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Palm Springs garden a Mediterranean escape

Ever evolving garden a mix of desert plants, exotics

March 17, 2012
Maureen Gilmer for The Desert Sun

The Mediterranean garden has been reborn in Palm Springs at the hands of two talented designers. Just a few short years ago, Troy Williams and Gino Dreese and their mom, Joan Chapman, moved into a rare two-story 1930s Spanish house in the south part of town.

Spread over the entire front yard of the double lot is the most beautiful Mediterranean-style garden. Every inch is packed with plants from desert species and succulents as well as aromatic herbs, exotic citrus, masses of lavender and a wide range of blooming perennials. Fragrance and aroma are everywhere, with heady scents rising from the roses Joan rescued from the original site plus new varieties. There is even ice plant, proving by masses of potent neon color that they indeed do grow here. The garden is nothing short of stunning.

“Where do you buy all this stuff?” a visitor once asked Dutch-born Gino, who simply replied “Everywhere!”

This is because these guys travel often, shopping specialty growers and garden centers wherever they go. They indeed know their genus and species with a special affection for Kalanchoe “Fang” and variegated Portulacaria.

In this garden they’ll bring a plant from the coast, another from the high desert and perhaps a third from foreign soil to flesh out the landscape rocks, art and water features. It is a showcase that demonstrates in real time that water is key to everything here. But what makes the Villa Vecchio garden so miraculous are the gentle hands of two devoted gardeners who maintain this complex landscape with unbridled passion.

“We like to experiment, so we kill a lot of plants,” says Troy unashamedly. “You have to kill a lot if you’re going to find out what works here.” Naturally their neighborhood, not far from the Biltmore, is spared the excessive winds further north. They have also integrated both spray and bubbler irrigation to ensure all their plants are adequately watered often in the heat.

The gem of the front garden is a natural pool built around an invisible galvanized metal stock tank, insulated by rock masonry and a block cap. In the water are schools of fish and a dozen or so turtles that swim and sunbathe on the rock that rises out of the center of the pool. “One of our neighbors moved and when they drained the pool-turned-lily pond, out  came this fellow. He wasn’t in good shape but we see his shell growing stronger every day.” With that, Gino appeared to toss dried shrimp into the water, turning this quiet scene into a feeding frenzy.

This cottage garden is the ideal mix of desert hardy succulents, cacti and perennials. Like the origins of these gardens, Troy and Gino will try to grow anything that appeals to them. “In our light sandy soil everything self-sows,” says Gino, who is the maintainer of this partnership. This means that any perennial that goes to seed will result in seedlings he can transplant over a much larger area. This is rare in heavier soils outside the desert. It is the reward to those who grow in granular, low- fertility ground like ours.

As they continue to revamp the house inside and out, they are now turning to the backyard with great aspirations for planting this shadier, pool-side retreat. They will agree, as will most gardeners, that this garden will never be truly finished. It will evolve as all do, some plants doing well while others languish or give up. In their place will arrive some unique variety to better stand up to the depths of Palm Springs summers.

It is truly an honor to visit such an extraordinary creation full of un-desert- like plants such as cheddar pinks, gaillardia and seas of large-leaf nasturtium. Outside the upper windows they’ve installed iron shelves that hold potted masses of succulents, which lend the character of an old Italian villa, hence the name for this home, Villa Vecchio. The dangling iceplant and bright red crown of thorns are watered from upstairs windows opened to the desert air most of the year.

It’s doubly rewarding to find two local landscapers who truly understand the role of plants and planting design in the creation of outdoor living spaces. Furniture and decor are secondary to the beauty of leaf and bloom. They stand out as gardeners because they simply aren’t afraid to fail. For there is much more to learn from failure than will ever be discovered through success.

After much trial and error they now know what works, and bring this accumulated knowledge into landscapes created for their clients. As local makers of gardens, Troy and Gino may prove the most innovative in town.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and contributor to The Desert Sun. Contact her at mogilmer@yahoo.com.