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10 Ideas to Steal from Desert Gardens

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10 Ideas to Steal from Desert Gardens

April 23, 2018

Desert landscapes look like the backdrops in old cartoons, endless loops showing a lone cactus silhouetted against the sky while Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote tussle in the dusty foreground.

The starkness also can be romantic, a reminder of the endless western horizon. But if you live in the desert, how do you design a garden that feels welcoming instead of prickly and dry?

For advice, we turned to Phoenix-based landscape architect Steve Martino, who grew up in arid, rocky terrain. As a teenage horse wrangler, he developed an affinity for desert landscapes and native plants that has informed his work for four decades.

“One day I found all these old issues of Arizona Highways from the forties, featuring these guest dude ranches, desert resorts,” he says. The pictures were crazy, with plants that were just so dramatic, natives transplanted from the desert. They didn’t have all the stuff you get these days from nurseries from somewhere else. It was like a stage setting. That’s the feeling I try to create.”

Martino has collected 21 of his favorite landscape projects in a new book called Desert Gardens of Steve Martino (Monacelli Press). Here are 10 garden design tips for how to embrace the natural theatricality of the desert, illustrated with photos from the book.

Photography by Steve Gunther, courtesy of The Monacelli Press.

Cactus Curb Appeal

In Paradise Valley, Arizona, a shallow entry garden (which leads to a courtyard) is planted with Dasylirion, Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), and common prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica). Martino planted the Opuntia ‘Santa Rita’ (at left) “when it was just one or two little pads.”
Above: In Paradise Valley, Arizona, a shallow entry garden (which leads to a courtyard) is planted with Dasylirion, Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), and common prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica). Martino planted the Opuntia ‘Santa Rita’ (at left) “when it was just one or two little pads.”

Entry walls or a front garden fence are a natural backdrop for specimen plants, says Martino. To create curb appeal with cactus, plant Choyas. There are 1,200 plants in the family, and you can go for ones that are trees, ground covers, shrubs,” says Martino. “Use them to create shadows. In the photo, you can see how these guys create their own depth and darkness even in the harsh sun.”

Sculptural Rocks

Non-native plants; not Martino’s favorites. But in a Scottsdale garden on a steep hillside, the transplants are happy planted among “the ten million rocks we found on the site, including hundreds of house-size boulders,” he says.
Above: Non-native plants; not Martino’s favorites. But in a Scottsdale garden on a steep hillside, the transplants are happy planted among “the ten million rocks we found on the site, including hundreds of house-size boulders,” he says.

In the Scottsdale garden, Martino simplified hardscape elements, including a terrace and swimming pool (“removing distracting elements such as the boulder-lined, “lagoon-style” pool and its heavy wrought-iron railings”).

During the process, Martino removed an “exotic cactus” entryway garden that felt out of place, “and moved the exotic cactus around the corner in-between some rocks to make a little home for them.” The result is an unmistakably charming vignette beneath a mesquite tree (“The tree is a native, so it’s OK,” says Martino).

Filtered Light

 A privacy wall invites soft, filtered sunlight into a courtyard garden. The clients “used to have a pool twice as big but no privacy and never went out in the garden. Now when they go out, they see this backdrop instead of the neighbors’ house over the alley—so they live in the garden,” says Martino.
Above: A privacy wall invites soft, filtered sunlight into a courtyard garden. The clients “used to have a pool twice as big but no privacy and never went out in the garden. Now when they go out, they see this backdrop instead of the neighbors’ house over the alley—so they live in the garden,” says Martino.

To create the translucent wall, rolls of polycarbonate were stretched across a trellis framework. The wall is softened by the silhouette of a grapevine that grows on top. (See more ways to use polycarbonate panels in Garden Hacks: 10 Ideas Under $100 to Create Instant Privacy.)

“You can use trees and shadows and filtered light to make a garden feel comfortable and cool,” says Martino.

Before you build a privacy wall in a small garden, know your local zoning rules, Martino advises. “Say you’re only allowed to build a six-foot-high privacy wall. But if you build an accessory building—like a shed that’s under 200 square feet—you don’t have to have a building permit. And without a permit, there’s no schedule to finish the shed. Suddenly what you’ve built is the first wall of a shed in progress instead of an illegally high privacy fence.”

Ribbon Driveways

A ribbon driveway of pavers set in dirt is designed to “disrupt the land as little as possible,” says Martino.
Above: A ribbon driveway of pavers set in dirt is designed to “disrupt the land as little as possible,” says Martino.

In a desert climate where rain is scarce and rainwater tends to run off the hard, rocky surface of the earth, a permeable surface is a friendlier alternative to pavement.

