Landscape and Garden Design Implications of Water Conservation

It is almost embarrassing to live in Louisville, Kentucky owing to the current weather trends. In mid-November we have yet to experience below freezing temperatures. The entire year has been incredibly moderate with near perfect periodic rainfall supplying near-perfect landscaping conditions. The very notion of some impending drought seems ultimately wacky.

But I sympathize with other geographical micro climates, having lived there and having always suspected this pass of water angst. The ideas below may seem absurd to Kentuckians, yet many of the artistic principles are being adopted here for purely aesthetic reasons. That is a also product of smaller land areas and sometimes with homes built on tricky land forms. Urban life, of course, deals heavily with dense populations and somewhat smaller plots for homes. And – make no mistake – water will become an issue at some point, even if it implies shipping it out and allocations of local water intentionally allotted at a higher level to those in need. And now I am making this unnecessarily long.


I have 500 posts in a blog produced over the past 9 years, making it incredibly easy to forget how many times I have addressed a topic. 😉

It turns out, after a small audit, I have a dozen or more articles relating to water conservation. In reviewing these, it was almost like playing Pin The Tail On The Donkey choosing which ones to recirculate and why. But topical it remains, this entire water problem, particularly now with corporations buying water rights as a new investment tool, then undoubtedly allocating the supplies which were once free-wheeling and natural to us all. I hope the seriousness with which I view this now-growing problematic situation comes through.

All pictures in this post are of my own designs and installations. I have always felt a personal experience viewpoint delivers a more impactful statement of a subject of any complexity at all, because we can see my own adaptations to the realities, instead of it being some theoretical concept.

Water may well end up as the “new Oil”, in terms of resource value. Understanding this will matter as time goes on, especially Out West in the United States, as well as in countless other climates and continents. This is a recirculated post which – combined with a part 2 – explains how one town deals with landscaping in the midst of water shortages.

With the thought of conserving water borne foremost in mind, what does an unrepentant garden lover do to adjust to the new realities? How do we change the way we design gardens and landscapes? What fundamental changes are required in us to develop gardens in still-beautiful ways when we face so many hard decisions about social responsibility and in such a public way? Let’s face it – as I have said before, landscaping is the “Ultimate Cosmetic”. No one deals with a larger palette.

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What do we do when we find out we have an actual budgeted amount of water use? As absurd as this question may sound, it is the height of design wisdom. Water auditing for existing landscapes and gardens have been and should take place prior to their installation or further development. A sense of how much water we have used in the past should reflect favorably on making changes to lessen them in some very specific ways. The methods are out there and the results for redeveloping existing lawns and gardens as well as for installing future ones can be and should be more than exciting, actually. There is much to learn but it does not have to be anywhere close to disastrous. The fact is, done right, we can literally make things better as opposed to merely settling for some dire end.

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What to do with grass lawns?

In the first place, the primary sponge for water in typical landscapes remains lawns. I have always maintained that cutting down lawn space actually can give a completely new and fresher look to an existing home landscape. While lawns serve a variety of functions, including a place for children to play (perhaps its most important role, IMO), they do not have to be a monolithic presence. Broken up appropriately, over time, a lawn can change into many things, among them an adjunct and contrast to new color and new features. Lawns do not have to be gigantic at all. Inasmuch as their cool characteristics make them so similar to water in a landscape design’s effects, leaving a pool or “lake” of green is wise and refreshing.

Cutting the size down to resemble a feature in their own right can include shaping them to reflect their “semi-aqueous” nature. It can set a lawn apart, actually and thereby take advantage of how glorious colors look as a backdrop to swaths of green.

Grass can be engineered to resemble a literal trail, or pathway. Instead of having a monstrous assembly of grass as a mono-colored foreground, it can lead to interesting places, offering a cool walk in bare feet to inspect the place better. At the same time we find it interesting in form as well as function. The gentle and most inviting curves of a lawn lead the eye on in a wholesome way, appreciating the structure and form of a landscape itself. It’s a bath in cooling and soothing color and texture – the perfect use of grass lawns to a designer.

