The Stone Eagle Golf Club in Palm Desert.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID PAPAZIAN
A planter, dropped with precision into a landscape, can literally contain one’s excitement — whether for a single, hand-picked tree or an orderly arrangment of cactus and succulents.
Like a modern vase draws the eye to its blooms, a planter showcases its contents, appointing significance to what might otherwise get lost in a rambling garden.
Then there’s the juxtaposition that comes from positioning long swaths of painted steel amid the flora, fauna, and native environment. “Crisp, clean, flat lines are very contradictory to a rugged, rocky landscape,” says Anne Attinger, co-partner with her husband, Jeff, of Attinger Landscape Architecture.
The cost of steel can make the planters a splurge, so she situates them for clients’ maximum pleasure, in a prominent line of sight or a frequently used space. Once installed, they are durable and low-maintenance.
To economize the look, Attinger has created the illusion of a steel planter by placing a thin-gauged steel veneer in front of a block wall. She has also commissioned moveable planters and custom-sized pots in both steel and aluminum that can be pushed into full sun or shade as needed.
“In any variation, they bring a wow factor,” she says. “The tallest steel wall planter I’ve done was 6 feet high. Then we put a row of cactus in front of the black steel, and, wow.” Here, Attinger shares three ways a planter can drop in and stand out.
A BETTER BASE
At Stone Eagle Golf Club, Attinger took a nonconventional approach, relying upon Corten steel to smooth out the rough edges along the back lot line. “The mountain was the focal point of the backyard. But the bottom just sort of falls apart,” she says. “The planter tidies up what you see when you come outside and makes the patio more inviting. It created a cleaner, refined edge at the base of a very natural, rocky feature.”
The planter’s weathered patina and the cactuses inside pick up colors from the rock and the Palo Brea Tree. Its shape mirrors the nearby spa spilling into the pool, and the overall visual composition builds up to the mountain in layers. Custom-cut lengths of steel, fabricated locally and welded on-site, hold cardon cactus and barrel cactus. “I love the cardon, which are a great alternative to a fence post cactus. They can take a little bit more heat. They’re a little hairier and spinier, and they tend to be more blue. I like the contrast with the golden barrels and the Blue Elf Aloe below.” That lower perimeter serves a purpose. “Corten steel will bleed and drip on your tile or concrete,” Attinger warns. “So make sure that it’s away from any hardscape.”
IN THE WATER
The Zenyara estate in Coachella spans 70 luxurious acres. This planter in one of the lakes appears to float like a lily pad on the surface. The mystifying effect leaves one so transfixed that learning the magician’s secret runs the risk of detracting ever-so-slightly from the beauty.
“It’s a concrete planter with a wide concrete cap, installed before the lake was filled with water,” Attinger reveals. “The planter goes down 12 feet. They’re really tall, deep planters.” The designers had considered palm trees, but given their lateral roots, the planters would have proved too confining. “Olive trees can have a very, very shallow and small root system. So, if there were ever a leak in the planters, or the root zone was compromised, the tree could survive. Olive trees are very hardy.” This one is a couple hundred years old, sourced by Jeff, along with Nathan Dunn of Dunn’s Desert Landscape, from a field in Northern California.
When the tree needs care, a gardener reaches the “island” by boat and tends to the tree by stepping carefully around the planter.e.
AGAINST THE STONE
Attinger believes steel planters work best when opposing natural stone. Yet what’s in the box is of equal importance. This large-scale bonsai olive tree (opposite) occupies a steel planter at Bighorn Golf Club. The old-growth specimen is highly manicured to preserve its sculptured presence, set against the stone wall. “It’s an art piece,” says Attinger of the tiered tree, which she coupled with Agave Quadricolors. “They’re a very attractive little agave, and they stay very small. They’re yellow ribbed with a stripe inside their blades, which makes them look lit up. They actually seem to glow.”
Architect Kristi Hanson remodeled the home, updating its older, heavier look with lighter, more modern details. The planter ties into the repainted metal shade awning and breaks up the stone column. As the club prefers to downplay any wall built within the natural landscape, a dark steel can visually recede, Attinger explains, becoming “a very contemporary graphic shadow,” that adds subtle style.