landscape architecture palm springs

A Play in Three Acts

Landscape architects design to please the senses, connect with people, and complement the architecture.

James Munn Current PSL, Home & Design, Real Estate

landscape architecture palm springs

An important part of the design is where the eye lands and is guided, says architect Lance O’Donnell.

Outside, the desert dweller had a choice: He could keep the natural environment at bay with lush lawns lavishly watered, or he could accommodate his home to its habitat, accepting the sand as lawn, the boulders and cactuses as shrubbery. Sinatra chose the latter, enhancing his terrain with specimen cactuses, saguaro, ocotillo, cholla, and prickly pear, as well as grapefruit, lemon, and lime trees.

David McClintick, “AD Revisits Frank Sinatra’s Palm Springs Compound,” Architectural Digest, December 1998


It would rank as one of Frank Sinatra’s finest decisions, right up there with crusading to be cast in From Here to Eternity (1953) and recording “Strangers in the Night” at the height of the Beatles craze. His choice of personal surroundings was similar to those that have echoed throughout the Coachella Valley and spanned its modern history: residential landscapes that honor the abundance and variety of desert plant life.

There is something tastefully rugged and brutally elegant about desert landscaping done right. Landscape architects who know what they are doing intuitively understand the vital connections that exist between a home, its immediate surroundings, and its inhabitants.

Landscape architecture works on several levels. It’s not merely about plants; there are driveways, walkways, pools, fire pits, water features, barbecues, walls, and gates to consider.

Successful landscaping, along with architecture and interior design, becomes part of a mighty whole that makes a statement about a certain style of living on a particular plot of land. And it is a living, breathing animal that requires constant nurturing after the installers pack up their trucks and head down the road

Palm Springs Life asked seven architects and landscape architects working in the Coachella Valley about plant life and the power it has to elevate a living space.

Architect Sean Lockyer says landscape design should encourage people to “engage and interact with the whole site.”

Native plantings are the most popular choice among designers and clients, though the term “native” can be subjective. “Native to what?” asks landscape architect Steve Gierke. “Native to the Coachella Valley, native to Southern California, native to the American Southwest? To me, native is what you see when you’re driving in on [Interstate] 10, on either side of the highway. That’s native, and I would love to live in that landscape. But I can understand why, to the typical residential gardener or homeowner, that look might not appeal to them.”

Early efforts relied on that old standby, a sea of grass, to create desert oases once enjoyed at historic, late-lamented resorts like The Desert Inn and El Mirador Hotel. Residential landscaping, meanwhile, was of two minds. “Typically, the front of the houses [was] desert,” says architectural historian Steve Keylon. “They were pretty much natural, not so much trying to create a design landscape you would see today with 15-barrel cactus in a grid. In the back was the oasis — a panel of turf, some citrus, a shade tree, maybe some hibiscus or other flowering color.”

For a while, mainly after World War II, grass lawns were all the rage, with an ample water table to support them. As the Coachella Valley grew, the population began to stress the water supply coming from the Colorado River and snowmelt that replenished aquifers. It wouldn’t be until the 1970s and ’80s, aided by a few California droughts, that conservation efforts gradually started to take hold.

A fully realized landscape must do a number of things at once: please the senses, connect with people, and communicate with the architecture. An important part of the design is where the eye lands and is guided. “What do you want people to see at different moments?” asks architect Lance O’Donnell of o2 Architecture. “It involves color. It involves contrast, so that the landscape has a richness to it. And then it involves massing — tall elements, short elements, and how these elements relate to one another.”

During Modernism Week last February, landscape architect James Burnett spoke about his firm’s acclaimed 2012 renovation at Sunnylands, noting that, “In landscape design, elements have been choreographed for you. You feel like the sun has been managed, views are orchestrated, there may be the sound of water … sight, smell, colors, the sounds of trees in the wind. You’re in a garden that feels that it’s set up and designed for you.”

Ron Radziner, of the Los Angeles–based design-build practice Marmol Radziner, refers to his firm’s approach as “enhanced nature.” “It’s similar to what would be there if this was just native desert floor,” he says, “but a touch more intense, with a little bit of water given to it. It’s bringing it up to a level where it’s friendlier for people living in the home — and a touch more beautiful.

Local architect Sean Lockyer of Studio AR&D stresses the value of people connecting to the outdoor spaces as much as they do the indoor ones. “We create these little nodes of activity throughout,” he says. “We want people to engage and interact with the whole site, so a lot of times there’s a fire or water feature or a place for relaxation, such as a pool or spa.”

Native plantings populate this Sean Lockyer design in Palm Springs’ Desert Palisades community.

The catalysts for all of this are, of course, the clients — their wants and needs, filtered through the talents of the architects and designers they hire. “In our initial conversations with the client, we’re interviewing each other and making sure the partnership and the design development is the right fit,” says landscape architect Julie deLeon of Groundwork Design. “I’m looking at architectural plans, the position of the home on the property, how the sun moves across it, where quick evaporation is, where water might hold, how that affects plant material.”

“A lot of people who come here either want Hawaii or they want East Coast or Los Angeles,” says local landscape architect Anne Attinger of Attinger Landscape Architecture. “I hate saying no. Everything is possible, and maybe I can rephrase what they want into its essence and I can give it to them in a different way. You want them to feel like they get what they want. I like the challenge of somebody saying, ‘Can I get this here?’ ”

Before landscape architect Ryan Steer began work in the Palm Springs area, he thought the biggest challenge would be finding enough specimens. “My eyes were completely opened by the vast range of plant material available and the unique landscapes that you can create with that,” says Steer, who works for the Los Angeles–based firm Hoerr Schaudt. “It’s such a different effect than anywhere else in the world.”

