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?
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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.”
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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
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.”
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”).
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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).
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.”
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