Lawn grasses have been developed now which send their roots an insane depth, which require far less watering and are virtually geared to a more responsible water usage. They stay just as green for longer during Summers- in fact, more so than Bluegrass – owing to their drought tolerant natures.

My bottom line is this: so far, I have not cut out the notion of grass lawns, simply because I happen to love them. Admittedly, they should be used far, far less in desert climates – among others – and there is a body of thought that has no need whatsoever for a lawn to make a garden beautiful. In fact, let’s visit some of them now.

How do we replace lawns in design?

This is a huge and interesting subject. It reflects all that is newest in landscaping, from the array and plenitude of hard-scaping materials to even water features themselves. I realize how ironic it must seem to proclaim a water feature to be some sort of alternative method of landscaping with less water. But they do. And they do it well, indeed.

Water features recirculate water. Once filled, the same water does the same dance over and over and over – well, you get it. Yes, there can be evaporation loss and, yes, we install automatic fill mechanisms to “top off” the feature once it reaches a certain lowered level. But, even in hot and sun-drenched and hot Nevada, we rarely run a 3/4″ feed pipe more than 2 minutes a day on normal sized features, implying the use of about 30 gallons, or less than a shower a day.

Landscapes whose be-all and end-all in the past was a wide expanse of lawn studded with trees have now become far more complex and interesting. In place of the expensive water-thirsty lawn, we now have “features”, like this water feature and the pretty patio and walkway pictured here. Full of color and shape, the carnival atmosphere lightens the mood yet still provides a consistency of form and function. The ultimate irony of a landscape such as this is that, after figuring the watering costs for a lawn set ion the same place over time, this place will have comparatively paid for itself in three years. After that it is just beauty and money.

The home owner of this place below wanted lawn and nothing else. He owns a car dealership and he listened closely as we explained what the costs of lawns was and where they were headed. As a businessman, he investigated on his own as well, having some thinking fodder to work with. Delighted with his research, he assigned the water feature you see below which he thoroughly and absolutely relishes watching as it rushes along below his patio deck above. Lit up at night, the falls and the creek have phosphorescent appearances at three different falls locations. As with all well-installed features, such as lighting and waterfalls with pumps, it runs off a timer and stops automatically to preserve power. He also served good wine. 😉

The source:

A different mind set in general accompanies all this increasingly complex designing, now that the monolithic lawn is out of consideration. Suddenly, things like more patio space are entertained. The notion of sculpting the actual land by creating hills and mounds studded with rocks and plants becomes a fascinating alternative, making the entirety of any landscape suddenly more riveting an event. More park-like, less boring, more interesting and livelier by far, suddenly we are actually released to play around a little bit. Art seeps into the equation at about this time and all designers, I bet, can trace the moment of this discovery. It actually gets a bit intimidating, the truth is, because designers become far freer to experiment and to entertain alternatives for the regular folks – instead of just for the wealthy. In fact, it becomes an imperative.

We arrive at features like Bubble Rocks.

We do new things – different things – things like inserting lighting, making vineyards, enlarging patio space and making walking platforms from natural stone – all of which I will show next as we consider what features we deem suitable for a water-conserving regime which retains beauty before all else.

Recapping – Water Bills, Irrigation and Design

This is a relatively ancient piece (all the way back from mid-2009, 😉 )  I also feel this is one of my best articles on water usage, design and general conservation issues. Please note the quantities I list from our everyday activities so that we can have some quantitative material with which to address our own roles in understanding this complex but needful subject.

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Many thanks to Annette, the proprietor and blogger also known as Israel Mom for taking these pictures. Thay fit like a glove: (A big one).


How many of us actually read our water bills? I remember once, long ago, checking ours and I discovered we used nearly 20,000 gallons of water one July. I went………..”Whoa, Nelly!!!”

It was a wake up call at the time, especially inasmuch as the bill included the recent increase in the rates. This is usually where it hits first.

What we now face is and will be a consistent rise in the price of water as the years go by, owing to its increasing preciousness. I submit that Global Warming is a real event and very obvious. I have no idea whatsoever of Man’s role in it and I don’t wish to even argue that.But it has always been precious – from our very origins.

