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.


2 thoughts on “The Ironies Of Desert Landscaping

  1. Reno is surprisingly moderate, heat wise. But the aridity is overwhelming. The prson who does not hydrate sufficiently will be in a world of hurt. Even for humans, in other words, water is everything.

  2. From a disgruntled Reno resident: Two of those 4 reservoirs are at most 20% capacity. The Lake has retreated to under its spillable level and we will get nothing from it this year. Snowpack this year was at 4% of normal level. The mighty Truckee is a pile of rocks with the occasional tide pool, running through downtown Reno. We can’t seem to save that 10% usage decline requested by the water authority. But hey – we’re still going for major residential expansion with the emergence of The Gigafactory! irony is dead.

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