No doubt desert garden enthusiasts will recognize the work of Steve Martino, even if they don’t know his name. Colorful walls, desert natives, and gardens that work with the desert, rather then deny it. When he began his practice, there was little to no recognition of the desert as a desirable garden influence. Martino: “We were working on a townhouse project in Phoenix that was next to a remnant desert lot. We were using all the conventional Mediterranean plants for our project. Looking at the plants that were growing naturally on the adjacent property, I asked, ‘Why aren’t we using those plants, they are growing just on the rainfall while our plants are going to need constant watering and supervision to keep them alive.’ The answer was, ‘Those are just weeds.’ This answer was good enough for the profession, the landscape industry, and the public, but for some reason not for me.”
In Desert Gardens of Steve Martino you’re introduced to his work through the words of the book’s author, then a lifelong friend writes a short forward, finally Martino himself takes over in a chapter titled “Weeds and Walls: Epiphanies and Lessons Learned.” After that all-to-brief primer, you turn the page to jaw-droppingly beautiful garden profiles, 21 of them. Each profile features multiple photographs, a site plan, and a thorough description of the garden.
Martino began his studies with the goal of becoming an architect, but the space outside kept calling to him. He became frustrated with costly projects, which solved none of the problems the location presented. After dropping out of architecture school he took on a series of jobs such as draftsmen for a design build firm, site developer, and eventually nursery laborer. Thankfully he eventually struck out on his own and started a landscape business.
“I was starting to take a critical look at Phoenix’s man-made character. It wasn’t anything special and certainly lacked a sense of regional identity. It could have been anywhere: fortunately, it was surrounded by the Sonoran Desert. Phoenix was a giant oasis without any special character. It was a place where hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to make it look like someplace else.”
Although Martino later became a licensed landscape architect, he was not trained to think like one. He never learned to use the “approved” plant palette of Phoenix, instead he continued to search out those desert plants he saw thriving with little human intervention.
Martino’s desire to create privacy for the inhabitants of the gardens he designs plays a significant role in his work. Colorful walls inspired by the work of Luis Barragán have become as much his signature as the plants he has made popular.
Unfortunately, there is no date given for when Martino completed each project profiled in the book, so the reader is left wondering if you’re enjoying a chronological catalogue of his work, or a “best of collection” in an order determined by the author. That’s a short-lived concern however, as you quickly become immersed in the designs and find yourself dreaming about how to incorporate details into your own garden, be it in the desert, a rainforest, or a small urban lot in Portland, Oregon.
Loree Bohl, www.dangergarden.com, Portland, Oregon