ASU Mesa, AZ: university campus that embraces the desert

After reading my recent posts about the Scottsdale Xeriscape Demonstration Garden and Cavalliere Park, both in Scottsdale, Arizona, you might be reaching Corten and gabion overload. But the place I will show you in this post is so well-designed that I hope you'll stick with me. It's Arizona State University's Polytechnic Campus in Mesa.

The main campus of Arizona State University (ASU) is in Tempe. It's a sprawling site the size of a small town (642 acres). According to Wikipedia, "76,844 students [were] enrolled in at least one class on campus in fall 2016." That's a staggering number!

In addition to the main campus, there are four other campuses in the Phoenix metro area. One of them is the Polytechnic Campus in Mesa. It opened in the fall of 1996 on the grounds of the former William Air Force Base. In 2009, Ten Eyck Landscape Architects helped turn 21 acres in the heart of the campus from a concrete wasteland into what it is today: a lush desert oasis.

Mass plantings of palo verde (Parkinsonia sp.). To see them in flower, read this post by Pam Penick

The goal of the project was to "transform acres of asphalt, concrete, and river rock into an academic, social and ecological campus hub that embraces and sustains desert life". But the removed materials were not simply discarded, they were reused as much as possible. Concrete paving was repurposed for seating elements, retaining walls and pathways. Existing river rock was used in gabions and for freestanding and retaining walls. Mass plantings of drought-tolerant plants create shade and inviting places for socializing.

This project was so successful that enrollment at the Mesa campus has increased by 20 percent as more and more students are attracted to this very special campus in the Sonoran Desert. In 2012, Ten Eyck Landscape Architects received an Honor Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects for their work.

Christine Ten Eyck's company also designed the Scottsdale Xeriscape Demonstration Garden, and you will see a similar aesthetic in the photos below.

Desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleriand palo verde

Mesquite and prickly pears

More desert spoons (Dasylirion wheeleri)

Yucca thompsoniana. The description from the ASU website is right on the money: "Yucca thompsoniana looks like a smaller hybridized version of Y. brevifolia  [Joshua tree] and Y. rostrata."
The glass-and-steel architecture of the LEED Gold-certified Academic Complex and Ten Eyck's landscape design are a perfect marriage, not just visually but also ecologically. They're focused on conserving resources, maximizing sustainability, and connecting students and staff to the desert instead of shutting them off from it.

In spite of their scale, I found the outdoor spaces so inviting that I thought I was in somebody's private garden.

Desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri)

Does anybody recognize this aloe species?

NOID aloes and palo blanco (Mariosousa willardiana)

Another great place for socializing

Ample places to sit invite people to linger

Doesn't this palo verde look awesome against the steel facade?

Corten arbor with Lady Banks roses

The mass-planted succulent on the left is candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphylitica), native to southern New Mexico, western Texas and northern Mexico

I'm proud to admit that I'm a gabion addict

It was too see mass plantings of aloes when I would have expected agaves

Texas ebony (Ebenopsis ebano)

Too bad there wasn't a bench here. Otherwise I would have sat here for a while.

Slipper plant (Pedilanthus macrocarpus), native to northwestern Mexico and closely related to euphorbias (some taxonomists list it Euphorbia lomelii). Criminally underused in landscaping, in my opinion. In my experience it's hardier than people give it credit for.

More aloes

The courtyard in the last set of photos below had mass plantings of Aloe barbadensis and palo blanco (Mariosousa williardiana), an acacia from Sonora, Mexico. It's one of my favorite trees because of its graceful weeping branches and its dramatic white bark that is constantly peeling. The specimens in this courtyard are perfect examples of why I'm so fond of this species.

One final photo...

...and then it was time to hit the road. I had more places to explore!



  1. I can think of some campuses in LA that could use a landscaping assist from Ten Eyck. The gabion walls have more appeal as a possible solution for my back slope every time I see them so thanks for contributing to my newest obsession.

    1. I promise, I'm done posting about gabions, but I'm still trying to find a way to have a small gabion feature in our garden...

    2. Gabions certainly are aesthetically pleasing to look at. I've never seen a wall made of them as high as the one in the 6th to the last photo. Looks like they're stacked four high with the bottom most one half buried.

  2. I love the palo verde tree, so elegant with and without flowers! I like the Lady Banks rose too, it seems so common in many places but impossible to find here.. I've been trying to find one for years!

    1. Palo verdes are still not very common where I livem but more and more nurseries are beginning to carry them because they thrive with very little supplemental water once they're established.

  3. Lots and lots of trees, critically important for such a hot hot region. Looks really well done, decently cared for, and easily maintainable--no lawn mowers required.


    1. Trees are the life blood of any community. The more the better as long as they're appropriate to the place and climate.

      Very easy maintenance. That's a big plus in my book.

      The enrollment numbers are staggering. I thought UC Davis with 31,000 students was big. ASU is something else entirely!

  4. I would quickly wilt in the desert, but I do enjoy seeing some of the beautiful plants that grow in that climate. The trees have such wonderful architecture.

  5. That is a truly spectacular garden. Dasylirion wheeleri are one of the most mesmerizing plants. You've captured them well!

  6. We are gonna have to check this out on our next trip to Arizona! Thanks for the tour, Gerhard!


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