A Wilder West

Colwell-Shelor embraces “ugly-pretty” ecology on a Camelback Mountain estate.

By Brian Barth / Photography by Caitlin Atkinson

Stormwater runoff from the property collects in a steel basin before seeping into the lawn through a series of weeps. Photo by Marion Brenner, Affiliate ASLA.

Rare is the landscape architecture client who enjoys a view of decay out their window. Lauri Termansen’s taste may be unconventional, but it fits the desert ecology of her southern Arizona home like a glove. Floor-to-ceiling windows frame glimpses of notably unmanicured native species, whose succulent pads are left to shrivel as nature intended when they fall off the mother plant. Other once-living appendages dangle from cacti bodies as they are shed—habitat for birds and insects, nature as art for Termansen.

“It’s like old skin; it just sloughs off,” she said one afternoon last December, as we walked down a hall past the desiccating arm of a Cereus peruvianus, also known as queen of the night. “I’m not big on roses,” said Termansen, who has a background in financial services and a passion for avant-garde fashion design. “I like things that are a little prickly, a little lopsided. Ugly-pretty: That’s my brand.”

The two-and-a-half-acre landscape around her 8,500-square-foot home is an extravagantly elegant boneyard designed by Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture, a six-person Phoenix firm known for its minimalist hardscapes and celebration of the Southwest’s sublimely austere flora. This isn’t always an easy sell, especially for clients who have come to the Sunbelt from lusher locales, said Michele Shelor, ASLA, who studied landscape architecture at Arizona State University and has lived in the area on and off for most of her life. “We have a very high percentage of people who come here from elsewhere, so it takes a bit of education to convince an audience used to green landscapes that the desert is beautiful,” she said.

The view from main house to guesthouse runs along the Ghost Wash—the runoff-absorbing landscape that forms the central axis of the design.

Lauri and her husband, Eric Termansen, who are from Houston and Vancouver, British Columbia, respectively, did not bring the unyielding predilection for verdancy with them, however. “Lauri is all about water conservation and she’s all about educating her peers,” said Allison Colwell, ASLA, who cofounded the firm with Shelor in 2009 after they both worked at the office of Steve Martino and Associates.

The Termansens live at the foot of Camelback Mountain, a humped ridge northeast of Phoenix known for its wealthy residents—they live a block away from East Starlight Way, known locally as Billionaires Row—and Colwell said it’s been helpful to have a pair of native plant aficionados in the community. “They teach their friends,” said Colwell, who’s fond of predawn hikes in the Sonoran Desert surrounding the city. “Now we have another client in the neighborhood who’s willing to do it.”

“It” means letting go of the clipped hedges and acres of lawn that ring many of the local estates, while embracing the barren aesthetics of a lizard’s lair.

But the desert, of course, is full of life for those who know how to see it. At the Ghost Wash House, as the Termansens call their residence, that vitality has been painstakingly revealed.

Image courtesy Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture.

The name references the small ravines that define local geography, which are dry except for the rare occasions when rainstorms give them a quick wash. The water slows down and spreads out as it moves down the landform, nurturing plant life, which grows more abundantly around desert washes. The house is framed by a pair of natural washes that run along the two long edges of the property. The Ghost Wash refers to a third wash on the property—a conceptual one in the middle, formed by the house and the landscape around it, which also serve to capture runoff and foster habitat. The design won a 2021 ASLA Professional Honor Award in Residential Design for Colwell Shelor, one of two ASLA Honor Awards the firm garnered that year, and a 2018 AIA Housing Award for the architecture firm A-I-R Inc.

The Ghost Wash starts with the pervious paving of the parking area at the top of the property and continues with the butterfly roof of the home—a soaring funnel that, along with a series of terraced gardens, channels stormwater into a rectangular, steel-walled basin about the size of a lap pool. This has been planted with native species that tolerate both inundation and drought. When this fills up, the water overflows through a series of weeps in the basin wall and irrigates a small lawn. “The Ghost Wash is the imaginary wash that you don’t see,” Shelor said.

Design work began in 2011. The existing house on the property was demolished, but the clients had some reservations about tearing out the 20-foot oleander hedge surrounding it. Nonnative oleander hedges are ubiquitous in the area, their dense evergreen foliage an asset for those who don’t care for passersby peering into their property. Re-creating the privacy screen with natives resulted in a border around the property with the wild beauty of unkempt hair: a layered planting of paloverde, ironwood, and mesquite trees with an understory of pleasantly feral perennials. Running along the real-life washes that flank the property, the planting was installed two years before construction on the house began so that by the time it was completed in 2016, you couldn’t see it from the street.

