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 tree (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.

Drive-By Gardens: Aloes abloom in modern dry garden of Karen Lantz


‘Blue Elf’ aloes, purple prickly pear, gold sedum, and smooth sotol and silver ponyfoot in the steel ring, with an Opuntia “tree” behind

I’m hearing from many of you how much you enjoy my Drive-By Gardens posts, and so I’m pleased to offer a third this week. (Click here for the first and second.)

My friend Diana gets credit for spotting this one. We were in Houston for the Open Days tour last Saturday and had just left an austere, nearly plantless garden — and were feeling a bit let down — when this swath of ‘Blue Elf’ aloes in bloom came into view on Banks Street. “Stop the car!” she said, and we leaped out with cameras in hand and began maniacally shooting the scene. We really are garden nuts.


A wider view shows a modern home with a surprising dry garden out front (surprising for Old-South, azaleas-and-boxwood Houston) and a courtyard garden behind a tall steel-and-chain-link fence partially screened with privacy slats. Silver ponyfoot and sedums create a shimmering, groundcovering carpet atop the rock mulch.


Steel pipe remnants hold a ‘Blue Flame’ agave and succulents. Be still, my heart!


As we were exclaiming over the aloes and marveling over this Austinesque garden in Houston, a man on a bike cruised into the driveway, and I called out that we weren’t stalkers but were just admiring his garden.


A moment later, a woman popped her head up over the steel half-wall of a rooftop patio (visible at top left) and called out, “Would you like to see the rest of the garden?”

Would we ever!

It turns out this is the garden of architect Karen Lantz. She designed and built the house, and her quest to use only American-made materials in its construction was featured in the New York Times in October 2012. (More information about her home can be found on the website of her firm, Lantz Full Circle.)


Karen also designed the garden and chose plants for the front yard that she’d never have to water. Out came the lawn and in went, after berming a layer of sandy soil over the Houston clay, aloes, prickly pear, agaves, sotols, cape rush, sedum, and silver ponyfoot. She found this Opuntia “tree” at Cactus King, which she suggested we visit. (Sadly, we ran out of time and didn’t make it. Next time!)


Inside the fence, Karen grows edibles in steel-edged raised beds (viewed here from the rooftop patio). This is where she’s willing to water. Open fencing panels at the corner and near the entrance keep it neighbor-friendly and admit breezes and light.


A current pool tucked right up against the house’s expansive windows is both a place to exercise and stay cool in summer as well as a sparkling water feature to enjoy from the living room.


Trained up mesh fence panels is a plant I mistook for a euphorbia. Karen told us that it’s a dragon fruit cactus, or pitaya, which is native not to the U.S. Southwest but the jungles of South America. It likes good drainage but, unlike most cacti, enjoys extra water and fertile soil. It fruits prolifically, she said.


A view of the courtyard garden from inside the house


Karen worked hard to make her house as sustainable as possible. Aside from solar-panel roofing over the rooftop patio (like the ones at Austin City Hall, she noted), deep overhangs to shade the interior, and a lawnless, low-water garden, Karen installed an underground, 1400-gallon water-storage tank. Water feeds into the tank from gutters on the home, and a pump allows them to use the water as needed. Karen said during construction people couldn’t understand her desire to collect rainwater in flood-prone Houston, where rainfall averages nearly 50 inches a year. She felt justified when the Texas drought intensified in 2011, affecting even Houston.


In back a covered porch offers contemporary-style seating and dining areas. Prancing Labradoodle Willy Wonka, possibly the cutest dog ever after Cosmo, kept us entertained throughout the tour.


The back garden is small and Zen, with a bamboo screen and gravel flooring. Karen bought this clumping bamboo (I forget what kind) from Utility Research Garden in Austin.


My sincere thanks to Karen for generously sharing her home and garden with us. I always learn so much from visiting other gardens, and this one was especially interesting in contrast with the traditional, estate-style gardens that we were seeing on tour that day (I’ll be posting on those soon).


I hope you enjoyed this Drive-By that turned into a “come on in!” For my traveling companion’s perspective on this garden, visit Sharing Nature’s Garden.

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

Drive-By Gardens: No-lawn flower garden at Houston Heights bungalow


We’d cruised down Peddie Street in the Houston Heights neighborhood to find the riotously colorful house and garden that locals had urged us to see. But Peddie offers a two-for-one special, and when we spotted this pretty garden across the street from the first one, we got twice as much eye candy.


The khaki-colored bungalow is more restrained than the red cottage across the street, and its garden is more disciplined. And yet it’s still wildly colorful, with hotter hues by the street and cooler colors near the house. Since hot colors attract the eye and cool colors recede into the distance, the effect is to make the front walk look longer than it really is.


A little internet sleuthing reveals that the owner is a garden designer, David Morello of David Morello Garden Enterprises. I like the structure he’s created with low boxwood hedges at the front porch…


…and on each side of the front walk near the street — evergreen “bones” that support the garden through less-flowery seasons.


The public sidewalk setback is vast on this street, basically dividing the front yards in half. Between the street and the sidewalk, the owner widened his flagstone walk with a circle about 8 feet in diameter, creating a welcoming landing that attracts the eye and helps avoid a bowling-alley effect.

On Google Earth, the picture of this house shows a very different yard: no garden, just overgrown trees and lawn between the street and sidewalk, and a tall hedge along the public walk hiding the house and immediate front yard from view. Clearly this is a relatively new garden. The owner opened up the yard by taking out the streetside trees and the hedge and gave it a friendly welcome with the new stone walk. He planted low hedges for structure and plenty of flowers for traffic-stopping color…


…and he laid a small, rectangular patio under a magnolia, providing a place to sit and enjoy the garden. Texas Black gravel paves the arrow-straight pathways through the garden. Strong lines give order to the profusion of flowering plants.


I love that the owner planted Texas wildflowers like these bluebonnets amid his cottage favorites.


Springtime in Texas


I also admired the way the gravel path flows right into the gravel driveway, for a cohesive look. Stone edging helps keep gravel out of the beds.


The cocoa-colored garage blends into the background, allowing the evergreen plants along the driveway to be the stars. Enormous sago palms and variegated pittosporum are low maintenance and green up the space.


I really enjoyed this garden and also the dynamic between the two Peddie Street gardens — both exuberantly flowery, but executed in very different styles. What nice views they’ve created for each other!

For a look back at the colorful cottage garden at 605 Peddie, just across the street from this one, click here.

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