I love gardens that sit well in the surrounding landscape, gardens with a strong sense of place. Christina’s garden in Italy transitions smoothly from formal planting through more informal massed perennials, grasses, shrubs and tree and on into the wild natural landscape beyond. James Golden’s ‘Federal Twist’ is full of naturalistic planting that helps settle the huge garden into the surrounding wooded landscape. Sarah is creating a garden at Hillwards with boundaries designed to embrace the surrounding countryside while still providing some much needed shelter. Of course, when you find yourself gardening in a suburban setting, surrounded by identikit houses, probably over looked, this sense of place is hard, if not impossible, to embrace. Then gardens like Mark and Gaz’s celebration of all things exotic create their own world in microcosm.

Superstition Mountain

Bill’s garden in Arizona has Superstition Mountain as a backdrop, and over the past couple of decades he has created a garden with a strong sense of place, using lots of native plants. I’ve wanted to do a post about Bill’s garden ever since I started blogging. I fell in love with the desert landscape and strange – to me – plants on my first visit back in 2006. I’d always assumed I would get the opportunity to walk around the garden with Bill, that he would be able to tell me the names of the plants, explain the choices he had made, the plans he had for its future. This is most definitely second best, but hopefully it will give you a feel for the garden, and perhaps the man behind it too.

The House

The house sits in a plot of around 2 acres. The house itself was originally a rather plain box, and Bill remodelled it extensively over the years, inside and out, including adding the stepped detail you can just about see around the roof to echo the local vernacular. I’d seen desert before, in Utah, California, New Mexico, but this was my first experience of a desert garden – no lawn, and plants that were very alien to me.

Strange Landscape

I’m not sure Bill would ever have described what he did as xeriscaping, but he certainly only used plants adapted to the arid environment, most of them native to Arizona, and used mulch and raised beds and contouring of the landscape to minimise the water requirements. New plants were watered until established, but then everything was left to get on with it. What strikes me, going back over the pictures I and MIL have taken of Bill’s garden over the past few years, is that although the plants are very different to the ones I am familiar with, the way they are used is somehow very familiar.

Embracing The Landscape

By using native plants, like the giant Saguaro, the garden blends smoothly into the surrounding wilder landscape.

Unfamiliar Plants

Plants and hard landscaping are combined to create dramatic views.

Softer Textures

Textures are combined in interesting ways, here agave and a desert ironwood (Olneya tesota)- at least, I think that’s an ironwood, I can’t get a detailed enough view of the leaves to be sure.

Teddy Bear Cholla

The wonderful textures of the plants were the main thing I fell in love with, though with cacti you have to be careful. These “Teddy Bear” Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) may look delightfully cuddly but having had a close encounter with them in Joshua Tree National Park I left tending them to Bill and FIL, those spines can fly out at you and turn you in to a pin cushion!

Bill planted lots of cacti of various sorts, sometimes massed in raised beds, sometimes as low level interest in island beds. A rather different form of ground cover to what I am used to, but so beautiful in their own way. I’ve never been one of those people who grows cacti. Between the cholla and a much earlier childhood memory of stroking the cactus collection in my Great Grandparents’ conservatory, I wouldn’t have described myself as a fan, but I fell in love with them once I saw them growing like this in a garden.


A Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus), I’m not sure what sort.

California Barrel Cactus

A California Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus), I love the colour.

Violet Prickly Pear

The Violet Prickly Pear (Opuntia gosseliniana), my personal favourite.


I’m not sure what this is, Bill used a bluey-green form too, but I love the shapes it makes, and how it glows in the sunset. In fact the light adds a whole new dimension to gardening, the clear desert air seems to bring with it stunning sunsets that cause plants that are otherwise almost plain to glow. I’ve never been out there when the cacti or the trees were in full bloom, but I imagine it is breathtaking.

Glowing In Sunset

Gardening in the harsh Arizona environment, with this type of plant, certainly brings its own particular challenges. I’ve mentioned the Teddy Bears with a bite, but where else would you find yourself having to accommodate a Saguaro beside your bin store?

Accommodating a Saguaro

Another challenge has been managing the run-off from the infrequent but violent rainstorms that occur each year. Bill bought in and moved hundreds of tons of earth over the years, roping in willing visitors to help whenever possible, to level out and grade the garden so that water was channelled away from the house, used to irrigate beds, and ultimately taken safely away. Each plant has a small piece of pipe or plastic bottle with the bottom cut out buried along side it, so that when the water runs it goes directly to the roots. If you look at the photo above of the Chollas, you will see one of several drainage ditches with a retaining wall. Over the years Bill noted where the water tended to run, where it tended to erode planting beds, and moved plants or dug ditches and built walls to manage the water better.

Earth Movers

One advantage was that brush cut from land he was still reclaiming together with tree and shrub prunings could be buried – a process occasionally aided by the ingenious use of a slide…

Ingenious Use Of A Slide

Dirt deliveries were a regular occurrence on our visits, sometime arriving before it was fully light.