Like most desert trees, the thorns on paloverde, ironwood, and mesquite are more prominent than their deciduous leaves. They are the antithesis of an evergreen hedge. But they do have a dense growth habit, if left to their own devices. The trick for Colwell Shelor was to find a maintenance crew that would actually leave them to their own devices—Colwell said the habit of “shaving” plants into orderly lollipops is deeply ingrained in southern Arizona. “Our desert trees want to grow like giant shrubs,” she said. “There’s strength in being wide and multitrunked—it protects them from wind and sun. If you let the tree do its thing, it’s actually quite hard to see through. But these are not the typical maintenance principles in the region.”

“We had to train the contractor: Don’t touch the trees!” Shelor said, putting on a stern voice.

The area averages about nine inches of rain annually, much of which falls in massive dumps during the summer monsoon season. These are followed by brief flourishes of ground-level growth in washes, which the designers sought to mimic at the site—including the lengthy periods in which the green turns brown.

A planting of paloverde trees along the street shelters the home from view.

Shelor, who took the lead on the design, scoured the washes of Camelback Mountain, the upper portions of which comprise a nature preserve, to develop the species list. Fully wild versions of the natives, rather than hybrids and cultivars, were used as much as possible, especially for the smaller perennials, which were seeded directly in the gravelly soil. These include globe mallow, brittlebush, and chuparosa, a Salvia-like species whose flowers add a cucumberish flavor to salads. “Our seed mix is exactly like what grows up there,” Shelor said as she gave me a tour of the property on a cool, clear day just before the winter solstice. “The idea is that the mountain is coming down into the site. We let it go wild—this is what it’s doing naturally.”

Parts of the mountain literally come down into the site—in the form of alluvium, which fans out where the washes open wide at the bottom of the property. Colwell Shelor has re-created this gravelly ground cover as a sort of mulch, a custom blend of locally sourced aggregates, ranging from a quarter inch to six inches in diameter. Ecologists call this desert pavement; Colwell Shelor refers to its version, which it has now specified on a number of projects, as Camelback Blend.

I’m someone who is pained to see plants without a protective layer of wood chips, but bare earth is ecologically appropriate in the desert. “Mulch would not fly here,” Shelor told me. “It would kill the plant material—it has too much organic matter.”

The designers also wanted the landscape to exude the proper fragrance. So they interspersed the wash plantings with creosote, a homely desert shrub with essential oils that smell like asphalt and railroad ties, which becomes highly aromatic in the rain, its tarry-sweet aroma perfuming the landscape. “I love it,” Shelor said. “It’s the smell of rain to me. We try to put creosote in every project, so when it does rain, it’s like, yeah, I’m in the desert, not in, like, Missouri. It’s a way to remind people of where they’re at.”

Creosote bushes can live for thousands of years, becoming a thicket of branches that are half dead, half alive—what they lack in surface-level aesthetics, they make up for with inner strength. Shelor said the municipality of Paradise Valley, where Camelback Mountain is located, has been directing developers to the screen planting along the top of the Termansens’ roadside wash as an example of an oleander alternative. A green wall of the plant runs along a neighbor’s property on the opposite side of the street. “I’m almost glad it’s there,” Shelor said. “It’s nice to see the contrast.”

 While we contemplated the oleander, the Termansens’ very heavy-looking Cor-Ten steel gate creaked open and we walked into what appeared at first as a rural Arizona ranch property—the unpaved driveway surface flowed seamlessly into the cacti-covered boulders surrounding it, no edging involved. It just looked like desert. But as we walked toward the house, design features emerged.

Custom-made Cor-Ten steel crutches supported horizontal arms of cactus, with hinged slings to accommodate movement. Lighting hung inconspicuously from the branches of paloverde trees—local dark sky ordinances prohibit most uplighting, Shelor explained. We arrived at the large auto court, which was barren except for a trio of Cereus cacti standing conspicuously against a wall. Some of the Cereus on-site have bizarre genetic mutations, including the Monstrose variety, in which the normally columnar stalks develop crested tops reminiscent of an exotic bird, or perhaps coral in a tropical sea. Shelor brought me close to the tallest of the three specimens in the auto court to show me a much rarer mutation she’d sourced: The ribs of the cactus spiral and undulate their way up the stalk in a pattern that reminded me of kelp.

