March 11th, 2008
Springs Preserve: Garden Design 101

Springs Preserve

Whether I love something or hate it, a strong emotional reaction piques my desire to explore why. I immediately fell in love with the gardens at the Springs Preserve and having grown up in the American southwest and seen many desert-themed gardens in my life, my first reaction was curiousity. How did the did the designers at the Springs Preserve do it? What’s special about these gardens? What makes them stand out?

Not being much of a designer myself, I’ve always cast the gardener’s dilemma as an either/or choice: some gardens sacrifice good design to the owner’s love of plants (the category I see myself in) and some gardens eschew plants in favor of good design. But the gardens at the Springs Preserve demonstrate that you can indeed have both. Containing over 1200 species, a true botanical garden, the Springs Preserve does not skimp on plant choices. Conversely, the designers did not set out the gardens in some boring, orderly way, grouping the plants in rows by genus and species as I’ve seen in some botanical gardens. They created plantings that “Wow!” the eye.

The gardens at the Springs Preserve are primarily educational. Run by the Water District, the purpose of the gardens is to teach water conservation to the many people who have retired to desert living after living in climates where water usage was something they didn’t think much about. A lot of people view any plea for conservation as a request to “do without”. The Springs Preserve demonstrates that water conservation does not mean having less or going without; a new climate is an opportunity to explore new and more appropriate ways to garden, one more adapted to the climate in which one gardens. In other words, rather than complain about a lifestyle that is lost, why not use good old-fashioned American inventiveness to explore new, more efficient ways of doing things? (This is what our immigrant forebears did; abandon the ideas of the old world and embrace the challenges of the new.)

The designers at the Springs Preserve did not just come up with a list of plants suitable for desert climates. They sought to educate the public on how to use these plants together to create striking gardens. One of the demonstration gardens is devoted to explaining and exploring 8 elements of good design: symmetry, line, color, balance, texture, proportion, rhythm, and harmony. In a circular display, 8 mirrored stations are set up with a mirror, plantings, and short explanation of each design element. The lesson I learned was that it is important to consider the relationships among all elements in the garden.

Below are the notes I took, with some of the example plantings.


“In your garden, lines–the edge of a walkway, a curving plant bed, or a tree’s branches–lead the eye, too. Horizontal lines create a calm environment while zigzag lines are playful and lively. Vertical lines make a view look narrower. Horizontal lines seem to widen a view.”
Springs Preserve
The Springs Preserve uses lots of concrete edging and other borders and paving to define space. Like the square paving stones inside the circular walk above, they use a combination of shapes so the design isn’t boring. Many of the plants, like the palm trees, or the saguaro cactus in the background provide provide dramatic vertical lines.


Do you like energetic contrast or a muted palette with few accents? Choose carefully because colors have a powerful effect on human emotion. Colors interact with each other so when you are choosing colors for your gardens, think about their relationships.

Like Japanese-style gardens, desert-themed gardens do not rely primarily on color but focus instead on the texture and forms of plants. However, when cacti bloom, they do so in neon colors that can’t be ignored. Color in the garden is not limited to flowers. The Springs Preserve used many different colors of mulches to create patterns. We should also consider the colors of our garden benches, sheds, pots, and other ornamentation.


You can feel texture or see it. Smooth textures are subtle, and rough textures create a more raw feeling. Contrasting textures can be very striking.
Springs Preserve


“Your size is relative to what’s around you…Trees, plants, and pools should be in scale with each other and the environment.
Springs Preserve
I find it difficult to figure out proportions in my garden. First of all, those dang plants are always growing. And then, just as they reach maturity, we get a drought or a freeze or a flood that kills them off and leaves a hole in my planting. Lastly, I design too small, too conservatively.


“Symmetry in your garden creates a formal, orderly feeling. An asymmetrical garden, which is not divided down a visual midpoint, creates a more casual, natural feel.”
Springs Preserve


“Objects in a garden have relationships. If they are in balance, the garden will look and feel complete. A garden doesn’t have to be symmetrical but you should feel that the elements at any point balance out those around them.


“Repeating a shape over and over moves the eye moving along. Repetition can be boring after a while. Spice up your design by slowly changing shapes, colors, texture, or direction.”
Springs Preserve
Notice how the form, shape, and texture repeat and diverge in this hardscaped area.


Springs Preserve
Somehow I failed to take any notes on harmony but I think the garden above captures it all. Look at the different colors and textures, at how the strong lines draw you into the garden, at the balance of elements and how they are in proportion to each other, the use (but not overuse) of repetition.

Now I’m going outside to examine my garden with new eyes.

by M Sinclair Stevens

8 Responses to post “Springs Preserve: Garden Design 101”

  1. From linda:

    Awesome post!


