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.

Houston Open Days Tour 2014: 3640 Del Monte Drive Garden


The last stop on my recap of the Garden Conservancy-sponsored Houston Open Days tour on March 29th is a New Orleans-esque mansion in the tony River Oaks neighborhood, at 3640 Del Monte Drive. From the front walk you see a veranda with wisteria dripping from the wrought-iron railing and a narrow foundation bed filled with delphinium, blooming ornamental cabbages, and boxwood. Pleasant enough but with little hint of the extravagant space and beautiful features of the back garden.


Let’s walk through the inviting side gate, propped open by a stone frog…


…pass through a classic Southern shade border…


…past a pair of rearing horses mounted on the wall…


…and into the park-like back garden.


A large lawn spreads out beneath a venerable oak, with terracing and beds of boxwood and crepe myrtle marking the transition between house and garden.


Along one wall of the house gurgles a trough-style water feature with multiple spouts. Orange and gold fish add flashes of color in the basin.


A second frog sculpture perches on the edge of the basin, offering a basking spot for a little lizard.


And now the garden truly begins. A hedge on the left and clustered trees on the right narrow the perspective at the far end of the lawn, focusing the eye on a spectacular, cross-shaped, negative-edge swimming pool.


At the four central corners, potted palms mulched with gray river rock add tropical flair.


A large pool house anchors the right side of the pool.


On the left, a sculpture of a Rubenesque woman lounges in front of a precisely clipped panel of fig ivy on a brick wall. A white wisteria “tree” scents the garden.


And straight ahead, a Victorian fountain in a brick-edged pool is backed by another wall panel of fig ivy.


Turning to the left, let’s stroll through a more naturalistic area, stopping to smell the only Texas mountain laurel I’ve seen in bloom this spring (those in Austin got zapped by a late freeze).


Bold, tropical-style foliage makes a statement here.


And at the very back of the garden, a surprising discovery — a large rhinoceros statue, seemingly escaped from the menagerie at the garden down the street!


Walking around the brick wall that backs the Victorian fountain pictured earlier, you discover a rear parking court and brick-and-steel arbor structure.


Wow, what an entrance! Dramatic ferns spring from a container seemingly balanced on a sculpted-bust plinth. Another panel of fig ivy on the brick wall frames the scene with greenery. Overhead an arched-grid arbor supports a wandering vine.


A closer look


Wrought-iron doors open on either end, leading to the garden and eventually to the house. This entry is like something you’d see at a public botanical garden, and quite impressive. It’s rare to end a garden tour with a back entrance that’s even better than the front, but this one did.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my recap of the tour. For a look back at the jungle safari garden of 3965 Del Monte Drive, click here. Stay tuned for one more nursery visit from the Houston area: The Arbor Gate.

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

Drive-By Gardens: Mansfield House and garden in Houston Heights


I’m squeezing in one more drive-by garden from my Houston trip last week — the grande dame of them all, a circa 1895 Victorian known as the Mansfield House, located at 1802 Harvard Street in the Heights neighborhood. Although I’m not usually a fan of all-white houses, what a beauty! Its colorful, flowery garden, with a few tropical touches like the palm tree and sago palm, perfectly complements its monotone grandeur.


A pair of potted, variegated agaves marks the entrance to the front walk, with Chinese ground orchid (Bletilla striata) in full bloom below.


On this chilly morning, raindrops from the previous night’s shower still clung to the irises.


In another month the garden will, I think, be abloom with daylilies.

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