Whitewashed Walls

Salvaged native Mexican fence post cacti (Pachycereus marginatus) grow against the serene backdrop of whitewashed walls of a 90-year-old adobe house in Paradise Valley. Native desert plants “mediate” between the historic building and a modern lap pool.
Above: Salvaged native Mexican fence post cacti (Pachycereus marginatus) grow against the serene backdrop of whitewashed walls of a 90-year-old adobe house in Paradise Valley. Native desert plants “mediate” between the historic building and a modern lap pool.

To complement the architecture of the adobe house, Martino designed an “old-fashioned” pool, a shoebox with straight sides and square corners. “We usually do darker swimming pools, which act more like a mirror of the sky, but in this one the tile is white and the color of the water is the reflection of the sky and daylight,” says Martino.

Layered Plantings

“Crushed stone ground cover allows the service driveway to flow into garden paths.” A sleeping porch and tower are original to the design of a 90-year-old adobe house.
Above: “Crushed stone ground cover allows the service driveway to flow into garden paths.” A sleeping porch and tower are original to the design of a 90-year-old adobe house.

“Here we tried to use native, southwestern plants that would have been available 100 years ago to make the garden look authentic to the era when the house was built,” says Martino. “The cactus on right-hand side of the photo was two feet high when we planted it.”

Martino frequently creates a layered look with succulents and cacti rather than trees because “sometimes trees get taller than you want,” he says. “Sometimes you only want a plant to grow up to 15 feet and then stop because there are mountains in the distance above that height.”

Ocotillo Rib Fencing

Fence posts made of ocotillo ribs woven on a loom in four-foot sections by Native Americans in southern Arizona create an enclosure to separate a kitchen patio.
Above: Fence posts made of ocotillo ribs woven on a loom in four-foot sections by Native Americans in southern Arizona create an enclosure to separate a kitchen patio.

“Ocotillo is a really historic material; ranchers and settlers made fences out of it a hundred and fifty years ago,” says Martino. “The old saying was that you could throw one of these out on the road for a few months and then pick it up and plant it and it still would be able to grow. Which is not true. But you can see in this photo that some of the ocotillo plants have leaves on them. They’ve re-sprouted.”

Tropical Colors

 In Paradise Valley, clients who were avid gardeners asked Martino to design places and paths as settings where they could pause and rest in the garden. A pair of Adirondack chairs constructed of recycled plastic add a tropical jolt of color to make the spot feel more like jungle than desert.
Above: In Paradise Valley, clients who were avid gardeners asked Martino to design places and paths as settings where they could pause and rest in the garden. A pair of Adirondack chairs constructed of recycled plastic add a tropical jolt of color to make the spot feel more like jungle than desert.

Adding to the tropical feeling are “leafy plants, lots of them,” says Martino. “You don’t see through this garden. There are succulents, and cactus, as well, and chairs under trees. It doesn’t look arid like the desert; it looks like an oasis.”

Water Fountains

In a Paradise Valley subdivision, a lot previously used as an illegal dump site for construction debris was the last to sell. For its owners, Martino designed connected walled courtyard gardens with native plants and water troughs to create a habitat garden for wildlife.
Above: In a Paradise Valley subdivision, a lot previously used as an illegal dump site for construction debris was the last to sell. For its owners, Martino designed connected walled courtyard gardens with native plants and water troughs to create a habitat garden for wildlife.

The fountain set in a waterfall-blue wall, is visible from the clients’ living room, offering cooling views of running water on even the hottest day.

Striking Specimens

Variegated agaves were first spotted growing elsewhere on the property, where they’d grown from little pups. “We loved them around to frame the blue wall fountain,” says Martino.
Above: Variegated agaves were first spotted growing elsewhere on the property, where they’d grown from little pups. “We loved them around to frame the blue wall fountain,” says Martino.

A diverse plant family, Agaves have sculptural silhouettes. Look for cultivars with striking foliage, Martino recommends. Variegated leaves can be “yellow with green on the edges, green with white edges, or like these with green with yellow edges,” says Martino. “They are quite an interesting family.”

 Published this month, a hardcover copy of Desert Gardens of Steve Martino with text by Caryn Yglesias is \$34.6\1 on Amazon.
Above: Published this month, a hardcover copy of Desert Gardens of Steve Martino with text by Caryn Yglesias is $34.61 on Amazon.
If you’re designing a garden, see our curated guides to Hardscape 101 projects including Fences & Gates, Decks & Patios, Swimming Pools, and Outdoor Showers. For more ideas about how to create layered plantings in a desert garden, see Succulents & Cacti 101 and more of our favorite desert garden projects:

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