Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Over eight garden walls

Today was the day for the local Gardens Tour organised as part of Palm Springs Modernism Week, which needs a word of explanation to those of you in the UK. Mid Century Modern is a particular unique architectural style, developed between about 1933 to 1965 and localised enough to sometimes be called Californian Modern. Function is as important as form with huge windows linking indoors and  outdoor living spaces.

Now the gardens tour was the first event of its kind. Over a period of three hours we were able to visit eight private gardens and a rather disappointing and noisy hotel.  For one used to the rather genteel experience  of visiting gardens in the United Kingdom, the experience was very different and more about that later. No tea and cakes but very welcome champagne and cookies at one garden! I won’t try to describe each garden as this would be repetitive so I’ll pick out the highlights.

There were some startlingly dramatic plants; lots of cacti, succulents and spiky architectural plants. But as you will see there is very little colour and to someone like me who revels in colour, this was a disappointment.

Some of the settings for the gardens were wonderful with backdrops of the mountains and palm trees. Landscapes tucked amongst the natural boulders at the base of the mountains. Swimming pools are almost the norm in quite ordinary gardens – most people have one or have access to one in a gated community. 

Most of the gardens made full use of  sculpture, containers, garden furniture and ornamentation of one form or another. The use of pierced concrete walling illustrating again the importance of light, shade and shadow (see my post Sunshine)

The highlight of the afternoon for me was two beautiful front gardens both designed by William Krissel and both using a complex of overlapping shapes filled with grass, different coloured aggregates, rock and a matrix of planting. 

In all a pleasant afternoon but to my mind so many opportunities missed. Most of these gardens were contemporary gardens and not heritage gardens which rather missed the whole theme of the week. In Palm Springs there are many lush and colourful tropical style gardens, none of which were included in the tour. Just as some UK landscape architects have tunnel vision with regard to using British natives only, here there is a current prevalence for designers to produce desert only landscapes. Whilst I would wholeheartedly embrace the importance of water conservation, this strict narrow mindedness makes for some very dreary landscapes with a very limited palette of plants. Such colourful plants as Bougainvillea, Caesalpinia, Calliandra, Leucophyllum, Senna and Tecoma all have only low or moderate water needs. C'mon guys - use some imagination!

Whilst a pleasant afternoon, the event seemed rather more of a showcase for the work of local landscape designers, rather than a genuine sample of local gardens, new and old. Those of you that visit gardens in the UK under the National Garden Scheme may know that to reach the criteria for opening, a garden must have enough interest to sustain a visit of at least 30 minutes.  Sadly not one of these gardens today would reach that criteria. Let's hope a future event would include a wider spectrum of the gardens here and a closer link to the heritage theme of the week.


  1. While I appreciate your seemingly valid criticism I must say these images were a welcome diversion on a grey Oregon morning. Sun, beautiful desert plants, mcm architecture...wow! Thank you.

    (and interesting tidbit about needing to sustain a 30 minute visit to qualify for an open garden!)

  2. Thanks for the tour; I'm currently finishing a mid-century modern landscape concept >3 hours south of me. The owners and I are going for a Chihuahuan Desert palette, since a local, ecoregional sense-of-place lacks in our region. But I hear what you are saying that those tour gardens lacked native / adapted colorful, softer species.

    As to "heritage gardens", I think that in the SW, gardens of the past were often blatant desert-denial gardens, and perhaps it's time to move on from that. But it can be more than just architectural plant minimalism, too.

    The >30 minute interest criteria for the UK garden tours you describe is nice, though I wonder how smaller gardens or attendees not into design could meet that?

    Great items to chew on more! Thanks again.

  3. I'm not against desert landscapes - they can be dramatically beautiful. I think my reservation, whether it be here or the UK is with any sort of horticultural puritanism that suggests there is only one way of designing or planting a garden. I love all gardens and get a thrill from so many types of plants!

    With UK garden visiting, sometimes villages or communities will open several small gardens in the same street at the same time to make a viable visitor experience. I offered to open my own small garden in the UK at the same time as one in the next street but was declined as there wasn't space to park 100 cars in the street!

  4. Very architectural gardens and low maintenance too, with the use of xerophytes that are very suitable for such an area. Perhaps you just saw so many minimalist gardens in succession? We're blessed with so much luxuriant plantings in the UK that minimalist styles like the ones above are a refreshing sight too :)