Living colorfully in Civano, Tucson’s green-home community


I made a quick visit to Tucson while in Arizona earlier this month, and one of my stops included the green, master-planned community of Civano on the southeast side of town. One of my favorite garden authors, Scott Calhoun, wrote about building his home and garden there in Yard Full of Sun, and I’d visited his Civano-based landscape-design offices in October 2012. This time I wanted to see the neighborhood I’d read so much about, plus the local nursery (which I’ll post about soon).


I expected the neighborhood to be somewhat like the Mueller neighborhood in Austin: a mix of house styles set close to the street and to each other, with front porches for socializing with neighbors, sidewalks along every street, and community parks and businesses. In short, a New Urbanist neighborhood designed to bring neighbors together and reduce their dependence on cars by providing walkable amenities, and with energy- and water-conserving homes and gardens. I was not disappointed.


More than that, I was charmed.


Unlike a typical new subdivision, with houses all much alike in color (muted), size (big), and yard appearance (mandatory lawn and two trees), where you can hardly distinguish one house from the next, Civano’s homes are colorfully painted, relatively small, and set off by tiny front yards planted with desert-appropriate plants.


Low walls serve the same purpose as picket fences in other parts of the country: delineating public and private spaces while still presenting a friendly face to the neighborhood.


The house styles look at home in the desert, but their candy-colored stucco or woodwork functions like Steve Martino’s richly colored garden walls: it injects color into the muted palette of the desert and signals an attitude of playfulness and cheer.


Many homes, I noticed, have installed large, cylindrical cisterns to capture roof runoff.


Others have solar panels on the roof to take advantage of the desert sun.


Many of the homes have gardens out front, not merely landscaping.


It helps, I am sure, to have smaller lots and a nursery dedicated to desert plants right in the neighborhood.


Is this Tucson’s answer to Charleston’s Rainbow Row or San Francisco’s Painted Ladies?


This arched stucco gate reminds me of Santa Fe. I love the agaves in those geometrically patterned pots too.


Opuntia and terracotta stucco


There was lavender Opuntia too.


Purple walls! (Shout-out to desert gardener and designer David Cristiani)


Even the alleyways were as tempting as a jelly-bean jar with brightly colored garage doors.


Check out this massive saguaro, plus the one-of-a-kind wooden gate.


The wagon-wheel gate at this home caught my eye first, but then I noticed the gabion wall made of metal mesh and river rock.


Ocotillo in leaf and bloom


What a lovely neighborhood, and a perfect place to admire gardens on a morning stroll or drive-by!

Up next: A visit to Civano Nursery.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Desert retreat in Steve Martino-designed Quartz Mountain Garden


The second garden I visited with Phoenix landscape architect Steve Martino was familiar to me from a magazine or garden book I’d read. Peer recognition, including an ASLA design award in 2006, has also been bestowed on Steve’s design for this Paradise Valley, Arizona, home. It’s a high-end design, but it offers plenty of inspiration for any gardener.


Let’s start with sculptural native plants — ocotillo and prickly pear — against a fiery red wall. Color and form — simple but effective.


Steve worked with the homeowners to open their house to the outdoors, bringing in light and views but shielding the interior from harsh desert sunlight through the use of shade structures, arbors, and screening. This is the outer edge of a wall that helps enclose a dining terrace. A shelf fountain set into the wall masks road noise and adds the cooling sight of water to the dry garden.


Canary-yellow palo verde trees in full bloom over the red wall


A wider view reveals the pleasing visual heft of the patio roof, which surprisingly “floats” above the back wall, letting air and light pass through. A cut-out window in the wall frames a view of…


…columnar cactus. I love how the woven texture of the chairs repeats the ribbed texture of the cactus.


And, oh, that window! From the other side of the wall, along the driveway, it frames a mountain vista.


The covered dining terrace steps down to a large gravel patio casually furnished with Adirondacks…


…and an umbrella for shade.


But the fireplace wall and chairs clustered around it suggest that this space is mainly used in the evening, when the dry desert air can get chilly and a fire provides a cozy focal point.


The gravel patio gives way to a play lawn for the children. Reducing the lawn to the size needed for play is a good way to save water in a dry climate. And when the kids grow up, the lawn can be replaced by low-water plants or a larger patio.


Opuntia in flower


Panels of shade screening are covered by what I first thought was crossvine or some other orange-flowering vine. But a closer inspection revealed that it’s lantana — lantana climbing up to the roof! I asked Steve how he’d done it; I’ve never known lantana to climb like this. He said he didn’t know — it had just done it. I love garden surprises like this.


Looking across the play lawn toward the mountain view. This view was obscured by non-native trees before Steve transformed the garden. A taupe wall at the end of the play lawn…


…forms the back of a huge, L-shaped, blue-cushioned banquette banco near the swimming pool. A gas fire pit is set into the patio for evening warmth. But the stunner is of course that mountain view.


I’ve never been a fan of bougainvillea, which seems to shout with its insistent, lipstick-bright color. But, as with many tropical plants, it works well alongside a pool. Still, if it was mine (hey, I can fantasize!), I’d plant upright aloes or ‘Sticks on Fire’ euphorbia here.


A side view shows a negative-edge water feature just beyond the banquette banco.


The banco patio leads to a swimming pool framed by a cobalt-blue wall. A convex steel plate supports another shelf fountain, which spills into the pool. Aloes elevated on pedestals send up yellow bloom spikes.


The blue-tinged aloes echo the blue of the wall.


Patio dining. Blue cushions in the chairs continue the color theme of the pool garden.


Aloe vera blooming against the taupe wall of the house


This place is made for entertaining. Another seating area extends behind the pool, with cushy chairs overlooking a sport court below. Yellow-flowering palo verde colors the background.


