The backyard to Rick and Barbara Rosenberg’s cool home is part outdoor museum, part botanical garden and part arty natural preserve
Wide gravel pathways meander between Texas ebony and ironwood trees and cacti of all shapes and sizes. Spiny lizards and Gambel’s quail scatter underneath thorny shrubs.
Shaded benches invite visitors to relax and commune with nature, but those who keep walking will discover more than a dozen sculptures tucked into the landscape – stone abstractions, bronze Buddhas, and two-foot-high cast iron heads.
Is it an outdoor museum? A botanical garden? An especially arty nature preserve?
The answer is: All of the above. It also happens to be Rick and Barbara Rosenberg’s backyard.
The Rosenbergs, who both grew up in New York, met at Brooklyn College, where Rick was walking in to his chemistry class just as Barbara was leaving hers. In 1977, the couple moved to Luke Air Force Base, where Rick was stationed after finishing dental school. Barbara found work as a science teacher and they agreed that the Valley was a great place to settle down.
By the early 1990s, when the Rosenbergs were looking for a new house to fit their young family, they hoped to find something with some space around it.
“I really wanted to have some room and a place for animals and birds,” Barbara explained. “In New York, if you wanted a decent amount of land, you would have to go way out of town and also have a small fortune.”
Instead, they found a centrally-located horse property in Paradise Valley for an affordable price. Built in 1962, the lot offered 1.29 acres with a modest ranch house and plenty of room for Rick to indulge his lifelong interest in plants.
“It was a blank slate,” Rick recalled. “The house was at the front of the property and then it was all just open.”
He got rid of the corrals and started planting trees and shrubs, partly because he didn’t know anything about cacti.
“I grew up in Brooklyn,” he explained. “It was all concrete everywhere!”
But, despite his urban origins, Rick had some experience with gardening. As a child, he took classes at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and even had a small vegetable plot there. When he and Barbara travel, they always visit the local botanical gardens to see what grows around the world.
In Paradise Valley, however, Rick didn’t set out to collect plants just for the sake of collecting.
“I was in it for the wildlife,” he explained. “That was one of the things that attracted us to this area in the first place, so I planted anything thorny and scrubby that would be attractive habitat for them. That’s why there’s a lot of hackberry and wolfberry and mesquite.”
He chose plants native to Arizona, both because they would best suit the animals and because they would use little water. Despite the size of the yard, there is very little irrigation.
But, as he learned about the flora of his adopted state, Rick became interested in its more distinctive forms, such as saguaro and cholla cacti. He joined the Central Arizona and Tucson Cactus and Succulent Societies, and his passion “kind of grew from there.”
The garden also grew. Since he had a large space and a limited budget, Rick mostly purchased young plants in one or five gallon pots. He shopped at the discount section of local nurseries and got cuttings from other gardeners.
But, although they started small, many of the plants took off. Today the garden is a rich tapestry, with mature trees providing shade and height, shrubs adding density and texture, and a now-impressive collection of cacti and succulents that range from tiny pincushions to tall columns.
The combination screens the garden paths from the surrounding neighborhood so effectively that, except for the occasional glimpse of Mummy Mountain, it feels like a private world – albeit a world where owls, hawks, rabbits and javelina often drop by.
Rick doesn’t know how many specimens he’s put in the garden at this point. It’s probably close to two thousand, although not all have survived.
Of that number, some of the most treasured are the two-hundred-plus barrel cacti that he and Barbara rescued through the cactus and succulent societies.
Cactus rescues are an organized attempt to salvage plants that would otherwise be bulldozed by developers. Sanctioned by the Arizona Department of Agriculture, they allow plant-lovers to dig up and take home what can be sizable cacti for the price of a registration tag.
Although Barbara generally leaves the gardening to Rick, she’s gladly joined the rescue missions.
“It’s nice because you’re saving them,” she explained.
The rescued plants include stout fishhook barrels and globe-like golden barrels, which add bold shapes as well as flowers and fruit for the birds and animals.
But in addition to the sculptural plants, the garden also features literal sculptures – the products of Rick’s other interest.
Twenty years ago, one of Rick’s dental patients was a sculptor who offered to trade artwork for dental work.
“He did a stone carving for me,” Rick remembered, “and I really liked it and I thought: ‘I’d like to try that, too.'”
Rick enrolled in beginner class at Scottsdale Community College and never stopped. Adding skills a little at a time, he’s learned stone carving, welding, bronze casting and any other technique he needs to bring his ideas to reality – even as his ideas have become more complex. While the smaller and more delicate pieces are displayed in the house, the larger ones ornament the landscape, where they are carefully sited to complement the living collection.
There are, Rick has found, a lot of similarities between dentistry, sculpture, and landscape design.
“Doing sculpture is all about proportion,” he explained. “In dentistry, you also use the rule of proportion, so I have a lot of experience with that. And it’s a big thing I consider when I’m planting, too.”
Although on most days the Rosenberg’s only share their well-proportioned yard with the critters that crawl, fly, or hop through it, they occasionally open it to other plant collectors and artist friends.
In July, the property was featured on a garden tour organized for the biennial convention of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, which was held in Tempe, and it is profiled in the August issue of Phoenix Home and Garden magazine.
And, now that the Rosenbergs are both retired, they have more time to enjoy their private retreat themselves, which is good because Rick plans to keep adding to it.
“I’m kind of stuck here because of the garden,” he acknowledged. “But it’s not a bad place to be stuck.”
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