Desert Landscapes on the Modernism Week Garden Tour


Plantscapers‘ technicians Amy and Amber along with design consultant Robert and corporate’s marketing gal Gina (that’s me) gathered together last month to take a Modernism Week’s Garden Tour, and at times a trip back to the 50’s and 60’s when the allure of Palm Springs captured the Hollywood crowd.

Modernism Week Garden Tour desert landscapes in Palm Springs.
Amy, Robert, Amber and Gina discover Modernism Week Garden Tour in Palm Springs.

Our Palm Desert dream team was on a mission to discover the secrets of desert landscapes where exterior landscape designers used their talent to plant the look and feel of desert splendor at various homes. The owners of these homes had graciously opened up their gardens for the tour and immediately showed each of us the incredible designer talent that hides out under the desert sun. These well-known designers used elements for low water requirements and placements of plants, cactus, succulents, boulders, rock dressings, fire pits and pools that turned desert space into garden oases where everyone oouu’d and ahhh’d the beautiful landscapes (and homes!)

A self-guided tour saved us from riding the big red double-decker buses that made up many of Modernism Week’s tours. So with map in hand and Jack leading the way, the four of us set out into the Palm Springs mid-century modern wilderness.

(A brief explanation of Jack. He was the bobbing antennae landmark that allowed the second car driver, me, to partake in highly concentrated girl talk while driving without losing track of Robert’s moving vehicle several cars ahead of us.)

Planters with cactus and tikki head enchant a Palm Springs home's desert backyard.
Tikki head hidden in a cactus desert garden.

Garden One at 1197 Abrigo Road took us back to a 1960’s rat-pack style home designed by architect Hal Levitt (for image, see header above). Immediately walking through the gates produced a scene that seemed right out of a movie. The pool languished blue under the sun and revealed windows, that when opened, exposed a swim-up bar where if you stared hard enough, Dean Martin could be conjured up, standing nonchalant with martini in one hand and cigarette in another. The front garden with patio sets were surrounded by artificial turf and Mediterranean Fan Palms completed the effect. Large scale outdoor entertaining set under the mountain views is to be expected at this home. Raised bed planters in the corners of the backyard displayed cactus and succulents amid a tikki head, no doubt from  another time and place.

Century plants and barrel cactus make up this desert home's landscape design.
Century plants and barrel cactus keep a prickly distance from one another.
Shower time in the Modernism Week Garden Tour's hot desert sun.
Drought tolerant shower….thank goodness.

Hitting the road down several streets found us at Garden Two, 830 North Fair Circle, where a complete makeover to the interior and exterior was created in this recently purchased home. It was apparent drought tolerant was the objective with century plants and barrel cactus dotting the landscape. According to the tour guide handout, “careful consideration was given to the colors and the lines of the home in the designs for the front and back yards.” The home was recently featured in the Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plants:  The Ulitmate Guide to Low-water Beds, borders and Containers (April 2015). We meandered into the backyard where a docent guided us past a deliciously cold pool and we found an outdoor shower that luckily spouted no water while I took a pose under it.

We enjoyed the vast blue sky, heat and beautiful homes during the tour and even though we had only visited two homes, we started to realize that drought tolerant wasn’t the only objective when landscaping homes. The lazy way the heat sauntered down on everything Palm Springs suggested the easy-going, vacation-type lifestyle that permeates the city also takes hold of landscape designs. Cactus find their own time keeping  pace with the gentle lifestyle as their slow growth and lovely long flowering stalks dared each other in fun to touch the sun. Rejuvenation was another key element where swimming pools held some kind of fountain of youth as their cool liquids waved and reflected the childhood joys of splashing and diving all summer long.

Saguaro towers over everyone at this Palms Springs desert home under the mountains.
Very old saguaro stands over 30 feet tall.
The desert sprawls below.
Palm Springs view from West Ceilo Road home.

The third home on the tour tucked up close to the San Jacinto mountains at 1044 West Cielo Road offered some of the most stunning views and was my personal favorite. The late ’50s midcentury home, pool and the surrounding landscape had gone through a major renovation. Mexican Fan and Mexican Blue palms that originally stood before, remained in place as did the gorgeous Saguaros. Many of the other palms and cacti on the site were re-positioned or enhanced with other similar plantings. Climbing the driveway up to the entrance of the home revealed a vintage Studebaker Avanti sports coupe parked at the top, winking at us with its glinting gold paint job. But the car didn’t take away from the beautiful landscape designed by Paul Ortega that also included boulders and a large, carved rock fire pit.

Oretega designed desert landscape
Amy contemplates a dip in the pool surrounded by Paul Ortega designed landscape.

