Native plantings are the most popular choice among designers and clients, though the term “native” can be subjective. “Native to what?” asks landscape architect Steve Gierke. “Native to the Coachella Valley, native to Southern California, native to the American Southwest? To me, native is what you see when you’re driving in on [Interstate] 10, on either side of the highway. That’s native, and I would love to live in that landscape. But I can understand why, to the typical residential gardener or homeowner, that look might not appeal to them.”
Early efforts relied on that old standby, a sea of grass, to create desert oases once enjoyed at historic, late-lamented resorts like The Desert Inn and El Mirador Hotel. Residential landscaping, meanwhile, was of two minds. “Typically, the front of the houses [was] desert,” says architectural historian Steve Keylon. “They were pretty much natural, not so much trying to create a design landscape you would see today with 15-barrel cactus in a grid. In the back was the oasis — a panel of turf, some citrus, a shade tree, maybe some hibiscus or other flowering color.”
For a while, mainly after World War II, grass lawns were all the rage, with an ample water table to support them. As the Coachella Valley grew, the population began to stress the water supply coming from the Colorado River and snowmelt that replenished aquifers. It wouldn’t be until the 1970s and ’80s, aided by a few California droughts, that conservation efforts gradually started to take hold.