Color-drenched walls and desert beauty in Steve Martino-designed Palo Christi Garden


Forget Easter egg pinks and lilacs. Yellow, I discovered two weeks ago, is the color of spring in Arizona. A sunny, egg-yolk yellow.


My friend David Cristiani introduced me to Phoenix landscape architect Steve Martino, who pioneered the use of desert natives in area gardens decades ago. Steve generously took time out of a busy spring schedule to show me two of his clients’ gardens in Paradise Valley. This is the scene that greeted me at the Palo Christi Garden. Like forsythia on steroids, green-trunked palo verde trees (Parkinsonia sp.) glowed golden against a denim-blue sky.


Near the driveway, a laser-cut metal pillar with an uplight is a beacon on velvety desert nights. Pincushions of golden barrel cactus pick up the yellow of the blooming palo verdes and brittlebush.


A low, chrome-yellow wall is, like the light pillar, another marker for the garden. In the desert, bloom color is fleeting, and rich color on walls brings energy to the normally subdued palette of grey-greens and blue-greens. Also, such colors stand up to the intense desert sunlight, which would wash out paler hues.


Steve told me that walls also allow him to design for shadow play. It’s smart to put that powerful desert sunlight to use.


Agave and purple prickly pear


Enjoying filtered shade is a massive Agave americana ‘Variegata’ — unless it’s ‘Marginata’. I’m never sure of the difference.


A close-up of palo verde flowers. The eye-catching green branches of this tree are able to photosynthesize when its leaves drop during times of drought.


A serpentine driveway meanders toward the house, giving visitors time to experience the garden before they’ve even parked. As you exit your car, this is what you see: a red wall with silver-blue agaves, lightly shaded by an airy Arizona native mesquite. Wow, what an attention-getter.


A gate opens to a walled courtyard garden with a trough-like raised pool, leading the eye from the house straight to the vista of mountains in the distance.


The raised pool as viewed from the side. A substantial arbor stands behind it.


Shade is essential in the desert.


The garden view. The style is naturalistic but densely planted, as a wash (wet-weather creek) would be. The wash, Steve explained, is where the action is in the desert, where you get an interesting assortment of plants.


Variegated agaves, like writhing octopi


A Yucca rostrata introduces more shadow play against the sand-colored wall of the contemporary-style house.


And a large niche in the garden wall offers a spot for display.


A wall also offers a beautiful backdrop for furnishings and accessories.


From inside the home you see another courtyard, with a second trough-style water feature that’s visible from the dining and living rooms. This water feature is aligned on an axis with the one in the entry courtyard, and large windows on both sides of the house allow views straight through, from one courtyard to the other. The troughs almost seem to run on a direct line through the house, and the surrounding garden is central to the experience of being in the home.


This courtyard is more open than the other, and more sparsely planted. The trough bisects the space, and a palo verde spreads its limbs over the right side while Mexican fence post cacti stand at attention on the left.


Mexican fence post cactus


Where the trough meets the garden wall, a gap reveals a taller blue wall, from which a simple pipe spills water into the raised pool.


Blue wall, yellow blossoms


Steve was working the scene too, taking as many photos as I did. He is serious about his photography.


The other side of the courtyard — you can see the door we entered through — is open in the center, with clusters of cactus and succulents near the windows, as well as another tree for shade.


The gravel floor blends with the sand-colored walls of the house, making the space feel even larger.


A gate hidden on the left side of the garden wall opens to a raised-bed vegetable garden.


Nearby, ocotillo shadows dance on a yellow wall.


A parting glance at the red wall and agaves. Why don’t we see more colored walls in Austin, I wonder? They are fabulous.

My thanks to Steve and the homeowners for letting me photograph this stunning garden. I have one more Martino-designed garden to show you soon.


But for comparison, I thought you might like to see the garden across the street from the one we just toured. It’s an example of traditional landscaping in Phoenix, landscaping on life support, representative of the aesthetic that Steve has been working for decades to supplant: a large, thirsty lawn, palms, cypresses, bougainvillea. A Mediterranean fantasy that turns its back on the natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert. Scroll up to see Steve’s choices of native trees, shrubs, and perennials — plants that blend with the larger landscape while still providing the lushness of a garden oasis, not to mention a significantly smaller water bill. Which would you prefer if you lived here?