“To me it looks like a ruffled dress,” Shelor said, pointing out where javelina have been eating away the base of the cactus (we found scat from the small piglike animals throughout the property). “When new flesh forms, it’s very juicy.”

One of the most captivating species on the property is the octopus cactus, seen in the background climbing over a wall of the auto court. Photo by Marion Brenner, Affiliate ASLA.

The Cereus cacti are not evenly spaced, and they emerge from the paving in random-shaped cutouts, lending the impression that they sprouted there of their own accord (they did not). The design of the tan-colored clay pavers (from Pacific Clay in Southern California) merges with that of a brick wall along another side of the auto court, which shields the home from view. The tentacle-like arms of octopus cactus clamber over the wall from a bed ensconced on the other side—they appear disturbingly animate, as though they might reach out and strangle an unwelcome intruder.

This wall curves at one end, tracing a short flight of stairs that leads away from the somewhat austere setting of the auto court and into a cool sunken patio at the entrance to the house. The wall’s curvature causes it to shift, Dali-like, from a flat surface to one in which every brick is a tiny niche. I discovered a tea light nested on one of the tiny ledges, a leftover from a recent dinner party on the patio where they had been massed in this way to create a warm glow.

A giant pane of glass swiveled open on its axis and Lauri Termansen emerged with Anders, the family’s golden Lab. She led me through a series of rooms and corridors, each of which looked out on carefully curated views of various courtyard gardens, including one off the master bathroom with an outdoor shower, where the floor retracts to reveal a hot tub below. These “gallery gardens,” as Shelor calls them, are populated with “freaks and geeks”—the firm’s term for unusual desert plants, such as the boojum tree, a prickly thing from Baja that looks as if it were dreamt up by Dr. Seuss. The moniker comes from a Lewis Carroll poem, “The Hunting of the Snark”:

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,

In the midst of his laughter and glee,

He had softly and suddenly vanished away—

For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

In Paradise Valley, Arizona, Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture designed a residential landscape intended to mimic the natural “washes” of the surrounding desert.

The boojum tree has become Termansen’s favorite plant. She also loves the octopus cactus—“They will attack you,” she said—and the old man cactus, which wears a beard of wispy white hairs that protects the plant’s flesh from the desert sun. “It looks like a shearling coat,” Shelor said, adding that many of their design choices “had to do with bringing [Termansen’s] personality into the project.” The pattern of the brick wall at the entrance “was based on a Bottega Veneta handbag weave,” Shelor explained.

In Termansen’s daughter’s room, Anders peered calmly through a corner window perched above the lawn, where a half dozen rabbits grazed like a herd of dainty cows. “They’re native,” said Shelor, shrugging.

“I would love it if we didn’t have the grass,” Termansen said. “My husband wanted the grass.”

She’d also like to do away with her neighbor’s palm trees, which hover above the wash that separates the properties. While there are a handful of native palm groves in the state, the species so ubiquitous around Arizona pools, lawns, and streets are imports. For Termansen, they’re emblematic of the manufactured landscapes she’s on a mission to retire to the coffins of history.

“Whenever I see a palm tree in Arizona, it makes me crazy,” she said. “I want to stick a nail in them.” Termansen explained: “They die if you stick a nail in them.” Then she turned to Shelor. “Maybe you could do that for me?” Termansen laughed. “A palm tree assassin! She thinks her job here is done, but it isn’t.”

Brian Barth is a journalist based in the Bay Area. He is writing a book about unhoused communities in Silicon Valley.

Project Credits

Landscape Architect Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture, Phoenix (Michele Shelor, ASLA, and Allison Colwell, ASLA, founding partners). Architect Architecture–Infrastructure–Research (A-I-R) Inc., Scottsdale, Arizona (Darren Petrucci). Landscape Contractor and Maintenance Mitschele’s Landscape, Phoenix. Tree and Cactus Salvage Native Resources, Phoenix. General Contractor Build, Inc., Phoenix. Mechanical Engineer Kunka Engineering, Phoenix. Structural Engineer JT Engineering, Phoenix. Electrical Engineer Woodward Engineering, Tempe, Arizona. Civil Engineer Fleet Fisher Engineering, Phoenix. Lighting Design Creative Designs in Lighting, Scottsdale, Arizona.

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