Dirt Delivery

The lorry would drive around the garden dumping loads where Bill was working. Each load would be levelled by hand, stamped down, and then driven over to settled it. On one occasion the truck got stuck in still-soft ground, and had to be rescued by a giant yellow digger! Not only is this gardening in an environment that is alien to me with plants that are a mystery to me, this is gardening on a totally different scale!

Rescuing The Truck

Its striking that a desert garden has been so shaped by the need to manage water. There’s either none at all or way too much. Inevitably some of the soil so painstakingly distributed across the garden is eroded when the storms come and has to be replenished. This means there has to be room for a truck to get around the garden to distribute it, hence the island beds with large areas of soil in between. Not only that, but ‘The Wash’ – a drainage ditch that is meant to control the run-off from the storms for the houses along its run – bisects the garden. Keeping it clear where it runs across the property is one of the ongoing maintenance chores. More than that, the violence of the water means that Bill has had to rebuild the bridge over the wash that connects the two parts of the garden, and rebuild the retaining walls to prevent large sections of garden being washed away.

Bridge Over The Wash
The Wash

Bill was a man with tremendous creativity, and he poured that creativity into shaping the house and garden. Both were very much ongoing projects, and it makes me so sad to realise that he is no longer around to spend hours positioning a new tree or building a new garden structure. I will miss his humour, his generosity, his sharp mind. Most of all I will miss the opportunity to walk around his garden with him, listening to him enthuse about the plants he loved and combined so skilfully.


40 thoughts on “Bill’s Garden

  1. Janet – I have been awaiting this post since you mentioned that you were preparing it after hearing the sad news. It’s a fine tribute to Bill, the gardener and the man. The Saguaro in the courtyard is magnificent.

    1. Hi b-a-g, hope it was worth the wait. I love that Saguero, and quickly learned to be careful when walking past it!

  2. Janet how have I overlooked a really proper look at your blog before? I would give my eye teeth to have a garden like this. We visited the Botanical Gardens in Gran Canaria and fell in impossible love with the giant cactii.

    1. Hi Catherine, it is rather spectacular, isn’t it. The setting alone is amazing. Thanks for popping over!

  3. hello Janet, good to see you posting again, I know all about ‘D’ so I am really happy for you that you have managed to climb out of your personal hole, may it be onwards and upwards now,
    a wonderful post and tribute to Bill, his garden enviroment is almost the opposite of mine, at least the water that runs down through my garden from higher up the hill and the moor isn’t strong enough to wash a bridge away! when I visited Arizona I too was amazed by the wonderful light, I lived near London then now I get to see some wonderful light from my own house, the cacti are beautiful in there own way, love the coloured rosey one,
    thanks for showing us a garden from a completely different enviroment,
    take care, Frances

    1. Hi Frances, thank you, fingers crossed, with a few wobbles, things are currently much better. Yes, you do rather have different water related challenges to Bill, not to mention the wind… I admire all you folk who garden in extreme conditions. It takes a particular kind of perseverence.

  4. What a great tribute post – and what a magnificent garden – I couldn’t agree with you more about it being the right garden in the right place.

    1. Hi Elaine, thank you, I wanted to much to do it justice, but without making the post too long.

  5. What a wonderful landscape, so very different from our east coast humid gardens. Your unknown plant that is blue-green looks like an Aloe of some kind. I am no expert on plants from that region, they are almost like something from another planet. Thanks for sharing this.
    (Did I miss who Bill is? A relative??)

    1. Hi Janet, thanks, I will look up aloes and see if I can find a match, that does make sense. Bill was TNG’s Uncle, he died late last year after a six month battle with a brain tumour.

  6. Absolutely stunning garden Janet, no wonder you fell in love with this garden, we can clearly see why and so have we! The use of so many architectural, native plants, and hard landscaping in harmony with its surroundings is superb.

    I have been waiting for this blog post with much anticipation ever since you wrote about him a few months ago. An accomplished man, this garden is one of his lasting legacies. And a beautiful legacy it is. And it’s heart warming to know that you were able to see this garden in person, photos of which you are generously sharing with us :)

    1. I thought you guys would like it!! I only saw it “in the flesh” twice, and it changed a lot just in that time, Bill was always hunting out bargains for landscaping materials and plants. Going back over my – and Mil’s – photographs made me appreciate his skill in combining plants all the more. I know G, his wife, finds comfort in the garden, it is so much his creation.

  7. The best kind of garden, full of native plants, merging into the countryside with a great backdrop. I can’t quite get my head round the amount of work and soil needed to maintain a garden like this. Is there someone else to look after the garden or has it been put into trust? A truly stunning garden and fascinating post.