Steps lead down to a sunken garden, a private space with a single banquette banco and geometric paving set in a small, emerald lawn. Another fire pit is ready for cool evenings. Sculpture and a sheltering palo verde tree add to the contemplative, restful atmosphere of this garden room.


The owner has placed a number of sculptural pieces throughout the garden, including this ballerina perched on a steel wall. She seems to be walking a balance beam.


On the other side of the house, the afternoon light illuminated this scene: palo verde, aloes, agave, and desert shrubs backed by a purple wall and a series of vertical steel plates that screen a side patio from view of the parking area.


A closer look


The side patio is humbler than the contemporary, newer spaces on the other side of the house. I like that the owners didn’t feel they had to tear out all the older parts of their home when they remodeled. Instead this cozy courtyard patio provides a garden entry to the home from the driveway.


I love this steel-pipe “picket fence.”


Aloe in bloom


Cool garden art


Another shelf fountain, set in a purple wall, is the focal point of the courtyard. Unfortunately it was not working during my visit.


In the adjacent parking area, a narrow planting bed is squeezed into the wall along the driveway, elevating a row of white-spined cactus that incandesce in the afternoon light.


Out by the street, a wall fountain splashing into a steel-edged rectangular pool announces the garden entry.


Shadows animate a translucent mesh panel at the end of the wall.


Along one side of the driveway, a low, red, serpentine wall wriggles toward the gate, with agaves and prickly pear providing a green counterpoint to that line of rich color.


The palo verdes were doing their best to outshine everything else on this early April visit.

My thanks to Steve and the homeowners for sharing this beautiful garden with me. For a look at the 1st garden I visited with Steve, click here.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Drive-By Gardens: Aloes abloom in modern dry garden of Karen Lantz


‘Blue Elf’ aloes, purple prickly pear, gold sedum, and smooth sotol and silver ponyfoot in the steel ring, with an Opuntia “tree” behind

I’m hearing from many of you how much you enjoy my Drive-By Gardens posts, and so I’m pleased to offer a third this week. (Click here for the first and second.)

My friend Diana gets credit for spotting this one. We were in Houston for the Open Days tour last Saturday and had just left an austere, nearly plantless garden — and were feeling a bit let down — when this swath of ‘Blue Elf’ aloes in bloom came into view on Banks Street. “Stop the car!” she said, and we leaped out with cameras in hand and began maniacally shooting the scene. We really are garden nuts.


A wider view shows a modern home with a surprising dry garden out front (surprising for Old-South, azaleas-and-boxwood Houston) and a courtyard garden behind a tall steel-and-chain-link fence partially screened with privacy slats. Silver ponyfoot and sedums create a shimmering, groundcovering carpet atop the rock mulch.


Steel pipe remnants hold a ‘Blue Flame’ agave and succulents. Be still, my heart!


As we were exclaiming over the aloes and marveling over this Austinesque garden in Houston, a man on a bike cruised into the driveway, and I called out that we weren’t stalkers but were just admiring his garden.


A moment later, a woman popped her head up over the steel half-wall of a rooftop patio (visible at top left) and called out, “Would you like to see the rest of the garden?”

Would we ever!

It turns out this is the garden of architect Karen Lantz. She designed and built the house, and her quest to use only American-made materials in its construction was featured in the New York Times in October 2012. (More information about her home can be found on the website of her firm, Lantz Full Circle.)


Karen also designed the garden and chose plants for the front yard that she’d never have to water. Out came the lawn and in went, after berming a layer of sandy soil over the Houston clay, aloes, prickly pear, agaves, sotols, cape rush, sedum, and silver ponyfoot. She found this Opuntia “tree” at Cactus King, which she suggested we visit. (Sadly, we ran out of time and didn’t make it. Next time!)


Inside the fence, Karen grows edibles in steel-edged raised beds (viewed here from the rooftop patio). This is where she’s willing to water. Open fencing panels at the corner and near the entrance keep it neighbor-friendly and admit breezes and light.


A current pool tucked right up against the house’s expansive windows is both a place to exercise and stay cool in summer as well as a sparkling water feature to enjoy from the living room.


Trained up mesh fence panels is a plant I mistook for a euphorbia. Karen told us that it’s a dragon fruit cactus, or pitaya, which is native not to the U.S. Southwest but the jungles of South America. It likes good drainage but, unlike most cacti, enjoys extra water and fertile soil. It fruits prolifically, she said.


A view of the courtyard garden from inside the house


Karen worked hard to make her house as sustainable as possible. Aside from solar-panel roofing over the rooftop patio (like the ones at Austin City Hall, she noted), deep overhangs to shade the interior, and a lawnless, low-water garden, Karen installed an underground, 1400-gallon water-storage tank. Water feeds into the tank from gutters on the home, and a pump allows them to use the water as needed. Karen said during construction people couldn’t understand her desire to collect rainwater in flood-prone Houston, where rainfall averages nearly 50 inches a year. She felt justified when the Texas drought intensified in 2011, affecting even Houston.


In back a covered porch offers contemporary-style seating and dining areas. Prancing Labradoodle Willy Wonka, possibly the cutest dog ever after Cosmo, kept us entertained throughout the tour.


The back garden is small and Zen, with a bamboo screen and gravel flooring. Karen bought this clumping bamboo (I forget what kind) from Utility Research Garden in Austin.


My sincere thanks to Karen for generously sharing her home and garden with us. I always learn so much from visiting other gardens, and this one was especially interesting in contrast with the traditional, estate-style gardens that we were seeing on tour that day (I’ll be posting on those soon).


I hope you enjoyed this Drive-By that turned into a “come on in!” For my traveling companion’s perspective on this garden, visit Sharing Nature’s Garden.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.