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.

Party lights patio


Evening temperature: mid-60sF. I need to sit out here more often, before the mosquitoes return.

Update: If you’re interested in what kind of string lights we have and how we installed them, I wrote this post about lighting the garden a few years ago.

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

Spectacular lighted trees bring holiday joy in Johnson City


We tooled into Johnson City at dusk after a day spent in charming Fredericksburg, in the Hill Country west of Austin. After dinner at a local brew pub, we stopped by the electric company, just a block off the main road, to view the lighted trees that surround the headquarters.


More than a million lights strung on trunks, branches, and twigs transform a grove of live oaks into an enchanted forest. Located at the Pedernales Electric Coop’s headquarters on Avenue F, just off Highway 290, the display is part of Johnson City’s annual Lights Spectacular.


I love Austin’s Zilker Christmas Tree and the Trail of Lights. But if you want to enjoy a fantastic light display sans crowds, make the 1-hour drive west to Johnson City, park your car conveniently on the street, and walk 25 feet to gaze up at these beautifully adorned trees. My only complaint is that a hot-chocolate vendor has set up a mobile cafe at the street corner powered by a generator thrumming like a dozen lawn mowers. The racket significantly diminished our enjoyment of the display, and I’d urge city leaders to keep generators at least a block away from the trees in the future.


Last year when we visited Lights Spectacular, all the lights were white. This year, a few blue trees stood out amid the white ones.


They were truly beautiful.


Live oaks retain their glossy leaves through the winter, and the leafy canopies glowed with reflected light, somewhat resembling a nebula cloud in space.


How I wished someone would cut the cord on that generator so we could enjoy a silent night under the glowing trees…


…or a blue Christmas.


Go see it with your family. It’ll make you feel all warm inside.


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all! See you in 2014!

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.