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 an azure 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 washes 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.
Throughout the garden, an assortment of architectural and Dr. Seussian plants bring this garden to life while requiring very little water, like agave and purple prickly pear…
…Agave americana ‘Variegata’…
…and green-limbed palo verde. The eye-catching green branches are able to photosynthesize when the tree drops its leaves to conserve water during times of drought.
Approaching via a driveway that winds through one side of the garden, visitors have time to shrug off the outside world before they even step out of the car.
A red wall paired with silver-blue agaves offers a dramatic welcome in the gravel parking court.
Inside a walled courtyard, a modern oasis beckons. The straight lines of a trough-like raised pool lead the eye from the house to a vista of rugged mountains.
Linking the house to the pool…
…a substantial arbor provides shade, which is essential to desert gardens.
Naturalistic but densely planted, the garden is as horticulturally varied as a wash, or wet-weather creek. In the desert, Steve explained, the wash is where the action is, where you find the greatest diversity of plants.
Variegated agaves writhe like octopi, adding strong form and a feeling of movement.
Yucca rostrata introduces more shadow play against the sand-colored wall of the contemporary-style house.
Neutral-colored garden walls make a strong yet simple backdrop for furnishings and accessories.
From inside the home you see another courtyard, with a second water feature that’s aligned on an axis with the trough in the entry courtyard, both of which are visible through the home’s floor-to-ceiling windows. From indoors, the narrow bands of water appear to run in a direct line through the house. This illusion makes the surrounding garden 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, shaded by a flowering palo verde on one side and guarded by soldier-straight Mexican fence post cactus on the other.
Vertical white lines on the fence post cactus bring to mind pinstriping on a smart suit.
Where the trough meets the garden wall, a gap reveals a recessed cobalt wall, from which a simple pipe spills a steady stream of water. Nowhere is the sound of water more welcome than the desert.
Blue wall, yellow blossoms
Steve was working the scene too, taking as many photos as I did. He is serious about his photography.
On the other side of the courtyard, cactus and succulents cluster near the windows, leaving the center open for entertaining on cool desert nights.
The gravel floor blends with the sand-colored walls of the house, making the space feel even larger.
Nearly hidden, a narrow gate opens onto a walled, raised-bed vegetable garden.
Nearby, ocotillo shadows dance on a yellow wall.
My thanks to Steve and the homeowners for letting me photograph this stunning garden. Stay tuned for another Martino-designed garden that I toured.
But first, 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 back 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.