Taking his cue from Walter and Leonore Annenberg’s love of fine art, James Burnett looked to Vincent van Gogh’s A Wheatfield With Cypresses — a work the Annenbergs owned before gifting it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art — for inspiration. The landscape architect from Solana Beach was hired to literally bring life to the grounds of the Sunnylands Center and Gardens, part of The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands.

“We like desert plants for their beauty, sculptural habits, and color,” Burnett says. “We looked at how various plant materials work together, such as some of the aloes with the golden barrel [cactus]. Everything in concept was designed to use massing in hundreds of plants instead of small combinations, so we could sweep color on a very large scale.”

The garden meanders over nine acres of public spaces designed to demonstrate how to conserve water without sacrificing drama and style. Plantings surround the visitor center — a lofty, modern building that exhibits art collected by and the philanthropic legacy of the Annenbergs. It will become the gateway for tours into the original 200-acre desert oasis where the famous couple spent five months of the year and entertained dignitaries from around the world.

The house sits within a nine-hole golf course of turf grass. A small garden off the master bedroom was designed and installed when the house was built in 1966. In this intimate space lie the roots of what would, 50 years later, become a much larger expression of the desert landscape newly installed at the center.

But there is far more than the aesthetics of xericscaping to this project, for Leonore believed the desert community had changed — and so had the world. Once plentiful water has become a priceless commodity. “She wanted Sunnylands to be more than lawns,” Burnett says. “[The Annenbergs] were a product of the ’60s, and that’s why the center reflects a step forward. I think we spent a couple of years with Mrs. Annenberg, and it’s important to note that she really got it that times have changed. The landscaping had to be more progressive and environmentally responsible.” Together, they recast the project to integrate the most up-to-date green technology for both the new and old sites.

Behind the impressionistic garden lies a solar field designed to provide electricity needs for the center. Underground geothermal systems heat and cool the interiors. Overall, it is expected that the nine-acre garden will use no more than 20 percent of the water district allotment for the property.

At its core is an avid composting program, with biomass generated by trees and plants within the garden. This organic matter will be ground or chipped for mulch and compost. Compost is key to improving the sandy soil prevalent in that part of the valley, which is troubled by percolation rates that speed water through the root zone of plants before it can be absorbed. Each particle of organic matter added will act like a tiny sponge to catch water and hold it in the root zone. More coarse material from the chipping program will provide valuable mulches that prevent surface moisture evaporation from the soil and block weeds naturally. It will be highly valuable for the Texas ebony windbreaks and to reduce wind erosion along edges of the site that transition into natural desert.

Most of the green technology is invisible to the visitors who will begin flooding into the site in March. The gateway on Bob Hope Drive stands out from the typical country club entries with fountains and flowerbeds. Here, masses of blooming succulents and cacti define the portal to this distinctive property.

“At the entry, we tried to be responsive to a more moderate or simple approach linked to the architecture and its crispness,” Burnett says. “Then we transition to a painterly landscape.”

The overall plant density is striking, with mass upon mass of precisely aligned succulents gently drifting in and out of one another and 1.25 miles of walking paths divided by narrow metal strips. “Aluminum edging will keep the edges between colors crisp and clean to accentuate contrast and hold it,” Burnett says.
“It also tells people where planting areas stop and start. We found it is often un-clear where pedestrians go and where the planting is; so if plants are to thrive, we need to control foot traffic.” With nearly 50 species and more than 49,000 individual plants required to complete the garden, it is remarkable that such minimal guidelines prove so successful.

The drive arches around an experimental wildflower stand designed to preserve the desert within cultivated areas. This is the most uncertain aspect of the landscape, for wildflowers are always a risky venture due to their finicky preferences for drainage, exposure, and less-than-fertile ground. Their flowering is well known to ebb and flow from one year to the next, depending on rainfall frequency and winter temperatures. Where such conditions are not ideal, these ephemeral plants refuse to live, much less bloom; and the chances of them reproducing into naturalized, self-sustaining colonies are slim.

