Desert retreat in Steve Martino-designed Quartz Mountain Garden


The second garden I visited with Phoenix landscape architect Steve Martino was familiar to me from a magazine or garden book I’d read. Peer recognition, including an ASLA design award in 2006, has also been bestowed on Steve’s design for this Paradise Valley, Arizona, home. It’s a high-end design, but it offers plenty of inspiration for any gardener.


Let’s start with sculptural native plants — ocotillo and prickly pear — against a fiery red wall. Color and form — simple but effective.


Steve worked with the homeowners to open their house to the outdoors, bringing in light and views but shielding the interior from harsh desert sunlight through the use of shade structures, arbors, and screening. This is the outer edge of a wall that helps enclose a dining terrace. A shelf fountain set into the wall masks road noise and adds the cooling sight of water to the dry garden.


Canary-yellow palo verde trees in full bloom over the red wall


A wider view reveals the pleasing visual heft of the patio roof, which surprisingly “floats” above the back wall, letting air and light pass through. A cut-out window in the wall frames a view of…


…columnar cactus. I love how the woven texture of the chairs repeats the ribbed texture of the cactus.


And, oh, that window! From the other side of the wall, along the driveway, it frames a mountain vista.


The covered dining terrace steps down to a large gravel patio casually furnished with Adirondacks…


…and an umbrella for shade.


But the fireplace wall and chairs clustered around it suggest that this space is mainly used in the evening, when the dry desert air can get chilly and a fire provides a cozy focal point.


The gravel patio gives way to a play lawn for the children. Reducing the lawn to the size needed for play is a good way to save water in a dry climate. And when the kids grow up, the lawn can be replaced by low-water plants or a larger patio.


Opuntia in flower


Panels of shade screening are covered by what I first thought was crossvine or some other orange-flowering vine. But a closer inspection revealed that it’s lantana — lantana climbing up to the roof! I asked Steve how he’d done it; I’ve never known lantana to climb like this. He said he didn’t know — it had just done it. I love garden surprises like this.


Looking across the play lawn toward the mountain view. This view was obscured by non-native trees before Steve transformed the garden. A taupe wall at the end of the play lawn…


…forms the back of a huge, L-shaped, blue-cushioned banquette banco near the swimming pool. A gas fire pit is set into the patio for evening warmth. But the stunner is of course that mountain view.


I’ve never been a fan of bougainvillea, which seems to shout with its insistent, lipstick-bright color. But, as with many tropical plants, it works well alongside a pool. Still, if it was mine (hey, I can fantasize!), I’d plant upright aloes or ‘Sticks on Fire’ euphorbia here.


A side view shows a negative-edge water feature just beyond the banquette banco.


The banco patio leads to a swimming pool framed by a cobalt-blue wall. A convex steel plate supports another shelf fountain, which spills into the pool. Aloes elevated on pedestals send up yellow bloom spikes.


The blue-tinged aloes echo the blue of the wall.


Patio dining. Blue cushions in the chairs continue the color theme of the pool garden.


Aloe vera blooming against the taupe wall of the house


This place is made for entertaining. Another seating area extends behind the pool, with cushy chairs overlooking a sport court below. Yellow-flowering palo verde colors the background.


Steps lead down to a sunken garden, a private space with a single banquette banco and geometric paving set in a small, emerald lawn. Another fire pit is ready for cool evenings. Sculpture and a sheltering palo verde tree add to the contemplative, restful atmosphere of this garden room.


The owner has placed a number of sculptural pieces throughout the garden, including this ballerina perched on a steel wall. She seems to be walking a balance beam.


On the other side of the house, the afternoon light illuminated this scene: palo verde, aloes, agave, and desert shrubs backed by a purple wall and a series of vertical steel plates that screen a side patio from view of the parking area.


A closer look


The side patio is humbler than the contemporary, newer spaces on the other side of the house. I like that the owners didn’t feel they had to tear out all the older parts of their home when they remodeled. Instead this cozy courtyard patio provides a garden entry to the home from the driveway.


I love this steel-pipe “picket fence.”


Aloe in bloom


Cool garden art


Another shelf fountain, set in a purple wall, is the focal point of the courtyard. Unfortunately it was not working during my visit.


In the adjacent parking area, a narrow planting bed is squeezed into the wall along the driveway, elevating a row of white-spined cactus that incandesce in the afternoon light.


Out by the street, a wall fountain splashing into a steel-edged rectangular pool announces the garden entry.


Shadows animate a translucent mesh panel at the end of the wall.


Along one side of the driveway, a low, red, serpentine wall wriggles toward the gate, with agaves and prickly pear providing a green counterpoint to that line of rich color.


The palo verdes were doing their best to outshine everything else on this early April visit.

My thanks to Steve and the homeowners for sharing this beautiful garden with me. For a look at the 1st garden I visited with Steve, click here.

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

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.

Fixing a floppy Will Fleming yaupon for Foliage Follow-Up


‘Will Fleming’ yaupon (Ilex vomitoria ‘Will Fleming’), a fastigiate cultivar of our native yaupon holly, is one of my go-to vertical accent plants. It’s a green punctuation mark, ideal for adding height to a flat bed or using in multiples as a narrow hedge to screen an ugly view. In sun or shade it’ll grow to 10 or 15 feet (I like to give mine flat-top haircuts at about 6 feet tall) but only 1 to 2 feet wide. Sometimes, however, the outer branches go a bit floppy, ruining the vertical shape.


Like this — not the look I was going for.


You might think this calls for the pruners. Stop! Put the pruners down and grab a pair of scissors and a spool of fishing line instead. Tie one end of a length of fishing line loosely around a branch, leaving room for the branch to grow. Loosely wrap the fishing line in a spiral around the body of the tree, thereby creating a neat column again. Tie it off, taking care not to tie or wrap any part of the line tightly. You don’t want to strangle your tree. A gentle touch is all that’s needed.


And voila! A columnar ‘Will Fleming’ is restored.


One more time — floppy!


And fixed!

‘Will Fleming’ yaupon is my Foliage Follow-Up featured plant this month. Please join me in posting about your lovely leaves of April for Foliage Follow-Up, a way to remind ourselves of the importance of foliage in the garden on the day after Bloom Day. Leave your link to your Foliage Follow-Up post in a comment. I really appreciate it if you’ll also include a link to this post in your own post (sharing link love!). If you can’t post so soon after Bloom Day, no worries. Just leave your link when you get to it.

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