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

Pebble Pathways – And Mosaics, Pebble and Brick


Click all images to enlarge

Pebble Pathways are a specialty. I have done just a couple in my day but I have so enjoyed looking at those done by others, I’m actually late in speaking of them. The above is from the Portland, Oregon Chinese Garden and – to me – represents the absolute “state of the art” of the Pebble Path. Embedded in a loose layer of wet cement and arranged painstakingly (obviously!) the makers keep their supplies nearby and reach around to grab the pieces, then they fit them meticulously into position. It was interesting watching them make these paths – and I only saw them beginning rather than all the way through – but these guys were definitely specialists. What was perhaps even more remarkable was their speed. Believe me, they’ve had practice. I have mentioned before in this blog where I was involved in this project myself, along with a couple of other souls from Teufel Nurseries in Portland.  One of my mates on the project was John Stone, currently an independent and very good contractor in Portland and Southern Washington. Here is his website. In fact, I describe much of our role in this exciting and hugely rewarding project in this blog under the category of  “Chinese Garden” in my “Categories” section.


Of some irony, during the construction of these pathways in Portland, a somewhat substantial amount of the pebbling had been accomplished when they were suddenly informed of a local building code which insisted that all “pebbled surfaces” were not to have more than a 1/8th inch depression. Since the ancient Chinese trait of providing such depths as a quarter inch – best for “massaging the feet” while traversing the -path – they had to redo what they had already done. The purpose, strictly non-judgmentally speaking, was for the ease of travel for wheelchairs and handicapped resources. Whether it made any difference whatsoever would be the question but – to their credit – the constructors sighed and went back to work.


What led to me to this subject, in fact, was seeing the mosaic work of Helen Nock, who I featured below in this blog, the wonderfully creative British designer and maker of exotic and artful garden furnishings, among her other talents. I was reminded of a few projects we’ve done where we inlaid a rather “Mosaic” pattern of not only other pebbled pathways, but with bricks as well. When one does a mosaic pattern, one gets this sort of “Fractal Sense” of the smaller role of the mosaic pattern being subservient to the overall ambiance of the project – the macrolandscape – itself. By exploding in artistically free small patterns at the more “micro” level, we make fascinating details which are never necessary whatsoever, but which add so much of a human touch. Below is a simple sort of construction we laid by cementing bricks over a barren, glaringly white “porch scape” of plain cement. Note the circular pattern of the bricks by the doorway. In the bricky world, this is so much trouble as to be almost self-destructive to a budget unless it’s factored in. Naturally, in my case, I gave the sucker away! But the clients actually made up for it. They were somewhere beyond pleased. This picture can be enlarged quite huge by clicking twice, for the full effect.


Here’s what it looked like from the front, after the lunch pails were removed:


And one final look at paver mosaics, in this case the picture at the front of the Toronto Music facility, a public arena dedicated to music, as evidenced by the fascinating mosaic trends shown in the pavers out front. The designer used a computer simulation of musical chords – I bet Jazz, lol – to render this undoubtedly maddening project for his installers.


Back To Pebbles:

There is a simply fascinating potential in constructing walkways and paths in these pebble finishes. There is literally no limit in possibilities. Indeed, Pebble Mosaics are a virtual art form of their own, some hanging in frames as representational art and others playful scenarios developed from the whimsical and fecund minds of homeowners and “amateurs”. I use the amateur term advisedly, as many of the best landscapes I have ever come across were done by the persons who lived where they worked. I’ve said this many times, but my respect for these folks is over the top. The best landscapes in the world can be those you happen onto visiting a party or dropping by for any purpose, into a back or front yard you never knew existed. Suddenly the floor moves. 😉


Patience, a good selection of stones for the project, a great base of, say 3-4″ of unfinished cement upon which to work (a surface and finish we in construction often refer to indelicately as a “rat slab”) and a slurry of moist cement is about all one needs to get tight with the Pebbling Art. Here are some random pictures of other pebble art projects – not my own. The first 2 are more of the Chinese Garden in Portland, with the first picture featuring a multifaceted quartz-dominated walkway:


This one is made even cooler by the plantings alongside – never to be underestimated as the adjunct of choice:


A close up –


On a wall…………………………….

Picture 534

From the amazing Janette Ireland, I present the utter Lunatic Fringe of the Pebble Mosaic Art:


For more on this stunning artist, click here:  Janette Ireland

You’ll never look at a cute pebble the same way again! Below is from This Blog Check it out.


Well, we’ve gone from interesting to wild. My work is done. 😉

Vertical Gardens – Part 2 – A Wider Sweep

Patric Blanc’s exterior vertical landscape at the Caixa Forum:

3320129771_197131e33f (1)

A more modern and late-seasonal look at Patrick Blanc’s seminal Vertical Wall at the Caixa Forum in Madrid, Spain. Always breath-taking, this early Autumn take reveals his sense of it’s evolving maturation and seasonal surprises. Far more colorful in Fall, by what almost seems to be a long way, we forget how many blooms it contains for Spring and Summer. If Van Gogh or Monet did walls, they might look like this.