The picture below was once again taken by my great good friend Annette (Thanks, Annette!!) who actually does not live far from this picture, in Caesarium, in Israel. This construction gives us an idea of the extent to which Man has gone to supply water in the ancient past. This is the remains of an aqueduct. That small trough at the top that conducted water was the reason for this entire edifice. (Man, I love the Internet!)

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I know that there was an Ice Age about 25,000 years ago and there is not an Ice Age today. There are caves 200 feet above Reno, Nevada where can be found fishing implements from thousands of years ago. It has become obvious that these caves were on the virtual edge of a giant “super lake” called Lake Lahontan, some 6,000 miles in square dimension. Glaciers nearby where I live are no longer glaciers. Believe me, it’s warming up and we will face it in our water bills.

And besides, were that not the case, the population explosion would have deemed it precious anyway. The planet’s population had increased by a factor of 6 over 120 years. Here in Portland, we are already facing watering restrictions almost yearly.

So I’m here to help. I think there will eventually be changes and there already are, of course, out West in the US as well as in Australia, South Africa, the Middle East and in many, many regions.

Here we have the luxury of being able to consider such things as landscaping and edible or even flower gardening. Home owners and just plain garden lovers can devote lavish attention to something objective and stress-relieving in the pursuits and in the wonderful ambiance of our sitting gardens. As well, we can enjoy the labor of love towards them and our flower and food gardens. They are abundantly healthy for us and for others, in the end. And we can take so many different directions

I realize how odd it seems to put something like a swimming pool into a water conservation post, but the gallons of water used after filling are actually rather small. In fact, far less than watering a lawn, for example.

Maybe this next one resounds more with a way to get an interesting design while saving water. The scarcity of plantings can be an asset, as well as the fact that all the plants are fed via underground drip irrigation technology. The amount of water this landscape uses is less than, say, taking two baths a day. And it is not small.

Another view of the same property:

It turns out there are many ways to use water more efficiently. In fact, almost anywhere where we are compelled to take a watering can or to use a water wasting hose, we could get that same work done automatically and more efficiently by irrigating. Drip irrigation has the capacity to climb – I have installed many and various drip units to feed hanging baskets suspended 6-8 feet off the ground and for irrigating pots on the ground. I have had lines climb sculptures and have even bored holes in both cement and granite boulders to be able to irrigate a small plant ot basket/pot.

In drip irrigation, any emitter can put out a pre-designated amount of water. On hanging baskets, I typically install an emitter which has a device that can control the amount by a small turning up or down. The maximum is rarely reached but the amounts can be tweaked daily and easily if desired. In warm weather, we can put more water in by tweaking the mechanism, in cooler weather, by turning it down.

Here, once again, is a list of how much water we use during a typical day doing those things we do:

Bath: 50 gallons
Shower: 2 gallons per minute (15 minutes shower = 30 gallons)
Teeth brushing: 1 gallon
Hands/face washing: 1 gallon
Face/leg shaving: 1 gallon
Dishwasher: 20 gallons/load
Dishwashing by hand: 5 gallons/load
Clothes washing (machine): : 10 gallons/load
Toilet flush: 3 gallons
Glasses of water drunk: 8 oz. per glass (1/16th of a gallon)

Obviously, this is the baseline I use in my own considerations of how much water I want to see used.  What I am saying more than anything is that there are methods of ascertaining how much water we use up, and where. My other contention is that it is possible to use water at the same rate as almost anything else, like toilet flushing and bathing. Our bills do not have to spike at all during warm seasons, in order to have full, lush gardens and landscapes. It is by use of better irrigation practices and of utilizing all the design tools at our disposal that we can create even nicer gardens at a tenth of the water use.

Adding a room!