    1. Hi Janet. I really admire the way that Bill managed to balance the drama of the surrounding landscape with his own dramatic planting. G, Bill’s wife, has some help at the moment, and the work Bill has done on water management and on rebuilding the wash vastly reduces the work, but it is a large and challenging space.

  8. Thank you for this wonderful tour. You can see how much he loved his garden and enjoyed himself there. I’ve never seen a desert garden before so this is a first for me. It’s quite amazing – those cacti are HUGE!

    1. Hi Marguerite, I am so glad that it came across how much Bill loved that garden, and that you enjoyed the tour.

  9. Thank you, for sharing a tribute to a talent we would not have had the privilege of knowing with out this post. (The photos are fantastic.)

    1. Thanks Shyrlene, it was really good to give Bill’s garden a wider audience, I just wish I had been able to do it while he was still alive, he would have enjoyed it immensely.

  10. So glad that you have shared Bill’s garden with us Janet. What a stupendous setting for a house and garden with that mountain as a backdrop. I would normally run a mile (or would if I could) at the sight of a cactus but when seen in their natural environment they are awe inspiring plants. Bill must have put in a lot of hard graft, imagination and love into the creation of this space. Most definitely a garden with a sense of place!

    1. Hi Anna, it is a rather amazing location to garden in, isn’t it. It is hard core gardening, too, with all those spiny plants to prune. Not my idea of fun, pruning Chollas or planting Sagueros, but I do love the end results. It was good to be able to share what Bill created with people who I knew would appreciate it.

  11. What a stunning garden, reflecting exactly the environment where it is. So totally different to any garden I have seen and a wonderful tribute to Bill. Have never before thought of the desert as having too much rain, with all the soil being washed away, amazing!

    1. Hi Pauline, so glad you enjoyed the tour. The desert certainly presents unique challenges to the gardener.

  12. What an amazing place and garden. I always find it fascinating to see how people garden in different climates and conditions. For me I love the traditional English country garden and I’m not so keen on the more exotic looking plants that have become popular in gardens over the years. I find they jar with the landscape. I loved the photos and seeing how a garden was created from what appears such a barren landscape. Thank you for sharing these photos and your memories.

    1. Hi wellywoman, one of the things I love about the garden Bill created was that all those plants that would feel so out of place here in the UK fitted perfectly, because they were natives (mostly) and perfectly adapted to the landscape. Bill helped a friend by building her an irrigation system, which I presume was needed because she wanted to grow plants that weren’t well adapted to the climate. Bill always worked with the landscape and the climate, not against it, like us refusing to grow tender plants that won’t survive our winters I suppose. The result was a garden that fitted right in to the surroundings.

  13. A great post, Janet and a wonderful tribute to Bill. His garden must have been near the Botanic Garden I visited in Phoenix and wrote about for GB Foliage Day. I do believe that the best gardens are those that ‘fit’ their surrounding so thanks you for the mention. Christina

    1. Hi Christina, glad you enjoyed it. Bill’s garden isn’t far from Phoenix, and I had hoped to go to the Botanic Gardens you blogged about on my next visit.

  14. Thank you so much for posting this, Janet! I remember my first trip to Phoenix and thinking how strange homes looked with gravel or dirt as their front “lawns.” And yet the more I saw and learned about the native plants, the more I began to appreciate them. They have a beauty all their own, and Bill’s garden is a fantastic example of using natives to create a beautiful and natural extension of the surrounding environment. I’ve been lucky enough to be there a couple of times when everything was in bloom–many of the cacti have gorgeous blooms. By the way, did you know it’s against the law to destroy or steal a saguaro? Builders must either build around them or transplant them. Judging by the size of the saguaro by Bill’s garbage bins, it was probably much easier to build around it!

    A lovely tribute to your friend.

    1. Hi Rose, I know exactly what you mean, it is a very alien sort of garden for those of us used to lush lawns and herbaceous perennials. Bill’s wife is going to send me photos of the cacti and trees blooming this year, so hopefully I will be able to do a follow up post showing it in full glory. Glad you enjoyed the post – and the legality side helps explain the tricky route to the bins!

  15. Stunning garden, so alien yet intriguing. Lovely post, and a fine testament to your friend and his passion. Thank you for the link too! S x

    1. Hi Sara, glad you enjoyed it, and you are welcome to the link, I am looking forward to watching your garden evolve even further this year.

  16. It is so interesting to view gardens in zones much different than our own. I once visited Arizona and was fascinated by the flora…so different than where I garden in the east USA. Thanks for sharing this in depth look at Bill’s garden.

    1. I really didn’t know quite what to make of it when I first saw it, it is so very different to what I am used to, but it fits so well, unlike the gardens in Phoenix where people try to have lawns and perennials, which takes gallons and gallons of water.

    1. Thank you Alistair, it is such a shame I didn’t get around to doing this while Bill was still alive, he would have really enjoyed it.

  17. What a interesting post, with good photos, about a wonderful looking, and very different, garden to ones here in the UK! Flighty xx

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