  2. From KAT:

    These are great observations, M. Might I add a touch of whimsy and fun? Plus unexpected juxtapositions. From your photos, the fantastic also seems like an element. Hard to avoid with succulents, which seem so otherworldly sometime. Come visit us and see the Huntington’s long-established succulent garden–the forms are massive!

    Also, not just retirees moving to Vegas, but many Angelenos who moved for affordable housing. These folks THINK they come from an area with plentiful water!

    I’m curious to know what you come away in contemplating your own garden.

    Your comment makes me want to write another post…I agree that this garden has a creative flair stemming from its interesting juxtapositions and a bit of whimsy. But how do you quantify that? The elements of design (proportion, balance, line) can be analyzed and explained. How do you teach creativity or style? I think those qualities distinguish good gardens from great gardens. What I admire here is the attempt to teach us all how to have at least a good garden, even if we lack the personal style to have a truly great one. We tend to group people into those who “have it” and those who don’t. I think those of us who don’t should not give up. I think that there is plenty that can be learned and achieved even if one lacks innate style or creativity. — mss

  3. From Joy (Ontario, Canada):

    I have been reading your posts from this garden site and I am so in love with the desert garden themes. I have no idea why but I have a suspicion it is the simplicity of only particular plants…and sand, rocks. It is relaxing to look at somehow…
    Great posts and notes!

    For gardeners who are very keen on the “bones” of the garden, this style is very inviting. There is such clarity and openness, as you say “simplicity” (although doing it right is no simple task). When I returned to my own cottage-style garden, I felt a bit hemmed in and oppressed by all the greenery. I want my garden to have better lines and better vertical elements. — mss

  4. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    What a terrific post, MSS. I was just over at Trey’s site (The Golden Gecko) saying that while I find gardening advice and plant information superior on blogs than in magazines, I don’t generally find that to be true where design is concerned. And then I read this post on design, which is fantastic. Thank you for taking such good notes and photos (with your iPhone of all things!) while you were there.

    My own observations: I don’t quite get the mirrored stations. What were they for? I love the glass mulch, have admired it at the Wildflower Center and in Tom Spencer’s garden, and would love to use it in my own. I notice a lot of vertical hardscaping is employed in this garden, which I suppose you really need to define spaces in such a flat garden under such a big, open sky. I think their concrete edging works wonderfully as a foil to the textural plantings of cacti.

    Thanks for reading so carefully and leaving such a thoughtful comment. I really regret that I didn’t take my camera on this trip! The quality of the iPhone is not comparable.

    The mirrors: each station had an example planting and mirrors set up in various ways to reflect the planting and the concept. For example, in the fun-house mirrors you see me in, one can appear very large or very small in the same scene–which is supposed to demonstrate the concept of proportion, how the same object looks different depending on the size of the objects around it. It was sort of gimmicky but it made for a more inviting and memorable display than just signage would have.

    The well-defined lines and strong verticals are what I see really lacking in my own garden. I think you’re right about that creating vertical hardscaping compensates for the natural flatness of the desert, much of which is old sea bed.

    I have mixed feelings about the glass mulch. It is sharper than I thought it would be. And it got scattered out of the beds all over the path; I’m guessing that’s not easy to clean up. Leaf blowers wouldn’t work. On the other hand, I love the idea of recycling glass and it does look very striking. I wish we could visit this garden together. You’d see so much I missed. — mss

  5. From KAT:

    Like all faculties, creativity responds to practice and a willingness to stand on your head to look at things. With garden design I suppose it can too often be hardscape elements–but also unusual juxtapositions like Robert Irwin’s garden at the Getty Center. Of course with a garden you have to know science too! And all the sensory elements: sight, sound, smell, touch. Isn’t that the beauty of it?

    (I knew this needed to be another post.) I’ve always believed that although some people are born with special gifts of creativity, that the majority of us could do a competent job by learning the elements of design, and–as you say–spending a lot of time practicing. For me, one exercise is analyzing designs that I either really like or that I really hate. What I liked about the educational exhibit at the Springs Preserve is that it provided the vocabulary to help me articulate my gut reactions to a design. — mss

  6. From Jenny - Las Vegas:

    Dani is still referring to our visits to the Springs Preserve as “going to Aunt Em’s house”. He actually said, “Where is Aunt Em?” when we got there. Your pictures and observations are really great.

    I’m glad he thinks of it as my house. I felt very at home there. How is handling the piped in coyote howls in the children’s playscape? Is he still afraid of them? I remember how very happy he was shouting, “All aboard!” on the train. — mss

  7. From Kim:

    Wow. This is a lot to think about… but initially, it makes me want to walk outside with a shovel and get a few things moved in my garden!

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