Burnett and Mary Irish, an authority on desert plants for Arizona and former director of public horticulture at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Ariz., carefully composed a special seed blend of wildflowers native to the Coachella Valley for this part of the garden.

“The wildflower field was hydro-seeded with 12 species, including desert verbena and desert marigold, which thrive in the sandy soil. But we’ve also seeded larger natives like creosote bush and brittlebush,” Burnett says. “Indian rice grass [Achnatherum hymenoides]and blue grama [Bouteloua gacilis] with their extensive root systems will stabilize dune sand against wind erosion. Right now there is temporary irrigation until the plants become established. There’s a lot of wildlife out there.”

The site plan and plantings were organized to show visitors how familiar desert plants need not be relegated to the Spartan desert garden compositions of the Southwest. This is no small achievement, however, considering the goal of using just 20 percent of the allotted water supply. “We did a great deal of calculation to determine water demands of native and exotic plants to make sure what we did would fit within the desired reduction,” Burnett says.

Irrigation at Sunnylands is complex enough that on-site agronomist Patrick Truchan ought to be a mechanical engineer as well. Two drip-irrigation heads serve each and every one of the hundreds of golden barrel cacti. This leaves the subsoil looking like a spaghetti dinner should anything be dug up for repair or replacement. The emitters will require adjustment as the cacti expand in diameter as well.

But that is just for the established irrigation system. Sunnylands has piped its entire water system to make it compatible with reclaimed-water systems when Rancho Mirage provides such a sustainable alternative to using the tap-water supply for landscaping. The Annenberg Foundation at Sunnylands invested heavily in an innovative irrigation system developed in Australia. The wholly subsurface system is perfectly adapted to this site where wind and extreme dry heat combine to cause very high evaporation losses with standard irrigation. Thus, visitors will see no sprinklers running at the center garden. In the subsurface system, water is forced through a tube between capillary fibers that draw water outward, allowing it to wick above and drain below to thoroughly saturate the soil. In order to install such a system, a great deal of excavation was required.

“You have to remember that this is all experimental,” says Truchan, who is charged with fine-tuning the system to establish exactly how much flow the lawn requires to keep the turf grass green. “Our soils here are sandy, which can be a challenge to know how frequently and for how long to run the system. It’s a process of trial and error,” he says. “We learn something every day.”

But this is Sunnylands, where new ideas are welcome. The Annenbergs’ gift in creating a public venue such as this also provides an expansive ground for testing the viability of these planting and irrigation concepts.

Another experimental aspect of the gardens is the evergreen Texas ebony trees (Ebenopsis ebano) that line the north and west sides of the site. Here the prevailing winds generate considerable dune activity. “So we really had to have dense, reliable wind control if we were to stabilize the blowing sand and create a more hospitable environment for people, as well as the plants,” Burnett says. His choice links back to his hometown of Houston, Texas; this species is uncommon to the Coachella Valley. Such a little-known plant in California may prove to be an out-standing discovery for local residents who need a reliable replacement for oleander windbreaks and privacy screens.

Burnett and Irish collaborated in the incredible selection of plants for this project. The plant list includes species from deserts of North America, Mexico, and southern Africa. “We used Agave desmettiana more than any other plant because it has such a deep green color,” Burnett explains. “Desert plants tend to have a grayish character that can make a landscape resemble a parking lot, so we used this one to contribute a more lush appearance.” Together with 10 other agave species, their success or failure will provide an excellent resource for helping local homeowners select the right species for their own gardens.

Another widely used plant is the golden barrel cactus, Echinocactus grusonii, which is no stranger to local residents. What makes it outstanding here is the laser-perfect grid planting on a field of decomposed black granite. The contrast of yellow cactus spines, particularly when backlit against the black at sunset or early morning, creates drama for the garden. These grids of cacti are set adjacent to twin reflecting pools that flank the west-facing windows of the center. Such pools are a signature feature of Burnett-designed landscapes.

