“Plant Systems by Cox Wins President’s Trophy Award” – California Landscaping
By Joan Waters
What do you do when you want your landscape to look like the lush, palm studded oasis at the Mirage hotel, but the contractor you want to do the job has never been there? You fly him to Las Vegas and show him around – talk to him and tell him exactly what you’re thinking. That’s what happened to Steve Cox, whose company, Plant Systems by Cox, Inc. of Visalia, won this year’s Presidents Trophy Award. His was the project judged the best in all residential categories.
“This job really opened my eyes to a lot of different palms,” Cox says, talking about the job he designed and installed in a private lakeside community in Tulare County. When Cox says “a lot of different palms,” he could be understating things just a bit. He estimates about 300 specimens of 60 or so palm varieties surround his clients’ six-year-old, 12,000-square-foot home. “When they told me they wanted their house to look like the Mirage hotel, I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I’ve never been there,” Cox remembers. That wasn’t an issue,
Cox’s clients not only arranged for the trip, they also lined up an inside look at the royal treatment the Mirage landscape gets. None other than the head of the grounds department showed them around. “We got the grand private tour,” Cox says. “I took lots of pictures, and on the flight back, we were talking about all the palms and lakes and waterfalls and I asked them, joking, “So, where do you want the volcano?”
There may not be any fiery shows every 15 minutes on site in Tulare County (that would be a good thing), but there are other awe-inspiring features: 500 tons of hand-selected boulders, hundreds of feel of meticulously crafted rock walls and a drainage systems specially designed for the stars of this landscape – the palms. There are digital moisture sensors for groundwater and humidity, and more than 700 cubic yards of plaster sand were amended into the planting areas to keep trees safe from waterlogged or overdried soil.
“Not one palm tree was there when we started, and now we think this has to be one of the largest palm collections in the San Joaquin Valley,” Cox says about the one-acre site. “What was really great about this job is that the owners were willing to take risks in using a lot of varieties that people said you couldn’t plant here. Most people don’t want to take that risk of using the palms.
Cox’s scope of work was a complete renovation of the home’s former lawns and landscape. He accomplished it in two phases.
From the start Cox was inspired to stretch his design abilities. The palms certainly warranted that. His clients have their own successful nursery business, and had been stockpiling some of the special trees and other specimens they wanted to use.
To some, their search method might seem somewhat unorthodox. As they drove around the county, the kept their eyes open for a tree that looked neglected or abandoned. Then they approached the owner and asked to buy it. They got their fair share of yeses. Palms came to the job from all over the county. Some came from surrounding nurseries. Others came from Pioneer Palms and were procured by Dick Edmonster, who was able to broker some spectacular specimens.
One of the most outstanding finds, however, is a five-trunk Phoenix dactylifera spotted in a field next to Highway 99. “It has never been pruned,” Cox says. “It was probably the heaviest one we dug. It weighed close to 48,000 pounds, and the root ball was 13 by 12 by 6 ‘ feet. It’s a monstrous thing that is now the focal point of the back yard.”
All the palms were dug by hand or with a back hoe, Cox explains. “Most of the canaries, the large specimens, we were looking at a root ball of five by five by six feet. Some of the big multi-trunked ones were 9 to 12 feet.”
Four 30-foot Chilean wine palms (Jubaea chilensis) are probably the rarest specimens on site. “Somebody told be there are only 50 to 100 in the state,” Cox says. “It’s a very tropical looking tree, and the most unique aspect is the trunk. They’ll ‘barrel’ in the middle. They almost look like big elephants’ legs and their fronds are long and kind of like a cross between a queen and canary palm. They look very tropical.
Plant Systems By Cox is a 15-year-old design/build firm specializing in residential and estate landscapes. About two years ago, they sold their maintenance division so they could focus on design build projects.
At any given time, there are 10 to 15 employees. Cox and his wife both work at the business. He does all the design work. What do people say about his work? “They notice all my yards look different,” Cox says, “and to me, that is a huge compliment. Sometimes I get three or four houses in the same area, and I want them to all be unique.”
Cox loves it when clients ask for something outside the ordinary. “You have to know who your customer is, and the better you get to know them, the better you know what they like. You start with the big dream and then downsize. When I first met with these clients, and we went down and saw the palms, I had some ideas. But then I started thinking about how the back yard sloped, and I started talking about terraces and stone walls. I made another sketch; something I could show them in addition to what we had already talked about.
When we met the next time, we were about 10 minutes into the conversation and they said, ‘If you could do anything, what would you do?’ That’s when I brought out by ‘BIG’ plan. I like to do terracing and steps. This yard is long and slopes down to the lake, so I have terraces and walls that meander 300 to 400 feel throughout the whole yard. We poured footings with rebar, and we did what we call a ‘dry stack,’ but it’s mortared. We went down and picked out the stone, ‘Ozard,’ we got it in ‘-inch to 1-‘ inch to 2-inch and 3-inch and blended the thicknesses until I got what I wanted – that it would look like a dry stack, but mortared so it’s strong, but you don’t see grout joints because it’s mortared on the inside.”
Cox says the good working relationship that developed with the clients on this project definitely allowed for some fun. “It took a lot of time and experimentation to select the cap stone for the walls, and almost every day we would go on a boat ride out to the middle of the lake and see how things looked. We’d say, ‘Oh, we need another palm there.'”
In fact, work hasn’t ended for good at this site. “The client has become a real palm collector,” Cox says. “Every couple of months he’ll call me and will ask me to help him unload a new palm, and then he’ll want to talk to me about where I think it should go.” Cox always has an answer.