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Wildflowers and more in bloom at the Wildflower Center


For Garden Bloggers Bloom Day let’s go to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center here in Austin. I visited on Sunday with family who were in town, hoping to see some bluebonnets. We saw a lot more than that, including these beautiful pink flowers that resembled apple blossoms. Does anyone know what native Texas shrub or tree this might be? Update: It’s a Texas crabapple, also known as Blanco crabapple (Malus ioensis var. texana). Thanks for the ID, Linda/Patchwork Garden and James Smith!


Texas bluebonnets spilled through grassy meadows like spring-fed streams.


They also popped up in surprising places, like this green roof atop the admissions booth.


Swagged from the orange-toned stone walls in the entry garden, ‘Tangerine Beauty’ crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) added its orange trumpets.


In the Hill Country Stream Garden, pink penstemon raised its cerise signal flags.


A closer look


The yuccas were blooming too, sending spears adorned with creamy, bell-shaped flowers into the sky.


At the edge of a woodland garden, scarlet buckeye (Aesculus pavia) was putting on a big show.


A closer look


A wider shot is nice too.


I missed the label for this swath of pale-blue salvia, but the delicate flowers showed up nicely en masse.


Another soft scene, with no flowers to speak of, but I did admire the mixed textures of grass, maidenhair fern, and yucca.


Wild foxglove’s pale flowers (Penstemon cobaea) are held above glossy, green leaves.


And another crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) drapes over a wooden fence in the Texas Mixed Border Homeowner Inspiration Garden.


I love that rich color, and so do hummingbirds.


The Demonstration Garden was abloom with people, checking everything out…


…like fiery orange California poppy.


We climbed to the top of the observation tower, where I saw a green valentine in this bristly prickly pear pad.


Glowing like coals in a banked fire were the extravagant blooms of claret cup cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus).


A closer look


Finally it was time to head out. As we walked through the parking lot to our car, I spotted sunny yellow wildflowers at the edge of the lot…


…and completely covering the ground in a water retention basin.


A few Indian paintbrush were scattered throughout as well.

What a beautiful spring scene! To see my paparazzi pics of the great horned owl nesting at the Wildflower Center, which I posted yesterday, click here.

I’m joining other bloggers for the Bloom Day meme with this post. Visit May Dreams Gardens to see what’s blooming in other gardens around the world on this date. And don’t forget to join me tomorrow for Foliage Follow-Up!

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Better late than never planting


Like a faithful Labrador, this Yucca desmetiana ‘Blue Boy’ patiently sat for 8 months in its 4-inch nursery pot on a table in my back yard, waiting for its forever home. Well, maybe not forever, as this purple-tinged yucca can grow to 6 feet tall. But certainly a better temporary home than a flimsy, plastic nursery pot.

I bought it at the fabulous Annie’s Annuals & Perennials during last summer’s Garden Bloggers Fling in San Francisco, but not because I saw it and just had to have it. No, I bought it because I saw one of my favorite bloggers, Denise of A Growing Obsession, carrying one around and thought, “Oh, if Denise wants it, it must be good!” And I promptly hunted down one of my own, stuffed it in my suitcase for the flight home, and then basically ignored it. Poor thing. It does look quite nice now in this glazed, red pot, doesn’t it?


The gnome thinks so. Come to think of it, he’s a California purchase too, from Potted garden shop in Los Angeles.


While I was potting, I finally got around to planting up this concrete wall planter I bought at local shop Mockingbird Domestics last fall.


I put a crested euphorbia in it. I’ve never grown this plant before and hope it won’t melt away in the summer.


The spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) is just starting to bloom, after being set back during our late ice storm. It’s so nice to see a few flowers in the garden at last to herald spring’s arrival.


But the best flower show in my garden right now is in the skinny side garden, where the four-nerve daisies (Tetraneuris scaposa) are amped up by the yellows in the ‘Bright Edge’ yuccas, Mexican feathergrass, and gopher plants.


These cheery natives used to be in the front garden, but the deer found them tasty, so I transplanted them behind the fence, amid the rocks lining the hillside path.


They thrive in the sun and reflected heat.


Little cups of sunshine


Although it may seem a throwaway space, it’s always worth planting up the side yard.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.