By Sue Goetz, CPH, ecoPRO

Tucson, Arizona, was the 2023 APLD International Conference site—a warm respite from November in the chilly Pacific Northwest. Conferences are the time to connect with others from around the country and discover how other chapters and members are doing. Seeing the strength in the number of beautiful works done by APLD designers and companies across the country is exciting.

Cactus, wildflowers in natural setting in Arizona
A lovely meadow of Golden Barrel cactus, wildflowers, Agave and Yucca (Photo Sue Goetz)

The first full day was a slate of speakers. It was a deep dive into landscaping in the southwest part of the country. Keynote speaker Steve Martino's talk titled "Weeds and Walls: Creating a Sense of Place" highlighted how he designs and finds inspiration ( He tends to look at landscape design as problem-solving. Design problems = design process = design solutions. He uses experiences (like touring gardens and natural landscapes) to influence and fuel ideas. After that, design is how all the materials come together. Here is a great quote I scribbled down during his talk:

"Gardens are where plants and nature meet in a civilized manner– to me, it is the juxtaposition of my craft with nature at its best." Steve Martino.

That stuck with me, and I thought it was a good reminder after I have (as we all have) hustled through a busy year and needed some new introspection.

The second session was with Charlie Ray and Zac Pekala with The Green Room Landscape Architecture ( They walked us through the process of mindful plant palettes and choices, reminding us throughout all the beautiful visuals that we are creating an atmosphere for the home, not just a landscape.

At the beginning of the conference, I will admit that I was not a cactus fan. I had just pulled an old prickly pear from my garden (the former owner placed it in an obnoxious place), so I wondered how the Arizona desert would inspire me.

Cactus nursery in Arizona
A Visit, tour and lunch at Ponderosa Cactus, a family owned nursery in Tucson (Photo Sue Goetz)

The thought struck me as I watched all the inspiring landscape design photos; in the Pacific Northwest, we are used to brushing up against plants and running our hands along the leafy textures, while in Arizona, the palette is spiky, sharp, and sometimes dangerous. As I watched designers show and tell about all their fabulous projects, it struck me that it is a balance of creating organic lines, elevating or lowering spaces, and giving a different prestige to the plants instead of actually engaging with them – interesting processes for a designer to consider.

Luis Ibarra with Ibarra Rosano Design ( brought some of the audience to tears with his inspiring work connecting people with purpose and place. His work is about the stories we create through our work. The magic of a design is how we interpret it. When he designs, every decision is based on something meaningful to the site – as he says, "…anything that does not belong in the desert will die; when it belongs, it is beautiful."

One of the end-of-the-day speakers, Brad Lancaster (, is a guru of water harvesting; in his words, he plants rain. Water is a much-needed resource in the arid regions of Tucson. One of his first attention-getting thoughts was, "We are a hydrophobic society; we seem to be paranoid of water we are always trying to mitigate it or are afraid of the damage it will do."

Plantings on street for environmentally friendly water harvest
One of Brad Lancaster's projects on a street. Asphalt cut, removed and planted for water harvesting in Tucson. (Photo Sue Goetz)

So true for us Pacific Northwesters with our wet winters and dry summers– water is one design challenge that comes into our work almost daily. Brad talked more about design being a regenerative story that builds the infrastructure and defines and constructs resilience instead of a fight over how to change water flow. Also, in dry summer design, we need to embrace a new perspective of seasonal change. Sometimes, dry summer (low-water) landscapes will have a different look and appeal than when they are lush and well-watered, and that's okay.

On our second day of touring gardens, we were fortunate to visit Brad's home and some of the streets he had transformed into water-harvesting meccas. He talked of slowing the water down to infiltrate it into the landscape. He then took it to the next level by saying that it is not just about harvesting water but being able to plant native trees, herbs. etc., in planting strips that are watered by street runoff. We saw some plantings and design in action as we walked a city street in Tucson, with curb cuts and asphalt sections removed to catch stormwater.

Signage on street for water harvesting design
Signage to show the public benefits and how the street cut outs work. (Photo Sue Goetz)

Our garden tour days took us through many awe-inspiring gardens, more than pictures could show. Gardens were always about cooling down in the heat (swimming pools and shade structures), plus, adding rich color that plays well in the sun and the spiky, unusual architecture of plants.

Private home entry courtyard at sunset in Arizona
Color play on a design by APLD member Sonya Becker (Photo Sue Goetz)

Private home entry courtyard at sunset in Arizona
Sunset in the entry courtyard at Hacienda Ferronato, a design by APLD member Sonya Becker. (Photo Sue Goetz)

We visited many designs from talented APLD members in Tucson and the surrounding area, including the 2023 Landscape Designer of the Year, Kathryn Prideaux ( A visit to her winning design, "The Perfect Skew," was enchanting.

Garden designer and crowd talking about a garden design around a pool
Kathryn Prideaux sharing here design process around the pool of "The Perfect Skew" garden. (Photo Sue Goetz)

I liked how she played with skewed layouts after discovering that the house and the pool were not parallel. The design had fun lines and unusual perspectives to make you forget that lines must be all geometrically perfectly in line.

modern fire pit in private garden in Tucson Arizona
Fire pit lines in Kathryn Prideaux's design "The Perfect Skew" (Photo Sue Goetz)

At one of the more natural gardens, we got a mini lesson on how to work around a Saguaro cactus on a landscape construction site. The task was to save one that was thought to be at least 100 years old! I loved the punctuation and beauty the Saguaro gives to the natural surroundings. After learning fascinating facts about this cactus, I see why Saguaro is the sentinel of the southwest.

Saguaro Cactus in natural setting Arizona desert
Standing next to towering Saguaros, it is said once the cactus starts to grow the characteristic "arms" it is at least 100 years old. (Photo Shawna Coronado)

I took the post-conference day to check something off my bucket list: a visit to Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. All the angles, lines, colors, and techniques of Frank Lloyd Wright were on display as we walked through the historical site of his architectural campus surrounded by the Sonoran Desert. There were also more wow moments with garden tours, including an 82-foot infinity pool along the narrow side of a home that looked like it dropped into a lake down a slope. It was magic!

As if all this touring wasn't enough, one aspect of attending a conference is the opportunity to network with peers from all over the country. It's nice to see the vibrancy of APLD through the works and conversations with others.

Garden Designers at conference
Washington state members at the 2023 Conference (Photo Heidi Walther)

Oh, and that cactus-dislike thing– I will admit I came home with a suitcase stuffed with all the summer clothes I won't be wearing for a while AND a small potted cactus plant and some agave babies from a friend's garden in Scottsdale. Now I regret pulling that prickly pear out of my Tacoma garden – who knew spiky and weird could be so fun!