2009 Green Awards: Steve Martino, Cactus City Design

2009 Green Awards: Steve Martino, Cactus City Design

January 20, 2010

Landscape architect Steve Martino, Principal of Cactus City Design in Phoenix, Arizona, knows how to put the "play" in "fair play." In this Paradise Valley garden — water-wise, filled to overflowing with indigenous plants, and a happy habitat for everything that crawls, flies or slithers in the desert — sustainability was never so much fun.

Amidst the eco-tech rainwater-harvesting systems, drip- irrigation and porous paving like decomposed granite, there are towering concrete panels painted in ode-to-desert-flower shades of pale lavender, yellow, burnt red and muted green. Adapted plants and natives flank a pergola roofed with industrial metal sheeting and a wall of woven aluminum flashing straight from the big box store. And a fire pit that shoots flames 4 feet into the air is ringed in rebar. This garden might "step lightly" and all that, but it also packs one big punch.

"My clients wanted a desert house, so I gave them a garden that celebrates rather than denies the desert," says Martino. "In an area where perfectly fine existing homes are torn down and replaced with large new homes, these owners chose to 'recycle' and remodel their existing house."

Beginning about 10 years ago, his first tasks were to rip out the improbable yet ubiquitous water-sucking lawn and remove a stand of invasive tamarisk trees that blocked the unrivaled views of famed Camelback Mountain in the distance - both installed despite the fact that the fragile Sonoran Desert actually supports a rich variety of unique plant life.

As the house was expanded during a span of four phases, the landscape was adapted to aid in the cooling of the interiors with strategically placed specimens adding much-needed shade. To further tie the 1960s contemporary house to the landscape, a row of desert trees was salvaged and located between the house and the street, transforming the building from being simply an object to a place.

Even though he chose rare plants like Bursera shrubs and a boojum tree for a special Baja-inspired garden requested by the owner, Martino uses the tried and true whenever possible. "I like to take common plants and glorify them," he says of the mesquites, palo verde trees, agaves and prickly-pear cactuses that fill the garden.  

Using inexpensive, readily available industrial materials like aluminum flashing, rebar and corrugated B-decking (galvanized steel panels used for industrial roofing), a pergola and fences go from useful to intriguing features. And tilting walls, setting elements at angles, aligning features and borrowing scenery from the local topography add compelling interest without requiring the use of precious resources.

The results of all this attention to detail is a landscape that has integrity and where no opportunity was missed to minimize the ecological footprint, but also a delightful place to play. "This project illustrates that design can be artful as well as healing and nurturing to the environment."