The indoor world has burgeoned as well, recently. In an urge to make “Sick Buildings” more healthful, nothing counteracts boredom and the effects of ambient bad atmospheres like life-giving intake and emissions of deeply inhaled plant life.



I’ve decided to enlarge the subject owing to it’s new developments. This article was originally written in conjunction with the article below – Part 1 on Patrick Blanc – and will stand, owing to its relevance. But Part 3 will look closer at the nut and bolts of this phenomenon – the hardware elements which have caused its steady growth as an interesting gardening and designing adjunct, as well as various fascinating planting suggestions which have been highly successful as artful and elegant installations among us.

The article from July of 2011:

So after we admire the incredible work of Patrick Blanc, we return to Earth and find a veritable buzz over the entire Verticality thingy. 😉  We see what the PNC Bank in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania did and we do a bit of drooling. This, so far, is the single largest Vertical Wall construction in America and comes in at 2,380 square feet, a total of 14,440 plants, stuck up on the side of a building and offering something few other places have: the soft, lush organic features of plants, replete with seasonal changes:

So, First – The Massive Walls

(click any image to enlarge)


As the plantings mature, we pay attention:


While so much of the field is still experimental as it can be, the strides made by Patrick Blanc have offered immediate enthusiasm from disparate people and firms. Even the US federal Government is considering getting in on the act with the addition of a solid planted wall some 250 feet high in beautiful downtown Portland Oregon:


We realize many wonderful results from all these efforts, including impacts on air quality as well as a startling beauty – a blessedly impractical gorgeousness.

What is most interesting about any of these big constructions are the local effects. The intense plantings operate as a virtual “lung”, recycling and purifying the air aspired by the thousands of plants. From the EXPO 2005 Aichi website:

“At both ends of the central large screen, roses and other glamorous flowers are planted in pockets of the canvas made from kenaf and coated with photocatalyst. Other presentations of state-of-the-art greening technologies include sedum vegetation mats pasted over foam resin materials, vines planted over vegetation boards made of peat moss, and lovely wild flowers planted on bog moss.

Bio-lung is sprayed with mist of active water generated by ceramics. This spraying has the effect of cooling the temperature in the area. Bio-lung is designed to absorb carbon dioxide and supply oxygen with the vegetable power, in addition to the cooling effect in the summer months. It thus presents a model for future environmental equipment that will improve the urban environment and reduce environmental impact.”

I like the look, myself.


Before Proceeding: A Caveat

It may also be time for a caveat towards the entire enterprise, just to give a voice to the possibility of failure over time. It pays to go gently into this newer realm of horticulture owing to effects and implications which we are not entirely up-to-date with as yet. There have been some failures, once advertised as ‘no brainer’ success stories and triumphantly announced as the “next new wave”.

This can also happen:


A genuinely sad development, as are all gardening failures, this one the Paradise Park Children’s Centre in London designed and installed for a hefty bit of change and subsequently failed in development. The issue is broached in this article from Jetson Green’s magazine. An excerpt:

“It’s an interesting situation.  A lot of green technology is new and using it will certainly be an experiment.  Plus, here in the states, public money is chasing LEED and green building, so there will be some high profile blunders — kind of like this one.  But after reviewing all the commentary and various articles, there’s still no clear cut articulation of the what exactly happened.  Why did Paradise Park Children Centre’s living wall die?  Was it the design?  Construction?  Maintenance?  Or some combination of all three?”

The truth is, in landscaping, new technologies give us ways to deal with species’ which are millions of years old, lol. We try all sorts of stuff and sometimes we can’t help trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Some of the earlier efforts, for example, at “Xeriscaping” resulted in preposterous failures as the “drip technology” matured and we found more out about its nuances.

I’ve purloined a picture from a very favorite and quite prolific garden blogger, Alice @ Alice’s Garden Travel Buzz, who I have to insist we all visit regularly. She has also discovered vertical gardening and she has written as extensively as I have on Monsieur Blanc, including his latest effort in San Fransisco, featured in the link.

Here is Alice’s picture taken this year – another year into the floral development – at the Athenaeum Hotel:

Blanc Wall - Athenaeum Photo © Alice Joyce

Enlarging these photo’s reveals a riveting study in maturation, and in such a short period of time.

Blanc Wall Detail Athenaeum Photo © Alice Joyce

Pretty wild stuff.

Next post, we will deal with the “Next Phase” – what works and who is dealing with the future of vertical gardening. In many cases, it might just be fine enough to simply appreciate yet another design innovation made of simple materials, destined for temporary life, recyclable, ultimately re-designable as well. The primary virtue of it all is that we are indeed dealing with plants – what we do from there (outside of feeding and nurturing) is up to the artist in us all:

(this picture taken from a reprint of a photo from Scott  at Season’s Landscaping). I really like what they do, down in the L.A. Region.

Pelican-Hill-02 seasons landscaping

On a smaller scale – nothing really new here, just pretty as heck, from the Portland, Oregon Vertical gardening experts at the neat Singer Hill Cafe, where I aim to drink a cup o’ Joe in mere days from now as I visit up there: