Stark Silhouettes – a lesson from the desert

I had the opportunity recently to visit Tucson, Arizona and was fascinated to see a landscape so different from the lush Pacific Northwest. Instead of ferns and mossy glades beneath towering evergreens the arid desert landscape was filled with cacti, succulents and other drought tolerant specimens piercing the rocky terrain.

Walking around the hotel grounds offered a lesson in landscape design in itself!

To some this stark landscape seemed barren yet I found the juxtaposition of the different architectural shapes fascinating. When I design gardens and plant combinations I pay great attention to the details of foliage to create a layered tapestry. I also love to work with color – high contrast and monochromatic being my two favorite  schemes. The desert plantscape was an exciting study in monochromatic planting with shades of silvery-green and steel blue predominating and it was also a lesson in appreciating the structural quality of each plant.

Dramatic spires of cacti stand out in sharp relief against the vast blue Arizona sky

While in Tucson I heard a wonderful presentation by Scott Calhoun, a local and highly regarded landscape designer on Hot Gardens – designing in the south west. Whereas I am often asked to create a sense of enclosure, a hidden oasis for my clients, Scott designs for a sense of openness and transparency. He aims to mimic the surrounding landscape in his gardens, framing views of the surrounding mountains. It is a principle called ‘borrowed landscape’ where the garden seems to extend into the distance and boundaries are obscured.

A simple vignette of an Agave against a weathered boulder draws attention to the ground plane


Rather than creating screening he looks for ways to add stark silhouettes against the sky – emphasizing the wider landscape or vista. Closer at hand he creates vignettes of plant material, boulders wildflowers and native grasses.

Stunning in its simplicity. The powdery blue Agave highlights the blue wall with a bold golden yellow bench providing high contrast.




My favorite trip was to a wonderful private garden where the homeowner had adapted these principles to an urban environment. He had built the most beautiful stucco walls, each painted a different bold color and then set the plants against this unadorned backdrop. Sunlight cast shadows on these walls creating a sense of greater depth allowing the form of each cactus to be silhouetted without distraction from background plants.

This monochromatic scheme looks striking when the silhouette of each plant is showcased against the stucco wall

Although the plants themselves were of a similar hue, by placing them against walls of cobalt blue, yellow ochre, terracotta and olive green each specimen ‘popped’.



Each plant was well spaced from its neighbor – a practical necessity in the desert since they are competing for water. Yet this allowed the graphical shape of each plant to be appreciated in isolation creating an almost minimalistic look.

Barrel cactus with its remarkable radial pattern of spines




Short spines, long spines, orange spines, ghostly white spines. Paddle shapes, columnar pickets, pointed arrows and mounds. The variety was still there in the details although at first glance the desert may seem like a moonscape to those of us used to a completely different environment.

Whereas in the PNW we might leave snags of tall trees for wildlife and to simply lend a sculptural statement, in Tucson we saw many cacti skeletons creating the same effect



This trip provided a wonderful opportunity to learn about different design techniques and many of those ideas can be employed in our own gardens. Creating silhouettes using the contorted branching structures of trees and shrubs for example. Or a stand of vertical grasses against the solid backdrop of evergreen trees can have the same dramatic effect as the cacti against the  sky. If you would like more ideas on designing silhouettes, especially valuable in the winter landscape of more temperate climates, you may enjoy this article I wrote a while ago.

A simple container, well placed against a colorful backdrop allows the light to cast strong shadows




No matter where you live, it’s still all about the details.


This trip was organized by the Garden Writers Association





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  1. Catriona Tudor Erler on October 22, 2012 at 11:08 am

    You captured some wonderful images from the GWA Conference!

    • Karen Chapman on October 22, 2012 at 11:52 am

      Thanks Catriona – it was a wonderful trip!

  2. Carolyn @ Carolyn's Shade Gardens on October 22, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    I loved hearing about your trip. Donna from Garden Walk and I were thinking of going to this conference. By the time we joined the GWA, paid for the conference, food, and hotel, and bought the plane tickets, it seemed very expensive. I would love to hear more about your experience. We were kind of spoiled by how cheap the garden bloggers fling was.

    • Karen Chapman on October 22, 2012 at 8:12 pm

      Carolyn, the GWA is a completely different animal from the bloggers fling. Personally I have found it rewarding on so many levels that I can't imagine NOT going. I'd love to chat more about it so feel free to email me at .

  3. Diana/SharingNaturesGarden on October 22, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    Love the photos and your commentary about the trip and the plants. Thanks for your great advice and the good company. Good luck with the book – I can't wait to get it.

    • Karen Chapman on October 22, 2012 at 8:13 pm

      Diana – I am so glad we had the opportunity to connect albeit briefly in Tucson. Thank you for your encouragement and hope we meet again.

  4. Mark and Gaz on October 23, 2012 at 1:42 am

    Enjoyed looking at your photos Karen and reading your commentary about your trip and experience. The architectural merit of these succulents are undeniable. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Karen Chapman on October 24, 2012 at 7:46 am

      You'd have loved this trip guys!

  5. Kristen McLain on October 23, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    The GWA tours were indeed wonderful! Your photos took me back to the inspiring places we visited and they compliment your article very well.

    • Karen Chapman on October 24, 2012 at 7:47 am

      Great to have met up with you again Kristen.

  6. on October 25, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    Great article and wow what a wonderful selection of Cacti. I have a friend who lives in Arizona but I've never been – maybe I really ought to take that trip.

    • Karen Chapman on October 26, 2012 at 7:37 am

      I know you would love it ! So much to see and to learn. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  7. debsgarden on October 27, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    I love the photo of the blue Agave! I remember vividly my first visit to the Sonoran desert near Phoenix. It seemed to be a different planet. Just gorgeous, though not the beauty I am accustomed to. I had always though of the desert as a desolate place. I was wrong!

    • Karen Chapman on October 29, 2012 at 9:28 am

      That blue is YOUR color Deb!

  8. Stacy on November 2, 2012 at 10:40 am

    Karen, I'm so glad you made it to the desert southwest, and that you enjoyed it so much! I haven't been to Tucson but it's high on my list — I'd love to go to Saguaro National Park. Even though AZ's desert is a couple of notches more severe than ours, the overall "feel" of openness is similar. You describe it wonderfully.

    I sometimes feel like desert gardens are a little too prone to focus on the "desert" part and downplay the "garden" part — to be high-concept places to look at, but not necessarily intimate (or shady!) places of ease. I like the vignette idea as a way to make the balance a little more comfortable. Much as I like a western garden to resonate with the landscape, it's still nice to have an oasis!