Tucson’s great freeze of 2011 wiped out most of Dana and Lynn Roper’s landscape at the Oro Valley winter home they had built in 2007.
A non-native plant selection by the contractor who built the house didn’t stand a chance against record-breaking freezing and low temperatures that lasted for five February days. Bougainvillea, oleander and a grapefruit tree were among the plants that died.
Instead of installing new specimens of the same species, the couple, who spend eight months in Lincoln, Nebraska, decided to accelerate their plans to go native.
“We said, Let’s start all over,’” Lynn Roper, a financial adviser, recalls.
Landscape designer Shelly Ann Abbott had them plant a lot of agaves, flowering bushes and cacti. Overall, the garden can survive down to 13 degrees, says Abbott, owner of Landscape Design West LLC.
It was slow going at first. Because lots of people were replacing freeze-damaged plants at the time, nurseries and garden centers couldn’t keep up with the demand. Selection was sparse and what plants were available were quite small.
The Ropers knew they had to be patient with what looked like a very bare landscape of seedlings that Abbott started to plant in July 2011.
“There was no instant gratification on this,” Lynn Roper jokes.
The native plants quickly took to the environment, which is on a Santa Catalina Mountains slope. They were well on their way to looking established within six months.
Today the couple have a mature garden that blooms in the winter and early spring while they’re in town, as well as during the summer when they make brief monsoon-season visits. The plants attract butterflies and hummingbirds in droves.
Abbott’s efforts won the recent Arizona Landscape Contractors Association’s award of distinction for heritage gardens. It’s the top award for the category that recognizes thriving gardens that were installed at least five years ago.
The planted areas surround the original patio, flagstone pathways, rectangular pool and seating areas that take advantage of looming, wildlife-filled Pusch Ridge views.
Abbott was able to keep some plants that survived the freeze, including rosemary bushes, a desert spoon and a citrus tree.
She then filled in-ground beds, terraces and large pots mostly with species that do well in Sonoran, Chihuahuan and Baja Californian deserts, what she calls “Southwest regional native plants.”
The Ropers rarely buy plants for the yards. Instead, they nurture new growth from fallen seed and transplant pups that appear next to their succulent parents.
The landscape is regularly irrigated and the Ropers use a maintenance company to take care of the gardens year-round.
That’s not to say there haven’t been any setbacks over the years. Because the Ropers’ property backs up to protected wildlife areas, deer, javelina, skunks and coatimundis have taken advantage of what retired attorney Dana Roper calls the “buffet” that is their garden.
Some areas in the long, narrow backyard have special challenges, such as too much sun or too much shade.
The front, in particular, is out of sun most of the winter when the couple are around. After several tries, Abbott has come upon agave and lantana as successful species for the space.
Overall, the Ropers have been pleased with the results and the staying power of the landscape.
“I’m thrilled to have all these blooms,” says Lynn Roper.
OTHER TOP ALCA WINNERS
Two Tucson single-family residential landscape installations won ALCA awards of distinction, essentially second-best recognition in a category.
Some of the features in the Santa Rita Landscaping Inc. entry ($75,001-$125,000) include a fire-pit seating area that simulates a couch instead of a bench.
The barbecue is surrounded by tile that looks like weathered wood slats topped by granite. The dining area is defined by a travertine floor.
The aboveground spa was lowered into the earth “to allow better access while being less obstructive,” according to the entry.
Horticulture Unlimited Inc. replaced a backyard lawn and large concrete pavers with flagstone. The new flooring links the various living and entertainment spaces in the east entry ($50,001-$75,000).
Those spaces include a fire pit with a seat wall and a new barbecue that connects to the patio seating area.
The front yard features a mailbox with handmade, custom tile and a curved flagstone walkway to the front door.