March 9th, 2008
Springs Preserve: Botanical and Demonstration Gardens

Springs Preserve Las Vegas
Seminars on setting up water-saving irrigation systems are held at the watering can shed at the Springs Preserve, Las Vegas. This photo was taken just before sunset.

I make a trek to Las Vegas every couple of years solely because three generations of my family settled there. I never would have thought that Las Vegas held any interest for gardeners even though lot has changed since I went to high school there. All the new developments have a buffer of desert landscaping between the street and the concrete block walls that define each neighborhood. The new parks are all planted with waterwise landscaping. There is a lot more public art including some wonderful giant tortoises underneath the tangle of freeway near downtown. Even the cell phone towers are disguised as palm trees. Some people hate this but I think it shows a sense of humor and it looks better than a plain cell phone tower.

“Las Vegas” means “the meadows”. Ancient peoples and westward trekking pioneers found water and forage in this formerly bountiful valley. By 1962 the springs had been pumped dry and the original heart of Las Vegas languished. It’s now bounded by Highway 95 and The Meadows shopping mall. In 2002, Las Vegans voted to create the 180 Springs Preserve, overseen by the Las Vegas Water District. Not only does the preserve contain historical and archaelogical sites, the future home of the Nevada state museum, and an interactive exhibit hall, it is a model of instruction on how to live and garden in a desert. Las Vegas survives on borrowed water. It is not just an ecological disaster waiting to happen, it already happened.

The gardens at the Springs Preserve are designed to teach water conservation through water-efficient landscaping–to show that xeriscaping does not have to be zero-scaping (as my Illinois-born dad calls it). The Springs Preserve shows us when we stop taking our way of life for granted, we can tap into our creative potential and discover better ways to live.

Springs Preserve Las Vegas
The cactus gardens were designed by someone with a master’s eye for form, texture, balance, and harmony. All the plants are carefully labeled, as they should be in a good botanical garden. (I hate discovering a plant I love at a garden without being able to find out its common and botanical names.)

Springs Preserve Las Vegas
The variety of plants was astounding. Over 1200 species were moved from the original Demonstration Gardens to the Springs Preserve Garden Walk before its opening in 2007. The plantings at the Springs Preserve made even some of the English estate gardens I’ve been to seem rather prim and dull. After looking at these incredible textures and forms, don’t beds of pansies or tulips seem a bit tame?

Springs Preserve Las Vegas
I’ve never been a big fan of cactus gardens but that apparently because I’ve never seen a really well-designed one before.

Springs Preserve Las Vegas
I’ve never been a fan of palm trees either. And yet I stood amazed at how artfully the palm trees had been arranged. Again, this is first a botanical garden, so the main purpose was to show the great variety of palm trees available. (Compare my favorite, the Canary Island Date Palm, on the left, with the others.) But the designers went a step further and created a beautiful planting.

Springs Preserve Las Vegas
I fell in love with this Canary Island Date Palm, Phoenix canariensis, because of the texture of its trunk and the unique bulge at the top. (Should I buy one?)

Springs Preserve Las Vegas
After writing about my own maintenance headaches with rain gardens, I was happy to see a lovely example of a rain garden gone right. Hints: create rain garden away from trees and install waveform sculpture. (Isn’t it clever without being too cute?)

by M Sinclair Stevens

14 Responses to post “Springs Preserve: Botanical and Demonstration Gardens”

  1. From Katherine:

    And before the Springs Preserve, there was the Ethel M Cactus Garden.

    I’ve been visiting you guys in Vegas all these years and this is the first time you’ve mentioned gardens? Now if it were horses, I’d bet the story would be different. — mss

  2. From Aiyana:

    The Springs Reserve is definitely something I want to see. We go to Las Vegas occasionally, so I’ll make a point of visiting. Their weather is almost like ours, so I’ll wait until fall, or next spring!

    I thought of you a lot when I was there. I think you’d really like it. I wish I could find out more about the designers. — mss

  3. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    Yes, yes, yes! Your photos are fabulous, and the garden looks incredibly designed.

    “I’ve never been a big fan of cactus gardens but that apparently because I’ve never seen a really well-designed one before.”

    Me too. But the clean, modern borders holding in that beautiful, jazzy arrangement of cacti has me adding this garden to my must-see list.

    Apparently they’ve been disappointed that it hasn’t drawn more out-of-towners but it’s difficult to get to with public transportation and I don’t think it’s been well-publicized. I wish it were closer. I’d go every week. I’d take classes there. I’ve never been so impressed with a public garden as I was with this one. — mss

  4. From Melanie:

    The wave feature in the rain garden is just perfect. I’m glad you posted this blog, I never cared for desert gardens but these photos are beautiful.

