Gardening: Phoenix landscaper brings desert to urban yards

PHOENIX — When I moved to Phoenix last summer, I was bewildered by all the bright green grass I saw smack in the middle of the Sonoran Desert — in residential yards, on golf courses, at community parks.

While the temperatures were hitting nearly 120 degrees, these perfect lawns sucked up huge amounts of water delivered by the shussssh-chik-chik-chik of sprinklers before the brutal orange sun rose each summer morning.

But I was drawn to the more natural-looking, drought-tolerant yards, the kind of landscaping I saw in Southern California when water rationing forced homeowners several years ago to trade their lawns for chaparral. Instead of big shade trees, there were saguaro cacti and whip-like ocotillo plants stretching their long branches into the cloudless sky. Crushed red rock took the place of Bermuda grass. Golden barrel cactus replaced rose bushes.

The newly published “Desert Gardens of Steve Martino” (The Monacelli Press, 2018) shows us how a celebrated Phoenix landscape architect uses native flora to create such natural outdoor spaces for his clients.

With a text written by fellow architect Caren Yglesias and photographs by Steve Gunther, we see how Martino creates what Yglesias characterizes as comfortable outdoor rooms. Terracotta pots, concrete benches and cantilevered stairs add character while hidden light fixtures provide nighttime drama.

Playing with geometric shapes, light and shadow, Martino’s work recalls the functionalist influence of the late Mexican architect Luis Barragan. Rectangular slab walls painted in cerulean blue, burnt orange-red, cheery yellow or deep purple provide privacy.

Martino combines desert flora with steel, rocks and those colored walls to create quiet spaces where you can reflect alone or gather with others. Tapered concrete paths lead through grounds covered by crushed rock to outdoor fireplaces or water sources such as fountains or a pipe sticking out of a wall. Splashing water drowns out the roar of a nearby highway, while a wall hides a yard from hikers traversing through an adjacent wildlife area.

Arizona’s state tree, the Blue Palo Verde, and Mexican fence-post cactus stand tall and straight like sentries alongside buildings. But there’s no grass in Martino’s projects.

“Lawn has its place in a public park, but it’s ridiculous to have it at your home,” Martino said, explaining his landscaping philosophy during a recent telephone interview. “Using grass at your home really is a kind of crime. Lawn mowers are not environmentally friendly.”

“And we need to save our water,” the 70-year-old added. “I always like to say, ‘Kill your lawn, save your grandchildren.'”

Martino differentiates his projects from traditional desert landscaping, that old-fashioned mix of cacti, green-painted gravel and rusty wagon wheels that he likes to call “gardens of despair.”

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