The Constant Gardener

Landscape architect Steve Martino evolves a Paradise Valley desertscape.

A wooden table and metal chairs create an outdoor dining spot surrounded by mature mesquite trees overlooking the wash.  

The living room’s courtyard, the site of many outdoor parties, is cooled by a subtle fountain.  

A new linear fireplace wall provides a focal point for an area of the garden that was once a small patch of lawn.  

In 1999, Steve Martino designed a subtle, desertcentric landscape for a newly built modern home in Paradise Valley, including patio areas, fountains and plantings dense with mesquites, ironwoods and palo verdes. Nearly two decades later, the landscape architect is still working on the 1 ½-acre site, adding and subtracting plantings and building new elements as the homeowners’ lives (and the garden itself) have evolved.

“These are some of the longest-term ongoing clients I have,” says Martino of the owners, a couple with grown children. “When you have a good relationship like this, the landscape always looks good and updated.”

This constant gardening has garnered the landscape many design awards, and it’s also on the cover and featured in a new book about 21 of Martino’s landscapes, Desert Gardens of Steve Martino by Caren Yglesias ($50, The Monacelli Press), published this month.

The seeds of the Paradise Valley landscape date back to the late 1990s, when the owners bought a barren, flat lot on a corner, envisioning an indoor-outdoor, contemporary home. Inspired by the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragán, the couple found Martino through his work at the Desert Botanical Garden. Martino, a pioneer in native landscape design and the only Arizona landscape architect to receive the prestigious American Society of Landscape Architects’ ASLA Design Medal, was intrigued by the site, despite the fact that it had been scraped to bare dirt as part of a never-built subdivision. “It had a major wash running through the north side of the property,” Martino explains, “and great views of Piestewa Peak. Those are great features.”

Working on the project from the home’s blueprint stage, Martino was inspired by the owners’ desire to have a natural desert experience. He de-emphasized hardscape and focused instead on revegetating the site and wash, planting more than 90 native trees, adding Sonoran shrubs that would re-seed themselves and using a native plant seed mix on areas disturbed by construction.

He created a long gravel drive to the front of the house that winds through desert trees and ends in a generous auto court, an experience that takes visitors out of the surrounding suburban setting and into nature. A large, pivoting metal gate leads to the main courtyard, where a ramada shelters the outdoor dining area and a knee-high, negative-edge water trough leads the eye to the wash and Piestewa Peak. On the opposite side, Martino designed a walled-in courtyard off the living room, with a linear fountain and shaded by palo verde trees. “I didn’t use much concrete for the patios,” he explains. “Most of the surfacing is decomposed granite and natural desert flooring.”

As the parents of adult children, the owners didn’t want a pool, but they did request a small patch of lawn for their then-young grandchildren, as well as a small vegetable and rose garden.

The landscape never had a “completion” date, as such. Martino returned often to add more plantings and pull others that were overgrown or blocking views. Most recently, he removed the small lawn area because the grandchildren had grown and replaced it with another sitting area, bordered by a raised bed filled with cactus and agaves. He connected the spot to the existing, natural wash with a rock-filled “faux” wash and added a visual terminus with a rust-hued wall, sparked by a linear fireplace. The new fireplace wall also screens a recently built neighboring house. Martino also removed the living room courtyard’s linear water feature, opting instead for a sheet of water cascading from a teal-colored wall. “It gives the owners more space for entertaining out here,” he explains. “They can set up tables and bars for the parties and fundraisers they host.”

The landscape will continue to evolve and change. But in the meantime, the owners revel in the now-mature setting, often dining outdoors and enjoying the warmth of the new fireplace. The plantings have attracted birds and other wildlife back to the site, and, if the rains are right, wildflowers dot the property.
“We didn’t make apologies for the desert,” says Martino of the project. “We celebrate it here.”


Single-family home
Paradise Valley
Steve Martino, FASLA
Joe David, Jobuilt Construction

Round outdoor dining table

Landscape lighting

Plant material

Metal gates and ramada

Irrigation system