The home itself was open to wander inside and get the feel of what it is like to live in such a beautiful place. A pit of huge rock crystals sat across from the living room’s stone fireplace that opened up its other side to the kitchen. Windows framed incredible views from this home and left all of us with a breathless feeling of timelessness. It was hard to leave the house on the hill, but onward we had to trekk on our quest to experience the desert gardens of Palm Springs.

Palo Verde tree blooms in the desert during late spring.
Late spring the palo verde will decorate this desert garden with beautiful small yellow flowers.

Garden Four found us visiting 333 South Farrell Drive, Palm Springs Unified School District. Jack, bobbing ahead, guided us into the parking lot under a shade of solar panels that lined up in rows absorbing the bright desert sun above all the cars. The building was designed in 1962 by renowned architect E. Stewart Williams and uses classic lines with steel posts and beams as both structural and exterior architectural elements. The landscape followed suit with classic desert accent plants placed in linear sequence against the linear features of the building’s street-facing facades. Behind the building a beautiful Palo Verde tree that can live up to several hundred years stood dormant waiting for a spring rain to signal the time to bloom. And various succulents and other drought tolerant plants blended beautifully into the surrounding property with their softer elements.

Agave thrive in the desert.
Pineapple-looking agave accents the desert landscaped school district.

It was obvious the variety of plants and designs available for landscaping is endless as we sauntered through all the gardens on the tour. Cactus, succulents, palms, and even baby ZZ’s, plumerias and green leafy trees ended up sprouting out of the desert sand. Complementing the plants at most every home were carefully planned patios with cement squares to step across, patio furniture to relax, spews of rocks framing tall cactus and hand-crafted fountains filled with gurgling sounds of water that signaled life continues in the desert.

Poolside under desert mountains.
Poolside under desert mountains makes for all play and very little work.

Garden Five led us to 1380 East Via Estrella where the new owner enclosed the front yard for a garden oasis that featured both desert and non-desert plant species. The backyard pulled in the theme from the front where a sparkling pool and tall palms against glorious mountain backdrop brought to life a grand desert oasis for playful desert fun.

As we rounded towards our last stop, the sky began to fill with drifting clouds gently skipping across the horizon. The backdrop was phenomenal, palm trees swaying above, desert mountain peaks majestically tall in the distance, clouds filtering the afternoon light. I was struck by how the desert changed moods without much fuss, from boxed-in hot, to spacious cool, and left me feeling light on my feet with renewed energy.

Zen-like water feature pours out into a desert home.
Amber and Robert stand next to one of several unique water features.

Garden Six, 1325 South Sagebrush Road spilled forth its wondrous front yard with palms, yuccas, agave and cacti and as we glanced around drinking in all the sights, a slight trickle sound brought eyes to focus into a square fountain carefully spilling water down granite sides. We were routed through the side yard, passing a magnificent sculpture of a head with spirals of white on black (or was it spirals of black on white?) across its face suggesting those who enter best leave their identity behind and slip into a desert dream of countless wonders while visiting this adventurous garden.

Spiral head inspires garden at desert home.
Look deeply within and let your worries flitter away.

The Deepwell Estates home was designed and built by Stan Sackley and was featured as a swingin’ bachelor pad in a 1966 issue of Playboy. The very bold and masculine features in this garden, designed by Marcello Villano, definitely complemented the home’s history. Robert pointed out a polished granite bench, a known signature of Marcello’s designs. The whole backyard was lined with green-leafed bamboo that sheltered the pool area for secluded endless parties. The tour had gathered a huge crowd of people milling around the patio, some peering into the floor to ceiling glass windows that when opened, would allow full flow into and out of the home.

Marcello signature bench works well in this desert scene.
Granite bench complements the masculine tones.

Robert and Marcello go way back and Amber, Amy and I were introduced to the enigmatic landscape designer later at the after-tour party . We were pleased to find a humorous, witty kind person sitting beside us, and we were the envy of those who understood the status of this famous artist.

We love the desert.
We love the desert!

The garden tour proved to be filled with fabulous designs that touched the beauty of midcentury architecture with desert opulence and character. Palm Springs is rich with art outside the homes, the landscapes created with each cactus needle and broad splashes of desert-hued sand and rock amidst shiny tranquil shimmers of blue pools, all shadowed by towering palms. There seems to be no place like it.

Desert Jack
Jack enjoys the garden tour from above.

The garden tour was over and the night air was beginning to stir. As we clambered back into the car, Jack oblivious to the gentle evening breeze stirring past his frozen smile, we felt as if we had discovered a little jewel in the desert that had to be tucked quietly and casually away with its priceless knowledge pressed into our memories until the next Plantscapers adventure came our way. Many thanks to all the landscape artists that made our tour so delightfully filled with desert treasures.

To find out more about Modernism Week, visit their website at


1751 McGaw Ave
Irvine, CA 92614
Phone: (949) 486-1495
Toll-Free: 800-PLANT13
Fax: (949) 486-1499



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