Throughout the garden, local visitors will note the widespread use of the yellow- blooming palo verde tree Parkinsonia ‘Desert Museum’. Burnett chose them to honor Leonore Annenberg’s love of the color yellow. The bright green bark that gives these trees their name makes them exceptional in the sun and stunning lighting. Coupled with thornless mesquite and other wide-canopy desert trees, their shade is essential to protecting under-plantings from the rigors of midsummer heat that can wither even resilient desert plants.

Scarce in desert planting designs, blue and lavender flowers get prominent play in Texas Rangers, one of seven varieties of Leucophyllum spp.

While the plantings adorn the grounds and line walkways where visitors can study them, the lawn at the rear of the center will accommodate a variety of events, making it vital to residents of the valley. Burnett conducted several studies relative to space for outdoor gatherings.

The selection of Burnett to design the gardens was apropos. He began his career within the boundaries of hospitals and medical facilities, where healing was the primary focus.

“We wanted to get patients and their families outside. And because people in hospitals are often at a very important place in their lives,” he says, “our designs must be habitable and sensitive to their needs with shade, quiet, and elements that appeal to their senses.” Nowhere else is this more evident than in the labyrinth, a pattern linked back to medieval European spirituality. It allows visitors to stroll its twisting narrow path through a field of green lavender cotton (Santolina virens), studded with bright yellow angelita daisies (Tetraneuris acaulis/scaposa).

The serene character at the visitor center is indeed palpable, largely because it speaks to the needs of its users with a more formal configuration adjacent to the building that grows progressively more relaxed and sinuous farther out. Here are the outer contemplative spaces where the incredible details of this amazing garden can be studied for decades to come.

Visitors to Sunnylands will be able to download a special app on their cell phone or similar hand-held device that allows them to take a digitally guided tour of the gardens and learn more about the details of its design and special features. Because the garden does not bear identifying signage or tags to tell visitors the names of each of the 50 species used in the project, a plant guide is being published with more details.

The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands joins more than 150 projects around the world in a pilot program evaluating the new SITES rating system for sustainable landscapes. The Sustainable Sites Initiative (www.sustainablesites.org) is an interdisciplinary partnership led by American Society of Landscape Architects, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas, and United States Botanic Garden to transform land development and management practices with the nation’s first voluntary rating system for sustainable landscapes.

Sunnylands will test the point system for achieving different levels of site sustainability on a 250-point scale and performance benchmarks. SITES will use feedback from participating projects during the pilot phase, which runs through June 2012, to devise the final rating system and reference guide by early 2013.

The U.S. Green Building Council anticipates incorporating the guidelines and performance benchmarks into future iterations of its LEED Green Building Rating System.

THE ANNENBERG RETREAT at Sunnylands is undergoing extensive renovations as it prepares to host meetings of world leaders to address issues of global importance. The 200-acre estate includes a 25,000-square-foot home with a guest wing; three guest cottages; and grounds that include a nine-hole golf course, two swimming pools, a tennis court, and several fishing lakes. The facilities are being enhanced to meet the needs of high-level retreats specified by Walter and Leonore Annenbergs in their Declaration of Trust establishing The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands. The project includes upgrades to meet high standards for energy efficiency; earthquake, security, and fire safety measures; a new roof; Wi-Fi access in meeting spaces; overnight lodging for guests; and restoration of the golf course to its 1963 championship design

The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands will host its first retreats in February 2012 and has postponed its opening activities accordingly. The Sunnylands Center and Gardens will open at that time as well. The first tours of the historic home and estate will take place as part of Palm Springs Modernism Week in February. Reservations for public tours of the estate will be offered beginning in March 2012.

For information about the project’s progress and opening programs and tours, visit www.sunnylands.org.

Read more in Palm Springs Life.