If we opt for doing things “the interesting way” by solving old landscaping problems once reserved for water-wasting lawns, we find we can still even have some lawn available for use, just less. And by “interesting” I mean by regarding the entire garden differently. Any more, there are more and more ways to expand out living area to the out of doors. Up-lighting now means we can build virtual “walls” of light at night, forming a limit on our field of vision and virtually visually enclosing an area of interest. Inside that area, we can feature interesting “hot zones”, where we make a waterfall “phosphorescent” by placing a low wattage Haloid lamp under a falls. (Thanks to “Outdoor Lighting Perspectives” for the picture):

All these things make things – well – different now. We are finding ourselves considering landscapes and gardens closer at hand, much more immediate than the models many of us were raised with – the expansive “Estate Garden”. Even now I actually do put some of those in. But they are typically done where someone has their own water source, fed from wells, so that his own water actually gets reused. Here’s one of those taken from one of the tiers. I actually feature this project in an earlier post under “Large Landscaping Project – 2”.  (You can see I have a way with words!)  😉

But there’s no way this is anything but eye candy, maintenance intensive (‘fuhgitaboudit’) and an impossible dream to most of us. More than likely, a picture such as this captures most of our hopes in terms of lawn size:

Presenting a gorgeous front and then actually living in the back yard is what so many of my clients have gravitated to. Finding a place to relax and enjoy, away from the madding crowds. And this is where it always gets most interesting to me, personally. Sticking in thematic but novel things such as sculptures, water features, larger patios for entertaining make a yard far more interesting. Here’s the thing –  we can do all these things on a fraction of the watering than we have become accustomed to. Even small spaces, squeezed in on hillsides in a desert climate can yield a terrifically reduced field of interest right off the back deck. The trees here are also lit up at night on the outer perimeter. Watering this place takes a bath a day.

There are lots of options in the water-saving realm of landscaping and design. You can choose any number of remarkably diverse styles and budgets.

I have studied all this pretty assiduously

And my best advice is to make sure you have some fun, work within a budget, and think for yourself – your ideas are still what makes it all go.

The Ironies Of Desert Landscaping

Water is life. The lessons taught us by the plants and animals who survive and flourish in desert landscapes teach the same lessons to those humans who also choose to live there. Hoarding water, developing retaining and collecting systems and then using the life-giving resource to further life itself are all in the architecture of plants and cities.

The picture below, for example, is the dam which guides the lake water level at Lake Tahoe and which controls the amount of water let loose into the Truckee River which wanders through Reno on its journey to Pyramid Lake.

(dam pictures courtesy of  US Dept. Of The Interior/Reclamation Division)


Reno, in many ways, is exceptionally fortunate in that the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range runs close by, just on the outskirts of town to the West, in fact. What that means is that the mountains retain a frankly staggering amount of snow almost (!) every year, attributable to jet streams which guide the Hawaiian-induced “Pineapple Express” moist and warm weather patterns  towards the West Coast and then inland. One night accumulations of as much as 12-15 feet are not unknown. A basic snow pack often reaches 200′ in a season. This translates into a store-able source of liquid life. It also produces opportunity, which Reno has taken full advantage of in terms of water storage and availability in its High Desert environment which typically gets a bit over 7 inches of moisture per year. But the reservoirs also provide a huge recreational component for fishing, boating and camping, to say nothing of the attendant golf courses and softball, summer sports facilities.


The above is the earthen dam at Boca Reservoir. There are a good 4 reservoirs including Lake Tahoe which serve Reno. Each is in excess of 30,000 acre feet, so that’s some serious water.

Drip Irrigation

Adaptable as always, those crafty humans went and helped themselves immensely by maturing a technology of delivering water to plant materials in at a previously inconceivable rate, allowing more or less the exact and proper amount of water to go in evaporation-proof manner, directly to a plant’s roots. Drip irrigation made the scene and has now matured into a technology of vitality in even non-desert applications. Home owners everywhere now can hang baskets served by tiny irrigation lines and delivered at whatever intervals and amounts they choose. Gardens and pots can be serviced with water, even while a gardener goes on a vacation – without involving the neighbors!


Here – above – is the Reno Automobile Museum, fabulously wealthy Bill Harrah’s stunning collection of cars and a tourist attraction of well-deserved eccentricity and completeness, stuck hard in downtown Reno. My good friend Tom Stille was the Landscape Architect and this picture shows a slightly-compromised view of his style of plantings. Yes, he supplied some sod but it was at the request of the owner, while the rest of the property is very riddled with totally native plantings and boulders. Note that every plant is fed by drip.

