Prizing native plants
It seems like common sense now: Plants native to a particular habitat will thrive in gardens that mimic those same wild conditions.
But when Phoenix landscape architect Steve Martino started out, back in the ’70s, thirsty lawns, flowers, and orange trees
dominated desert gardens. To Martino, trying to make such alien plants look good in the desert sun, with only 6 inches of
annual rainfall, was like nursing “terminally ill patients on life support,” he says.
Martino first became captivated with the untamed desert as a teenager, when he led horseback rides outside a ranch for at-risk boys. The gnarly opuntias, towering saguaros, and sprays of delicate wildflowers he and his little band trotted through were all growing strong in the harsh sun and attracting the predators and pollinators that fed on them. “Desert plants are iconic,” he says. And like native plants everywhere, they “represent the state of the art of evolution of a place.”
Martino started his career as a laborer for Ron Gass, founder of Mountain States Wholesale Nursery, who would scour the Sonoran Desert collecting seed. “He was the first person who could identify the native plants I brought him,” says Martino. In his designs, he ultimately began using the plants that Gass grew.
Today, the first thing to catch your eye in a Steve Martino project might be a vivid orange wall framing a mountain view, or a concrete water channel that recalls a canyon. But these hardscape elements are mostly backdrops for the native plants that anchor his designs. “It’s a regenerative system, not just a garden,” he says. That wouldn’t seem so obvious if not for him.