Sarah Simpson moved into her Foothills home 15 years ago because its enclosed patio was perfect for her two cats.
Her recent award-winning backyard redo was for the desert tortoise, Bono.
Oh, Simpson says she wanted a more inviting space in which to spend time outdoors. “I wanted the indoors out and outdoors in,” she says as she describes how the patio didn’t create a good flow between the two spaces.
But after saying all that, the former Bostonian admits, “It was all about the tortoise.”
The backyard redesign earned landscape designer Kathryn Prideaux first place in last fall’s Design Excellence Awards.
The recognition program is presented by the American Society of Interior Designers, Arizona South.
Simpson says she got 16-year-old Bono about 12 years ago from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s Tortoise Adoption Program. He had the run of the small, terraced backyard, but tended to hug the wall of the neighbor’s house, which abuts the yard. He’d accidentally flip onto his shell and sometimes require rescue.
Because of caliche in the soil, Simpson couldn’t create a proper burrow for Bono to hibernate in, so each winter he got moved into a closet inside of the house.
About three years ago, Simpson was completing extensive interior remodeling when she hired Prideaux, owner of Prideaux Design, to tackle the backyard.
Bono’s new habitat was on the top of Simpson’s list of changes. The space that’s away from the patio and accessible by a few stair steps is that spot.
There he has a proper habitat with a burrow, a water feature and appropriate plants for food.
Bono can still climb the stairs to the upper level. Early in the backyard redo he fell off the sudden drop between the two levels. Prideaux then extended the height of the retaining wall between the lower to upper level so that the wall now guides the tortoise back to the stairs.
Following Simpson’s desires, Prideaux opened up the small outdoor space by getting rid of the enclosed patio.
The wall separating the living room from the backyard was replaced with wall-length windows and sliding glass doors.
Removing a large non-native bush revealed the spectacular view of a nearby desert hillside. It’s now visible from both the living room and the patio’s new seating area.
To make the outdoor space more inviting for Simpson and guests, Prideaux started her design by focusing on one of the homeowner’s hobbies — collecting art.
“She travels a lot and I knew sculpture was her passion,” says Prideaux. “I wanted to reflect her personality.”
They settled on a 3-foot-long, firetruck-red chile by Maryland artist Jan Kirsh. It also is positioned in a way so that people can see it from the living room.
“Then we decided red was the accent color,” says Prideaux. A red urn and red-trimmed custom pillows, straw-colored furniture, a rust-colored table with fire pit, orange-blossom lady slipper plants and rusted steel elements echo that palette. Yellow Carolina jessamine, purple penstemon and white blackfoot daisy add complement and contrast.
Simpson isn’t a gardener, so Prideaux added many low-maintenance plants that require little irrigation, including several agave species, golden barrel cactus, Mexican fence post and deer grass.
Prideaux also employed some of the natural landscape beyond the new retaining wall that separates Simpson’s property from the neighborhood’s common area.
An unintrusive water feature attracts white tail deer and javelina. She added tiny lights to an existing mesquite. Underneath is a platform on which Simpson can use the gate into the area to set up a chair for stargazing.
Prideaux calls that undeveloped area “borrowed landscape. You don’t have to own it to enjoy it.”
In the redo, the felines got an upgrade from the enclosed patio. They now have what Simpson calls the “Queen Supreme Cat-io,” which rhymes with “patio.”
The airy, metal-fence enclosure includes the litter boxes that were in the enclosed patio, plus a spiral staircase, above-ground platforms and hammocks.
A series of cat doors guide felines Lucy Lawless, Grace Slick and kittens Alexander and Hamilton either into the bedroom or living room.
During parties the enclosure doubles as a bar, Simpson says. Her outdoor living space has become quite the popular gathering place for neighbors and friends.
“What (Prideaux) created was a very unique space from a pile of dirt,” she says.
“She’s got a flow of energy and movement that I love. I feel one with the earth and I could be more a part of the earth.”