Every issue, landscape designer Darbi Davis digs deep to bring you stories for your outdoor space. This month: 24 hour desert gardening competition.



Judges’ choice 2013, 1st Place, was by Janis & Phil Van Wyck Projects

GrowDown! The Great Tucson Garden Design Challenge, is back for the second year and hotter than ever. Beginning March 18th, three designers will battle the headwinds of constraint while constructing elaborate designs upon petite plots of barren space on the grounds of  Tucson Botanical Gardens.  In only 24 hours, strictly divided into three 8-hour days, each of the designers will bring their creations to life while the public observes from the hedgeline.

“The public can expect to see some seriously elaborate designs. This year we have fire features, a chicken coop and lots of exciting sustainable features incorporated into the finalists’ proposed landscapes. I expect some of the designers will need to get creative to overcome unseen challenges to stick to their designs. It will be a lot of hard work for these designers,” says Melissa D’Auria, TBG’s director of marketing.

Design Challenge Winner.

Design Challenge Winner.

After three hours of deliberation, the three finalists were chosen based on skill level and difficulty of the designs. The resulting trifecta of savvy landscape designers represents a think tank of innovative, intelligent design, and it’s safe to say they know a thing or two about performing under pressure.  All have trained hard, under the direction of The University of Arizona’s College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture.  While each works for a different local landscape design firm, their common thread lies in their passionate respect for the preservation and conservation of our arid climate.  Their differences will reveal themselves through their individual style and how they capitalize on the microclimates or lack thereof, within the confines of their relatively tiny space.

Iylea Olson

Iylea Olson

1. Iylea Olson represents LJ Design & Consulting, a firm that competed in last year’s inaugural Growdown! competition.

About Iylea: She’s rooted in Tucson but crept eastward, expanding her expertise into eastern medicine and martial arts.  These skills complement her additional professional passions – plant science, food gardening, and community outreach. Aesthetically, she blurs the line between modern and natural through her formal use of native plants and naturally functioning earthwork features.  Her ultimate goal for any project “is to meet the needs of my clients while maintaining respect for our local context; creating spaces for people, plants and wildlife to thrive.”

She loves: As a self-proclaimed plant nerd, she loves Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata).  “The smell of creosote after a warm summer rain is hard to beat, it makes for a lovely natural screen, and its medicinal properties are a major plus. A little salve made from the leaves is perfect for healing cuts and insect bites.”

2. Micaela Machado and Allen Denomy represent Solana Outdoor Living.



About Micaela and Allen: Both are Southern Arizona natives and sculpture artists.  They consider themselves “luxury sustainable designers who artfully blend modern design and innovative technology to enhance the surrounding natural beauty while protecting our environment.”

He loves: Allen’s favorite plant is Whales tongue (Agave ovatifolia) “for its sculptural quality, cool texture and bold statement.”

He avoids: “Oleander because it’s outdated, uses too much water and is poisonous to giraffes.”


Micaela of Solana Outdoor Living

Micaela of Solana Outdoor Living

She loves: She refers to the Chitalpa tree as a “hidden gem that is beautiful and perfect for Tucson due to its size, awesome flowers and super-cool bark.”

She avoids: You won’t find any Lantana in Micaela’s designs, because like Oleander, “they use too much water, but they can also reseed themselves, which can be a huge problem in waterways, and some varieties are also poisonous if ingested.”

3. Maria Voris represents Petrichor Design + Build

MVoris_optAbout Maria: Maria is a designer and a flamenco dancer, so it’s not surprising that her designs are choreographed for flow. “They aren’t overly complicated, and pay attention to comfort with little details that tell a story in some way or catch the eye making the space special and unique,” she says.

She loves: She has a hard time choosing her favorite desert plant because, “there are so many to love! Chuparosa is looking fantastic right now and is a great nectar source for hummingbirds. I also love flattop buckwheat for its year-round great looks and ease of care.”

She avoids: She doesn’t have a specific hated plant but simply refers us to the Arizona Native Plant Society’s web site for a list of invasive plants to watch out for.  “Yucky invasives are bad for Sonoran desert health!”

* Want to see the designers get dusty in their race to construct a desert landscape? Head down to Tucson Botanical Gardens at 2150 N. Alvernon Way to cheer them on. Growdown! installation is from 7 am to 3 pm, Wednesday March 19th through Friday March 21st. Judging and awards will be held Saturday March 22nd, but the designs will be up for the public to see until May. More here.

Reprinted with permission:  3storymagazine.com

Darbi’s Plant of the Month: Creosote Bush

Creosote Bush, or larrea tridentata, is a lovely native shrub with yellow flowers that can be seen right now.  Crush a few of its petite, shiny green leaves in your hand and you will smell a fragrance reminiscent of rain in the desert.  It is also famous for its medicinal properties, from soothing skin conditions to pain relief.

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