Designing A Low-Maintenance Desert Oasis in a Tucson Backyard

Posted on August 11, 2022

What do you do with a blank slate…in the middle of the desert?  This is the question that Yardzen employee Brando and his husband Leo faced. 


Leo and Brando in their reimagined yard. From every angle, the design offers gorgeous scenic views.

Leo and Brando in their reimagined yard. From every angle, the design offers gorgeous scenic views.

Their new construction Tucson home sat smack in the middle of a stunning desert plain ringed with rugged mountains. Their yard was not completely bare, but it didn’t offer much – a few plants, some gravel, and plenty of raw earth. Functionally and aesthetically, there was room for improvement.


Carefully curated planting, including a marquee desert willow in the corner, mimics the distribution of plants in the natural landscape (and keeps water demands down).

Carefully curated planting, including a marquee desert willow in the corner, mimics the distribution of plants in the natural landscape (and keeps water demands down).

DESERT DESIGN

One thing was certain: the design must respect the desert. “The desert views were a huge selling point,” Brando explained. “We wanted the backyard to feel immersed in that dramatic landscape.” 

Whatever design they ended up with, it had to preserve scenic views and use plants and materials that resonated with the surroundings. It also needed to take water conservation seriously. “Our dogs needed a space to play, but having a lawn was out of the question in terms of water use,” Leo said. 


A patch of artificial turf gives the pups a dedicated space while keeping water requirements low. The turf laces between travertine “steppers” to create a transitional zone linking the turf and patio.

A patch of artificial turf gives the pups a dedicated space while keeping water requirements low. The turf laces between travertine “steppers” to create a transitional zone linking the turf and patio.

Ornamental planting was a high priority as well, though any plants would need to thrive in hot and dry conditions. “We wanted plants to soften up the yard, but also wanted to keep water use to a minimum,” Brando said. 

Staying cool would be critical, via shaded outdoor areas and a planned new pool. “We already had designs from a pool contractor, but we needed Yardzen’s help to develop a design around that pool that felt cohesive and offered other chances to escape the heat,” explained Leo.


A tiled wall fountain adds the soothing sound of falling water to the yard, while the minimal corten fence provides a panoramic view of the desert landscape.

A tiled wall fountain adds the soothing sound of falling water to the yard, while the minimal corten fence provides a panoramic view of the desert landscape.

FORM

“We both gravitate toward modern aesthetics, and felt like our yard would need some elements of that style to authentically feel like us,” Brando said.


Square “stepper” pavers, typically built from poured concrete, are given a more traditional (and heat-resistant) twist by using travertine.

Square “stepper” pavers, typically built from poured concrete, are given a more traditional (and heat-resistant) twist by using travertine.

At the same time, they wanted to be sensitive to their context. “This is not a super modern neighborhood, so we wanted to be sure that our design would appeal to future buyers of the home if we were to move,” Brando said.

Landing on the right style would require a balancing act: modern but not too modern, natural but clearly designed, timeless but bold.

FUNCTION

Enough about looks – what are you going to do in your new yard? “An outdoor kitchen was our top priority, along with a comfortable area we could use for entertaining,” said Leo. Keeping things dog-friendly and low-maintenance were equally important.


The ample countertop works as both a prep surface and a casual gathering space.

The ample countertop works as both a prep surface and a casual gathering space.

So was keeping the ground cool. “I grew up in Arizona, and the wrong paving can get incredibly hot,” Brando explained. Especially near the pool, paving needed to remain comfortable for bare feet.

THE DESIGN

In function and form, Yardzen’s design skillfully navigates the detailed challenges of this project.

The pool anchors one side of the yard, the outdoor kitchen the other. A modest patch of artificial turf lines the back fence, which has a no-frills metal design that allows for clear views of the desert scenery.


A baja shelf, complete with mounted umbrella, faces the panoramic view.

A baja shelf, complete with mounted umbrella, faces the panoramic view.

The kitchen rests on a generous pad of travertine stone pavers, which extends toward the house to fill a covered patio space. The paving implies a single flowing zone, while the L-shaped kitchen and patio roof overhang maintain some level of spatial distinction.

The choice to use travertine was driven by function as much as style. “Travertine stays pretty cool in the sun, and it has warm neutral tones that look great in the desert context,” Brando said. That takes care of the hot-foot problem, not to mention keeping ground temperatures a bit cooler in the backyard.


A single pad of travertine paving creates a seamless relationship between the kitchen and covered patio.

A single pad of travertine paving creates a seamless relationship between the kitchen and covered patio.

To tick the modern box, Yardzen’s design calls for oversized “stepper” pavers, interlaced with gaps of artificial turf. 

The open layout of the yard, in which each space flows into the next, also establishes a modern feel. At the same time, the wicker lounge furnishings and creamy tones of their cushions and umbrellas appeal to a more traditional sensibility, while also replicating the tan hues of the house, paving, and surrounding landscape. 

The kitchen walks a similar line between modern and traditional style, balancing a sleek stainless steel grill and cool gray countertop with natural stone walls and counter inlays.

THE INSTALLATION

How did it go moving from the design phase into the construction of their new landscape? “Great!”, said Leo. “Yardzen quickly connected us with a local contractor, and we were able to start the installation process right away.”

Before breaking ground, Brando and Leo worked directly with their contractor to make a few adjustments, adding a wall to hide pool equipment, and dialing back plant quantities a bit to help them nail their low water goals. 

Together with their contractor, Brando and Leo also opted to build their large “stepper” pavers – typically made with concrete – from the same travertine pavers used for their patio. “I love that we were able to adapt more traditional stone paving material to a modern paving design,” Leo said. 

Beyond these alterations, the yard was installed exactly as designed. “I wasn’t surprised that things went as smoothly as they did, but even so, it was amazing to see the new yard come together so quickly,” Brando said. 

The results? “We love our new yard. It lets us do all the outdoor living we’d been wanting to do, but even more importantly, it just feels like us,” Brando said. 


Light fixtures cast light downward to minimize light pollution while keeping the pool open for business after dark.

Light fixtures cast light downward to minimize light pollution while keeping the pool open for business after dark.

DESIGNING YOUR LOW-MAINTENANCE BACKYARD OASIS

Yardzen’s award-winning online landscaping design is tailored to clients in all fifty states in the U.S. Our design process begins with understanding your space, your design ideas and aesthetic preferences, and a discussion of your budget and vision to minimize surprises when it comes time to build. 

Our top-notch designers then develop a personalized vision for your yard, shared through 3D renderings, 2D plan drawings, and plant and material lists. Your design will capture the look, feel, and function you are hoping for, all while keeping costs within range. 

Once your design is complete, we’ll help you connect with a local contractor from our Pro Network of vetted professional landscapers to install your new design (if you don’t plan to diy).

Ready to level up your curb appeal or backyard landscaping with a professional design and remodel that brings your vision to life? Create your design profile or explore our design packages today!

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