The Design Challenge – Curb Appeal


Located on a roundabout opposite their community’s clubhouse, Brian and Laurie Cunningham’s North Scottsdale vacation home is a focal point seen by virtually everyone driving in the vicinity. And for years, the sight provided little in the way of visual interest.  “There was nothing artistic about it,” Laurie says of the original property, which had languished on the market for more than two years before the couple purchased it.  “We needed variation, to get away from the uninteresting flatness.  And we really wanted to do something to improve the curb appeal.”  Brian agrees: “We’re in a very prominent spot.  I wanted something spectacular.  We wanted our home to look like an inviting destination.”  As they walked their dogs and explored the neighborhood, the Cunninghams discovered that many of the properties they were drawn to were the work of Desert Foothills Landscape.  After their initial meeting, they knew they had found the right company.


After convincing the homeowners association that his plan was not only a good idea but that it would also enhance everyone in the community’s view of the roundabout, the transformation began by clearing the areas adjacent to the driveway of scrub brush and minimal existing flora. Raising the elevation by 4 feet and adding contours and outcroppings created visual interest from the street, while also providing privacy for the Cunninghams without blocking the horizon views. At the driveway’s end, a 60-year-old mesquite tree selected for its twisted shape makes an impactful focal point in any season, with or without leaves. Boulders and strategically placed specimen organ pipe cacti (Stenocereus thurberi) and a massive multiarmed cardón (Pachycereus pringlei)—so sizable it had to be transported at 3:00 a.m. to avoid traffic—lead the eye, building drama as you approach the house. Agave parryi, golden barrels, prickly pear and purple lantana add texture, variety and a stroke of color to the landscape.  For the majority of the five-month project, the Cunninghams were at their home in Colorado, communicating by phone and receiving regular updates from Norris, who they trusted implicitly. One of Laurie’s criteria for the sizable lot was a desertscape that would be stunning no matter what time of year they visited.
“Our plant palette has visual interest that doesn’t need to rely on the weather for color or texture, such as Parry’s agave and golden barrels,” says Norris. “In the summer, spring and fall, the lantana provides a paintbrush stroke of deep purple throughout the landscape. When they are not flowering, something else takes the lead.” Argentine giant (Echinopsis candicans) and claret cup hedgehog (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) bloom in the cooler months, adding pops of vibrant color throughout the property. “There is always something changing and going on no matter what month Brian and Laurie are here visiting.”

Once finalized, Norris incorporated the botanical palette into the property for continuity, adding additional species throughout. Deep green agaves and cardón spears found in the front yard are echoed in the main entry courtyard and backyard. “There’s a recurring theme here that helps tie each side of the property together,” says Norris.

A favorite spot of the couple’s is the main entry courtyard, which provides an incomparable view from the kitchen—something Norris always considers when designing. “What you see from inside the house is as important as the outside view,” he notes. “I try to treat all of the windows and view corridors as picture frames for the living art outside of them.”

“Courtyards can be tough,” says Norris. “You’ve usually got shaded areas and are trying to create a continuity that matches the rest of the landscape, generally with much different exposures.” The key, he says, is in knowing which plants are adaptable to the different lighting and exposures—as found in both the open areas and the partially enclosed spaces. Organ pipe, blue agave and golden barrels do as well in full sun as they do in shade.

Privacy from a neighboring house was another important factor for the Cunninghams. Norris considered different options. “What can we use for screening and privacy? What can we use to direct the eye where we want it to go?” he asks. Keeping the courtyard’s view corridor open, he incorporated elements such as a Texas ebony tree (Pithecellobium flexicaule), yucca, Blue Cape plumbago (Plumbago auriculata) and star jasmine vines (Trachelospermum jasminoides) on trellises and along view fencing. Layering in a combination of textures and colors gives the sense of privacy even though landscape is not completely screened off.  “The Cunninghams can still see the sunset through the trees,” Norris says. “We made sure that we drew the attention to the horizon view. It eliminates the feeling that the neighbor’s house is so close.”

An essential factor for Norris is sustainability. “We try to make big bang for the buck; something that you have to do one time that’s sustainable, and then you just touch it up every year,” he says. Given their extended absences, the Cunninghams appreciate the low-maintenance nature of the property. Many plants subsist on rainfall or moisture from the air; others, such as the barrel cacti, subsist on water stored within their flesh.

The most challenging aspect of the project, says Norris, was accessibility. “In the front yard we had plenty of room to place specimen cacti and big boulders, but I couldn’t even get a small loader into the backyard if I wanted to,” he recalls. “That same sense of arrival that we achieved in the front yard has to trickle into the smaller courtyards and the backyard.” To create that same effect with zero access, Norris used a crane to lift boulders and specimen plants over the house. “The crane can only move one boulder at a time, so it doesn’t happen quickly,” he says. “Because the operator can’t see you, you communicate with walkie-talkies. Up, down, left, 6 inches more to the right.”

For Norris, precise placement is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job. “That’s the best part,” he says of personally positioning every boulder and plant, large or small, on the property. “We twisted, spun and turned every boulder, every agave and every plant as I bounced around and looked at it from different vantage points until it was right. When it happens, you just know. It all comes to life and works perfectly because you put all that energy into it. It’s really cool.”

The result far exceeded the Cunningham’s expectations, and they agree that Norris hit a home run. “The first word that pops into my head is ‘magnificent.’ Everything has a reason and a place and a purpose,” says Laurie, who adds that neighbors often thank them for beautifying the neighborhood. Brian agrees. “We wanted our yard to look like it was a natural, established landscape, not a newly completed project.”

Norris has a special place in his heart for this project. Surveying the view from the driveway, he says “This is my ‘job-well-done’ spot. Right here is where I look back and say, ‘We did good."

Author: John Roark - Phoenix Home & Garden - Issue: March, 2017, Page 114


Over the years, we have fine-tuned our artistic approach to landscape design and installation that began small and grew over time to an impressive scale.  We have a solid creative base of "tried and true" that allows us to spread our wings for innovation to push the boundaries of the expected.  We have built up an extensive palette to work with and we are able to pull from it on site to create vignettes as we go.  In the beginning stages, we walk you through a clear plan of the elevations in the yard and the placement of the focal vignettes that will create the flow through your landscape journey.


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