Finally – Landscaping Around A Doggone House!

It leads to enormous possibilities in residential applications – bottom line. The other primary ingredient of High Desert life is the Sun. There is quite a bit, sustained, at times almost oppressive. But what it can do for flowers and plants is out of the envelope:


Fed daily and sometimes even twice a day, the amount of water needed to provide this succulent scene amounts to a couple of baths a day.

And it is much the same with this one below. One of the other key ingredients in designing Desert Landscapes consists of also providing key diversionary elements such as boulders, creeks – even water features – which use little or no water whatsoever. Face it – after filling up, a recirculating water feature such as tops this little man made creation – a mini mountain – uses very little water after the fill.


This late Fall – early Winter view from another angle of this project reveals the cascade and creek which actually splits and diverts at the second landing. At this time of year, we typically motor down the irrigation as plants go somewhat – but not totally – dormant. But one can still run the water in the waterfalls long past this date.


Possibly impractical, I guess, but highly-satisfying to home owners are small oases, filled with fish, as yet more life teems around the pool with a vitality fed from underground.


The possibilities of using stored water effectively have produced a reduction in water by in gardening and agriculture by nearly 30% over the past 10 years. And this was over a period of time which saw the Housing Bubble and people paying for much incredible landscaping work with the ATM purchases their growing appreciation of value allowed at the time. While unfortunate, this reveals my contention far clearer by what resulted from an expanded construction trade but – still – a reduction to such an extent.

Water rules but delivery systems rule more.

The High Desert landscape world has made life of higher quality for those who have taken advantage of it all.


Abnormally Cool Garden Furniture – Helen Nock


(click images to enlarge)

She lives 3,900 miles from here on a different continent, but Helen Nock’s inspired craftsmanship just about ripped my heart out. I have rarely had such an avid appreciation of someone’s excellent work – and make no mistake, there sure are plenty of folks who do amazing things – but Helen’s work had me from the get-go.


The two bird baths – above and 2 below –  give an idea of her material and her general concepts. She – like me – loves mosaics and the crazy imaginings one can get from colored glass. Yes,  it’s a weakness, I admit it. 😉  I thought the Indians got a great deal selling Manhatten for $22 worth of glass baubles, myself. I’da been cheaper! I am moved by the baubles made by the human hand. Just as the stained glass in the great churches moved men and women to forget their meager and hard-fought existences, witnessing God’s glory and the promise of better lives in those Holy Places – be they Mosque or Temple or the Great Cathedrals of Europe – now, from the hands of fabulous craftsmen and women such as Helen Nock, we get yet another near-religious experience. We are now enabled to witness a shameless exposure to radical artistic design – equally powerful in many ways and definitely as mesmerizing.


Helen – like the architects of those inspirational devices of churches – also loves experimenting with her own version of killer baubles, enjoying the dimensional frames they fool us with and beguile us with so dearly – and with a playful sense of love at the same time. Art with a smile never looked so good. So? It’s A Garden Fer Pete Sakes!!  Get Real! Sue me! What could be cooler? I’m just a gardener!! These handcrafted products bring ferocious and gorgeous new colors into a garden, all season long – no matter the season. Plus, Helen has a hysterical take on symmetry going for her too – balance is structural, by all means, but hardly designed that way above her very substantial steel footings. I find much of her work positively “Antonio Gaudi-like” and love it. In those times of the year when color is so desperately desired, we have this incredible artifact – or many others shown below by way of tables, seats, bird baths or just standard ornamentation – all glitzy, translucent, shimmering and special and all our own. Man, am I ever a fan!


Here’s a close up of the picture above – and, yes, please ask about materials…………


This isn’t some small time girl.This is a serious pursuit and we gain from these gorgeous artworks.

