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.


Sensational Artwork Using Water


This stunning and creative photographic capture is among a series of wallpaper pictures from this website: FantasyArtDesign. Photography may be the art form which has most enhanced the  appreciation of water in terms of possibility and incredibly exotic representation………  But, then, photography is passive. It needs  subjects to do its work. As a partner in such stuff, you are reading the blog of one of the most satisfied appreciators of photography in history.  😉

But this is only tangentially a photographic blog. Landscaping and the range of possibilities in design and implementation is what this blog and what I am about. And today, I want the whole enchilada – let’s visit water and all the wondrous edifices and constructions which humans have made to celebrate our relationship with this vital and helpful element.




The work of water is fascinating. We see modern fountains which seem utterly other-worldy and which fascinate us beyond measure. Sometimes even huge, gigantic constructions comprising computer generated pumps and jets which throw coordinated spouts of water into hitherto-unheard of heights such as this monster in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia referred to as the world’s tallest fountain – shooting water 1,024 feet above the Red Sea.


Or the famous works of kinetic water sculpture such as those made so famous at the Las Vegas Bellagio, of course:



Barcelona, Spain  finishes second to no one with their miraculous fountain, so appropriately named “The Magic Fountain of Montjuic”.



Enough Of Fountains

Let’s visit a couple of other water wonders artists have tossed together out of those creative minds over centuries of washing, swimming, boating and drinking the stuff.

The painting below was constructed by a lady with the absolutely appropriate name, April Waters. It can be resourced here, at the Oregon State University Agriculture Art Gallery.


What’s most unique to me about this particular painting  is its utter realistic depiction of Winter on the American North West – complete with the deluges courtesy of the Pineapple Express’s warm ocean current and the plenty of weather it brings – the (cough, cough)……….AMAZING AND OFTEN DEPRESSING AMOUNT OF RAIN.  😉

Other visual artists have become far more famous than April throughout history for their own representations of the liquid of life. Among my favorites is this gorgeous Chinese painting of a leaping carp, an ancient symbol of wealth. The artist is the contemporary Chinese artist Zhou Wen Xi (周文熙)


Since running water in Chinese symbolism also represents money in its ephemeral forms, I’m hoping this carp visits my house down the Ohio River and stays a while. I’ve always been a carp fan!

Speaking of which, here is some material art composed of animated substance, muscle and even a modicum of brain power who also enjoys the life afloat as well as beneath the currents and flows:


We should also take a moment to reflect at the vocal expressions regarding water. We sometimes do indeed acquaint ourselves with what water brings as our borderline single most precious resource. These people celebrate water in song –


The World’s Fountains

In a parallel Universe, I once wrote a blog for a local Louisville company: Pond And Fountain World. (link included). In so doing, it has allowed me to study and roam around, looking at an absolutely fascinating subject. Not only does the blog feature what they sell – currently-retailed pond and fountain accouterments, including an excellent selection of pre-made fountains, ready to deliver and install – but it also gives me the right and reason to explore the entirety of the world of fountains, internationally.

Wow! What a treat. Below from The University of Connecticut’s Waterbury Campus:


The designs of those who build these things come from a creativity one can only guess at in its artistic purity, apparent freedom and in their sometimes overal simple immensity. “Mind-boggling” comes to mind as we tour the most outlandish and absolutely breath-taking water-art sculptures, sitting as so many do in the public squares of our major cities. From the work of Lawrence Halprin in Portland, Oregon –


My great good friend, Steve, gets to sit at the bottom of Halprin’s Ira Keller Fountain in the face of the seeming vastness of the fountain while it crashes down, so nearby:


These gorgeous civic fountains are now becoming less formal and more amenable to “audience participation” these days – a welcome respite from an overly-litigious society in general, which I welcome wholeheartedly:


Here is Halprin’s stunning blend of  “The Natural” and “The Modern” work at the FDR Memorial in Washington, DC, shown here at night –

HALPRIN_Lawrence_FDR_Memorial_Naitonal_Mall_ded_May_2_1997_DC_source_LS_d100_Some History

Fountains were initially creations which were fed from aqueducts – the original plumbing apparatus, dating back at least 2,500 years. Often, these aqueducts would send water downwards, creating the pressure which allowed the newly-minted fountains in Greece, for initial historical example, to spurt water out for public and private consumption. Fountains and public water sources, fed by the rivers, lakes and streams in the mountains, began appearing around 260 BC in Ancient Greece. The notion of “siphoning” became pioneered and created works which could allow water to run or not run, depending on opening and closing a valve.

In the end, aqueducts would literally terminate in city centers or plaza’s where the resulting pressure and large quantities of water supplied could be more fully appreciated by attaching art work and form to the terminus.

The Trevi Fountain, in fact, Rome’s famous “Fountain Of Love” featured by Hollywood so many times, was just this sort of product.

Trevi Fountain at Night

(Picture credit here to Tour Of Rome, along with the quote below, capsulizing better than I could, a brief history of its construction.)

“There had been a source of water at this site for over a thousand years, although it was not until 1485 that Pope Nicholas V commissioned Gianlorenzo Bernini to create the fountain, but the project had to be abandoned when Pope Urban VIII died in 1644. Then in 1732, Niccolò Salvi was employed by Pope Clement XII to continue with the work, with the result being the Baroque masterpiece that completely dominates the little square today.”


For me, it is the mixture of “chthonic” elements – fit for the Gods alone – which assemble in the primordial primitive juxtaposition of the  jagged rocks which also seem  to be emitted by and to be so “at one” with the building behind. Like our own consciousness, we see a remarkable blend of the absolutely most Elemental mixed with the modern human and more mundane elements of muscle, posture and expressions. A fountain like this hits our perceptions in mental regions usually reserved for art. But then, who said fountains are not art?

Another personality who found the Lunatic Fringe of Modern Fountains is a Japanese designer named Isamu Noguchi. Below is his what is arguably his most famous work – his famous “Nine Floating Fountains”, constructed for the Osaka World’s Fair in 1970.

Here it is in daylight, obviously on a windy day –


And below is the night-time look for which it has become so famous:


But Mr. Noguchi was not done. He obviously loved the impractical and the utterly whimsical – and he was a master at it:


He also had a definite sense of humor!


We owe debts of gratitude on an unimaginable scale to the artists who have taken our technologies and our appreciation for Water Art to absolutely absurd but-always-interesting lengths.

Some of them have driven cities and countries to drink! Take Mr. Vaillancourt’s concrete irritation to the city of San Fransisco’s more “proper” sensibilities as an example. “Please”, many said, “take it!”. 😉


Some folks just need a sense of humor!

Can’t we all be friends?

william pye vortex fn

Fountains are very nearly a “First Love” for me. It would not take much to get me all the way there, either.


Can I get some Love for the Paris Stravinsky Fountain???


P6031001 Stravinsky Fountain