    Maybe it’s because I grew up in the southwest hating the sun, the heat, and the aridness. My soul wanted a cool, wet, green exuberant English cottage garden. But the gardens of the Springs Preserve spoke to an old self within me. Like St. Paul, I think I had an epiphany, a conversion. — mss

  5. From Joy, Kingston, Ontario .. Canada:

    I have to admit I have fantasies of having a “Southwest” garden .. I am a closet cactus/succulent plant junkie ..
    These pictures are gorgeous !
    Now how funny is it for a snow bound Canuck to be in love with these gardens ?

    I think all that sun must be pretty inviting to the snowbound. You know we call you guys who come down for the desert winters “snowbirds”. (Reminds me of the Anne Murray song.) I think that’s the perfect plan. Winter in the southwest and summer in Canada. — mss

  6. From KAT (California):

    I am looking forward to more installments of this tour! In Los Angeles, our palm trees are dying out and debate is taking place about whether they should be replaced. They certainly are a symbol of the city, but the downside is that they don’t offer shade. But perhaps that wouldn’t be a minus for you? We have some along the street and the seedlings that come up are kind of a nuisance. The woodpeckers and parrots love them.

    We have a “zero-scaped” front yard and spend a lot of time pulling crabgrass out. I guess Vegas is dry enough that crabgrass isn’t an issue.

    FWIW, I worked on the historical museum…..

    Is this another fact I knew and forgot? What were you responsible for at the museum. If it was the sign at the Caretaker’s Cabin, I’m going to have to post that. Tell us more, tell us more. You probably know more about the Springs Preserve than I do. — mss

  7. From Brianna (Austin):

    I really enjoyed this post–thanks so much for sharing your photos. The cactus plantings are stunning!

    I couldn’t even begin to capture what they look like in person. I neglected to take my camera so all these photos were snapped with the iPhone. — mss

  8. From linda:

    Ah, gorgeous! I haven’t been to Las Vegas but have been to other desert southwestern states and been awed by the natural beauty. I’m looking forward to seeing more through your blog!

    Thanks for the encouragement. I’ll try to stay focused and finish up this series. — mss

  9. From Desiree (Ventura, CA):

    Hi, fellow, newbie, blotanist here. Wow, cool pics! It is funny how people tend to generalize about what a true ‘xeriscape’ is. I like to remind my clients that a xeriscape in California, doesn’t necessarily mean ‘all cactus and rocks’; in fact, it would probably look a lot different than the pics above from LV, especially since we live in a Mediterranean climate. Great post!

    Or from here in Texas. We plant a lot of Mediterranean plants here too but our climate is really too humid for them and some years they rot. Ask all those Austin gardeners who lost rosemary last year. — mss

  10. From Lori, Austin TX:

    Wow! This is the first cactus garden I’ve seen that I’d be willing to have in my own backyard. I think it helps that there’s such a variety of heights, textures, and forms, and that everything is more closely planted than I’m used to seeing in a xeriscape.

    Exactly. You got it. The amazing things were first, the variety, and second, how they put it altogether–how they mixed the textures, heights, and forms. As you walked around it, it looked great from every angle. — mss

  11. From Diana - Austin:

    Cool – I love your favorite palm and think that the wave sculpture in the river rock bed was amazing! How clever. There is beauty in that landscape – even though it is so different from ours or each of our individual styles. I just read about the Texas Valley landscape at Aurora Primavera and your post is much like hers — full of rugged beauty. Thanks!

    I just read the post at Aurora Primavera, too, and was attracted by many of the same elements. I’m gaining a new appreciation for gardening where I live instead of dreaming of English gardens. — mss

  12. From Steve Mudge(Fort Worth):

    The wave feature is brilliant–reminds me of another xeriscape trick by a landscape architect during the drought of the late 80’s in CA: he created a pond but instead of filling it with water he laid down a mirror, flat, where the surface of the water should be–worked great!

    The mirror idea is great. I like that kind of inventiveness. It might work in Las Vegas but I don’t think it would work in Austin. Too much pollen! — mss

  13. From Libby:

    Thanks for the tour! I love desert landscapes and cactus gardens; can’t get enough. My dream house is an adobe shack with a swept yard like they do in Mexico and a stock tank and organ pipe cactus fencing. (if my st. augustine continues to die, I may get part of my wish.) I was impressed with your poppies too; not one of my seeds made it. I guess they need coddling.

    I’d be happy to share my seedlings. Sending you an email with details. — mss

  14. From dee/reddirtramblings:

    Ah, lovely. That last photo especially with the wavy garden element to symbolize water. Thank you for introducing us to the spring preserve.~~Dee