East Meets West in This Private Japanese Garden in Andreas Hills, Palm Springs

An expert tour guide of gardens in Japan comes home to Palm Springs and applies his knowledge of the culture and aesthetic.

Leilani Marie Labong Home & Design

The backyard’s waterfall soundscape comes from the hot tub overflowing into the pool. 

If ever a landscape inspired a proverb, the Japanese-style garden at Thomas Ford and Michael Hart’s Andreas Hills home in Palm Springs would be one to invoke the almighty pen. So, here’s our stab at an axiom worthy of the philosophic plot, where East Asia meets the desert of the American West: “Bask in the majesty of mountains and never regret your journey.”

Though this proverb-by-numbers attempt is puttering at best, our well-intentioned quill does capture one of the garden’s main motivations: the Japanese concept of “borrowed scenery,” or shakkei. “We live in one of the only enclaves in Palm Springs with 360-degree views of mountains,” explains Hart, a Minnesota native and former resident of Japan who now leads luxurious custom tours of the country’s landmark gardens, including the one at Kyoto’s Tenryū-ji, a Zen Buddhism temple where shakkei is in full effect. “The sensitivities of Japanese culture and aesthetic resonate with me.”

Just as Tenryū-ji’s garden achieves depth by incorporating views of the surrounding mountains, so too does the residential landscape elegantly adopt the magnificence of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa ranges to amplify its own beauty. The couple’s private oasis — made for tranquil pleasures like meditative lap swimming, sipping sencha inside the modern tea pavilion, or simply listening to the rustling fan palms — is cocooned by the broad-shouldered mounts, which also lend their earthy color palette and craggy texture to the surprisingly verdant tableau of desert plants, curated by Hart and local landscape designer Carlos Flores. “The mountains heighten the experience of being in our garden,” Hart says. 

The front of their Andreas Hills home.

The couple worked with architect Lance O’Donnell, principal of o2 Architecture, to configure the garden as a natural extension of the home. The 1977 John Walling design references a few different styles of modernism but especially exhibits noted Japanophile Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style: emphatically horizontal with flat cantilevered roofs and an intimate relationship to the environment.

“We kept things as open and airy as possible in the renovation,” O’Donnell says. “The architecture is the backdrop for a lot of the creativity happening in the garden.” While they maintained the original footprint of the home, additional glass portals and open-air thresholds cultivate an indoor-outdoor experience that’s simultaneously effortless and revelational, not unlike Japan’s famous “hide and reveal” gardens. “The frustration of trying to capture the beauty of the place is impossible unless you actually experience it. It’s always unfolding and changing,” explains Hart, citing the magical mossy landscape of Saihō-ji, also a temple in Kyoto, as an example. “The same thing happens at our house.”

For instance, the street entrance of the Ford-Hart residence builds anticipation through layered walls, a short flight of steps, and a quick zigzag at the gate before revealing a semi-formal garden of golden-pronged barrel cactus and blue-green agave in the front courtyard. Based on the principles of feng shui, a 50-foot-long rippling reflection pool, presided over by a site-specific sculpture by Stan Bitters and inspired by the twin straits at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, flows abundance into the household. 

Glass frames a portrait of two keystone desert plants, agave and palo verde. The latter’s yellow posies remind the homeowners of Japanese sakura, or cherry blossoms.
A 200-year-old stone pagoda rises among agave, creeping rosemary, and olive trees on the backyard’s north-facing slope. 

Glass front doors open into a corridor with a clear view through the core of the house to the backyard. From inside, stunning garden vignettes constantly manifest and retreat, like the portrait of a blooming palo verde tree and a spiky agave, or the mountaintops that appear through the kitchen’s clerestory windows. In the backyard, a few steps to the left or right can be the difference between seeing a 200-year-old stone pagoda flanked by silvery olive trees or by the breeze-shaken green palms. “The joy of the garden comes from moving through and around the house,” Hart says. 

Such fleeting scenes also align with the ephemerality of nature. The sweet fragrance of orange-scented blossoms, for example, wafts from the hearty pittosporum shrubs for only two weeks during the transition to summer. Hart likens the palo verde’s tiny, five-petaled yellow flowers to Japanese cherry blossoms, or sakura, and even instructs the gardeners to refrain from raking clean the springtime carpet of fallen palo verde posies, which stir his nostalgia. “They remind me of Japanese cherry blossoms,” he says. 

The verdant north slope of the backyard has its natural, water-conserving shade to thank.   

The backyard’s north slope is a boon for water conservation, owing to its natural shading. These conditions cultivate a wild and lush terrain, where frilly leaf canopies and fully outstretched branches of mature fan palms and olive trees (“We’re too old to wait for saplings to grow,” Ford quips) play out in a symbolic depiction of prosperity and happiness, poetically apropos of a garden. 

According to Hart, the trees (including the towering palms beyond the property line, invoking the power of shakkei once again) represent long-limbed cranes, hitching a ride on the shell of a tortoise (the slope), headed toward the fabled Buddhist paradise in — where else? — the West.

Unapologetically horizontal, the architecture evokes Frank Lloyd Wright’s trademark Prairie style. A renovation of the 1977 John Walling–designed property added more glass for picture-perfect framing and wide-open portals for more barefoot living.
Renowned sculptor Stan Bitters created a custom concrete monolith to helm the 50-foot-long reflecting pool in the semi-formal desert garden behind the home’s front gate. 
The modern tea pavilion has a built-in sunroof.