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Mojave Rock Ranch – Lush landscape at high-desert retreat defies reason

Written by Maureen Gilmer

The master bedroom with its enormous fixed glass windows and rustic shade arbor is a separate building linked to the rest of the house.

Atop a windswept rocky ridge on the north end of Joshua Tree grows a most enchanted cactus garden that may be one of the most magnificent of all desert landscapes. It is a blend of minerals and cacti at 2,000 feet where these plants take the heat and cold, wind and drought in stride. This is not easy to do in that difficult place, for here the conditions must be learned through painful trial and error at great expense. Not many plants nor garden makers can survive the challenges there.

Twenty years ago two men purchased a shack and the land around an old mine atop a rocky ridge. It would become their hermitage, where they could leave the city behind, and from their perch experienced solitude and desert views of exceptional magnitude. But while there are many curious and beautiful desert houses, here the landscape itself that has captured my heart. Though many can make gardens in the desert, no one has achieved this degree of beauty, density and creativity at that elevation.

This lovely cactus border has all the beauty and diversity of an English perennial border for a fraction of the water. / Maureen Gilmer/Special to The Desert Sun

The life’s work of Gino Dreese and Troy Willians demonstrates just how masonry and cactus blend into a site that is a perfect photographer’s backdrop. Every inch of ground is designed to the hilt.

They call it the Mojave Rock Ranch, where the land has become a canvas for compositions that range from Route 66 weirdness to art of the ancient world. Their style is unique and this site is its undiluted essence so rarely seen by outsiders.

I cannot help but liken their cactus gardens to English perennial borders by Gertrude Jekyll a hundred years ago. Like Jekyll’s borders, the cactus in this garden are densely planted, highly varied and integrate a range of locally native and not so native desert species. The only difference is that Gino’s perennials are wickedly sharp and far more forgiving in their water demands than Jekyll’s moisture loving flowers. But in many ways they have achieved the same end: creating colorful and exciting borders that are highly adapted to the local climate be it daily rain in England or the aridity of the high desert.

Only a garden that has evolved over decades can achieve this degree of perfection. The site itself is park-like with pathways that wind through the inner garden that surrounds the house. Outside these fenced perimeters that keep hungry rabbits at bay is a twisted drive through a grove of ocotillo and monster saguaro that blend into grand collections of cactus, glass insulators, slag, roadsigns, rusty tools and various antiques and art objects. The point of arrival moves through a bevy of Sitka spruce trunks from Alaska with their unique tumorous growths that stand like sentinels at the front gate composed of corten steel.

Gaze up the approach walk to the pole roofed glass sided entry structure, that is the most recognizable architectural feature of this landmark. In between are a hundred golden barrels that have grown into a tumbling mass of yellow that flows down slope to bounce off the purple cactus and blue agaves that surround them.

Winding around the house are paths lined with dense planting compositions that would take weeks to sketch and even longer to research. Here the frost line is pushed to its limit with species of Cleistocactus, Echinocereus, Mamilaria, Opuntia, Echinocactus and Tricocereus. The cactus are in borders, tucked into niches in the stonework, set into natural outcrops and spring out of the most impossible spots. Many hang off sheer cliffs. It takes a slow and meticulous hand to water such beauties, and these instinctive landscapers know just how to apply it an when.

The planting is accented with delightful surprises at every turn, and here I come to realize how the generosity of a designer can provide gifts to discover. Relics are everywhere, nestled into the plantings where they transcend continents and eons. Here ancient tiles from Persia, Native American pottery and curious works of art are subtly blended into the cactus and yuccas. In lieu of stone mulch are masses of broken terra cotta, tiles, bits of stone and slag glass for amazing surfacing that distinguishes planted area from pathway.

This enormous property is now available for commercial photographers seeking a one of a kind venue where every direction holds a million dollar setting. No other home would offer such a surreal space for a party, important gathering or perhaps a small wedding. No other site presents a perfect composition at every turn. My only regret is I cannot take my  readers up there to see this in person, and there’s no way to show you all of it.

So today perhaps you’ll be inspired to think outside the box with these glimpses of a truly artistic site that is well outside the normal range of cactus garden variability. They say every great garden is the embodiment of its creators, and indeed this world class creation reflect the intrinsic talent of two guys who truly love rocks and cactus.

Mojave Rock Ranch, Joshua Tree, (760) 366-7511



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