies to the primal core; and Przygoda-Montgomery even installed the pool, a fragrant herb garden, and a doggy den (vital in a place where little pooches are prey for hawks, owls, and snakes). Every piece of furnishing you see—from the poufs to the glow spheres in the pool and even the outdoor string lights and pots—are from the Boxhill online shop. Perhaps most importantly in this tech-forward era, is that it’s all remarkably easy to navigate. “Everything is iPhone operated, including lighting and speakers, fire and water features,” says the landscape designer. “Since the family travels extensively, this allows them to easily monitor everything.”
Given the local climate, Przygoda-Montgomery selected low-water xeriscape plantings that would jibe with the existing mesquite trees and totem pole cactus, which she counted as muses for all the design. “Having a modern design in the desert lets the house literally be the star of the show, and the plants are the supporting actors,” she says. “Desert plants—agaves, cactus, aloes, and succulents—are so architectural, they are almost sculpture themselves.” The streamlined plantings and modernist design is a natural fit in the desert. “Because there aren’t loads of trees that block visibility, your line of sight for distances is huge, and you can see for one hundred miles easily, unlike in the Midwest where you can’t see around the corner of the road because of the mass about of vegetation.”
The result of Przygoda-Montgomery’s selections: an exquisite outdoor living room that feels inherently of its place, yet transportive—as if Frank Sinatra could stroll in, martini in hand, any minute. “Landscape architecture doesn’t end with the pavers or pool design or planting a few trees; it’s all the small pieces and details that make a residential design and take it to the next level—the furniture, the heating elements, the task lighting, and ambient lighting,” says Przygoda-Montgomery. “That is what takes a space to the next level and makes it a place where people want to be.”
The Lowdown on Low-Water Planting
Before you pull out your gardening gloves, consider this need-to-know advice for arid horticulture.
Fall in Line: Autumn is the ideal time to plant your flora of choice (sagebrush, rosemary, and French lavender do well in droughty environments). Because the season typically sees more rain than other times of year, your plants will take root more efficiently and successfully before spring and summer’s bloom boom.
Upgrade Your Soil: Don’t let hard, clay-like earth ruin your chances of a thriving garden. Regular aeration and churning in nutrient-dense compost can help plants thrive in parched desert environments.
Hire a Pro: There’s a reason landscape design is a flourishing field, literally. When you enlist an expert for assistance, you often save money in the end by not wasting money planting the wrong things (and watching them wither). You’ll enjoy the results with every passing season.