Tall and short plantings of varying color create distinctive moments.

Not surprisingly, the top concern for desert plantings are water, wind, and heat. “We do all drip irrigation,” Attinger says. “I don’t do any spray irrigation unless it’s lawn. And then there’s time-clock management. That’s your other biggest concern — understanding that, in the winter, you don’t need to water if it’s rained. In the summer, you need to make sure you know where to put the limiters around the plants to make sure the plant is getting it and you’re not watering for new weeds to come up.”

Radziner cites wind as a top concern: “The high-wind areas are Desert Hot Springs and the northern edge of Palm Springs, and those winds make it tricky to plant something that’s going to get too tall. Tree limbs are going to break.” Attinger adds, “Wind is a huge factor for each design, especially when it comes to the placement of bougainvillea in relation to where the pool is located.”

Then there’s that old devil sun, a sometimes-brutal master that seems eager to let plants know if they are not wanted in the desert. (The queen palm, an elegant plant better suited for the humidity of Florida, comes instantly to mind.) Even hardy plants like sago palms, which can live for decades in blistering daylight, need to be shade-clothed to survive their first few summers.


Landscape design also considers driveways, walkways, pools, fire pits, and water features.

And orientation is everything. “What we find is plants that might thrive on the north side in the shade may struggle on the west or southern sides of the home,” O’Donnell says. “Particularly on the west, because of the time of day when the temperatures are highest. Any moisture that’s been in the soil has been heating up and drying out, so it’s tough on the root systems.”

When it comes to plant selection, there are those native to the valley, non-native plants that adapt well to our climate, and plants that have no business being here whatsoever.

Along with the aforementioned queen palm, Pennisetum, also known as fountain grass, is one to avoid for invasive reasons. “It’s all over the place in California now — you shouldn’t be planting that in Palm Springs,” Gierke says. “You see a lot of it in people’s gardens, and you see a lot of it has escaped into the natural areas. There are other grasses, like Muhlandbergia, that are not invasive and provide a similar effect.” On the other hand, if you have allergies, avoid the beautiful African sumac tree, as it is a major producer of pollen that takes months to dissipate.


Ocotillos punctuate the landscape at the Richard Neutra-designed Kaufmann house, restored by Marmol Radziner.

From time immemorial, the Coachella Valley has been home to fan palms, desert willows, sycamores, mesquites, ironwoods, alders, and cottonwoods. Add to that designer favorites such as aloes, agaves, euphorbia, Opuntia, beaked yuccas, and Cereus (Mexican fencepost cactus). “We tend to use yucca plants a lot,” Lockyer says. “We find them to be some of the more handsome plants. Certain trees, like Mexican olive trees, we like for their character and kind of old-world charm and appeal in contrast with some of the starker lines of what we do in the architecture.”

Olive trees are a Gierke favorite as well. “They’re so sculptural,” he says. “They add age to a property, and while that’s a Mediterranean plant, there have been so many planted in the Coachella Valley over the years because they were adaptable. It’s just of the place to me.”

Other popular trees include the palo verde, with its yellow blossoms each spring that, as Gierke notes, “gives you a note of season.” And there are the much-coveted smoke trees, a bonus to those who purchase an empty lot where smoke trees live, as they are notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to transplant and are very rarely for sale.

“What excites me about working in the desert is the opportunity to play with and mix plants with contrasting or complementing forms and textures,” Gierke says. “The desert plant palette is unique in that so many of the plants have bold graphic shapes to them — the round golden barrel cactus, the strong spikes of an agave, some of the softer grasses that you could mix with those. My palette would be a play of strong shapes — agaves, vertical cactus, something soft, and definitely yucca.”

Architect Sean Lockyer says landscape design should encourage people to “engage and interact with the whole site.”

“I enjoy designing by contrast and texture or shape,” deLeon says. “The blade of the Lomandra grass next to the pointed, defined leaf of an agave — those two things complement each other. The agave can be blue-green; the Lomandra grass is chartreuse-green. Those really subtle contrasts highlight and complement one another.”

Landscape architecture can be seen as a play in three acts: design, installation, and maintenance. Ideally, the design and installation acts occur with the architect and others on the design team in close proximity. For the landscaper, the maintenance act occurs after the architect and interior designer complete their work and can last for years on end.

“We’ll go back every three or six months and take notes for their gardener to address regarding trimming or watering,” Radziner says. “Maybe there are a few places where some plants didn’t do so well and need to be replaced, while other areas are thriving and growing so quickly that there needs to be more trimming. Often with the gardeners, we’re trying to keep them from making everything look like little bushes and hedges.”


Steer adds, “There’s always something to adjust as the space ages. Clients’ needs change, kids grow up, etc. So, when we say we finished a project 15 years ago, there’s work still to do. It’s always a moving target, design-wise.”

Deserts, by definition, receive fewer than 10 inches of rain annually, and the outsider may be forgiven for thinking that its citizenry live in sometimes harsh, unforgiving circumstances, even if our desert is a glamorous destination for the recreational set. But, as most residents understand, it teems with an array of life that punctuates each season in its own way and a plant selection that smart designers showcase for homeowners of taste and style.

“A different habitat is being engaged at different times,” O’Donnell explains. “Those are the subtleties that, if you stop, and you listen, and you slow down a little bit, you do see an abundance of life in the desert that most people just driving through would have missed.”