Springs Preserve

March 11th, 2008
Springs Preserve: Garden Design 101

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.

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.

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

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?)

golden barrel cactus

March 6th, 2008
Golden Barrel Cactus

My brother, MJN, introduced me to the gorgeously planted Springs Preserve in Las Vegas and there I fell in love with golden barrel cactus, Echinocactus grusonii. Although it is an endangered species in its native Mexico habitat, it is one of the most popular landscape cacti in the American Southwest. Apparently this cactus can reach a size four feet tall and three feet tall. However, in the many display gardens of the Springs Preserve, it was used as the desert equivalent of a small globe shaped boxwood.

golden barrel cactus
In another display bed, colorful recycled glass chips were used as a mulch. The resulting jewel like beds glittered in the desert sun, but like many rock/gravel/shell mulches, the glass chips ended up being strewn in the paths. Recycled glass is definitely not a mulch to use if you have lots of trees and leaf litter.

golden barrel cactus
Golden barrel cactus also filled planters lining the parking area at the entrance to the Springs Preserve. My mother fell in love with them, too, and so I bought her one for $20 at Lowe’s. Then I saw a little golden barrel cactus in a paper cup on the clearance table for $2. I had to have it even though everyone wondered how I’d get it home. (I put it in my carryon luggage. No problem.) The silly thing about my $2 cactus is that someone glued plastic eyes on it and the cup said, “My Peeps, Cactus Buddies”. Ugh! I’ll figure out how to cut off those cutesy plastic eyes and restore some dignity to my beautiful golden barrel cactus.