I have no problem whatsoever in comparing what she does with the great artisans of our – or any – era. Art is a trick – we take standard average elements and make them something far, far more than they began with. At my most presumptuous, I think that about my best work. Helen Nock, as many others of us, works hard at her chosen craft. Her products are often commissioned by individuals with very particular wants. Take this Sunflower Table for example:


A stunning fact of her work is not just in its artistic sensibility alone, either. These items are not your everyday flimsy, department store items. They are made with the connivance and aid from her local blacksmith, as Helen’s demands go to such materials as Stainless Steel, bronze, copper and the slates and stone sets which need a firm footing, attached for super permanence. These are, after all, outdoor products for the most part. They need to accomplish sturdiness and stability facing the greatest conniving for failure devised by man or Diety – children, for one thing, rain and wind and the elements in general, for others – including freezing and thawing. Outside of the Sun, Nature’s most  universal killer of man made things is the alternating temperature during a day’s passage.


Her “smithy”, Nathan Bennett, is a busy man, and thorough. Not only do they conspire to build these edifices extremely well, they build them to last. And not only do they build them to last, but Helen does these series’ of acid washes of the metals themselves, bringing colors out with each application, fastidiously producing her desired product. She works until she gets it right. I think I like this aspect best, but then I would. The thrill of producing permanent things is a wonderful accomplishment.

Here are her own words as to how she arrived at this craft: (from her website profile)

“I was formally trained in fine art and design with a special interest in painting but a series of unnexpected turns led to my current practice. My professional carreer began working with teenagers and young adults disaffected by mainstream education shortly after gaining my B A Hons as a mature student. A fantastic six years of lecturing and teaching both professionally and personally stretching, but by September 2006, I felt the need to focus my own practice. I assumed a return to painting on a full-time basis but working in a disused stone quarry surrounded by wildlife, some training on the resident blacksmith’s forge and a strong interest in nature and natural materials strongly influenced my decision to make beautiful and unusual things that live outside. The metal working opportunity led to developing work where I could integrate wrought iron, and commission the blacksmith to manufacture from my designs.  Exploring mosaic method seemed a natural progression to combine with wrought iron furniture.  Latterly, I explored the potential of mosaic method for individual sculptural work. I will use a range of methods and material as work and inspiration suggest, not all exclusively mosaic but my abiding interest in mosaic method is fired by it’s flexibility and hardy utility, and diverse possibilities it offers in combinations of media and technique.” Works for me!!  😉 87082_mosaic-and-metal-detail-of-metalwork-surface-finish Here is Helen herself, decked out in her most decadent and oh-so-fashionable working attire and doing those lady-like things we all expect our wimmins to do.  Yes, she is grinding away with a Super Industrial strength grinder. Oh still my heart!!! 😉 That grinder, by the way, is like what we use for shaving cement blocks and bricks. It is about as safe as a loaded gun and needs that much care to avoid accidental disaster – they are, in fact, so powerful, they can also ruin some work in a split second, too. (She’ll kill me for this, I am sure, lol) Hey. I’m in love, don’t listen to those other guys!  😉 4858200074_1a3cce5777_b What we get, from the developer of this art’s perspective, is this – the elemental series of constructions I found incredibly fascinating, to say nothing of the end product: Raw stuff: 4821762119_b1d36ea1b5_b 4821767675_528bbca777_b A forged stainless steel detail: 4832142374_00c716dc84_b The Home Stretch – almost there! 4834696775_780dd45da7_b Still some buffing necessary yet: 4860317729_61ce96bec9_b Final Product: 4864266353_20763149bb_b Pretty amazing stuff. Here is her website:–and-wall-art This is where she exhibits just some of her stuff. A word – she also does sculpture and she also does – get this – lighting for gardens, which I show here. This one is entitled “Wall Urchin”: 4287061743_f925380384_o Here it is, lit up: 4287796014_90a45b760b 4287803860_49eeb90a0e_o Helen Nock. My current most favorite artist in the world and also a great gal, I hasten to add. I’ve only spoken with her by mail, asking her permission to spread the Great Word and we definitely made one another laugh. There can be no higher praise. Thanks, Helen and keep it up!! She does a great Pig, by the way!! And in a shirt, no less, for the more modest of us.


180417_andamento-flow Absolutely wonderful work. 65570_cluster 3894054799_b3ae17dda3_b 87286_garden-table-spira-top-view-scroll-down-for-more-views 139860_garden-table-shingle-dreaming 3894835854_3d8d64e1c6_o 3894048341_e75921d290_o