Desert Landscaping: Design Fails and Fixes

Some have the idea I or any designer think we’re above reproach. No – some of us are actually our biggest critics, and that’s not being a perfectionist – it’s simply wanting to improve each time.

At the end of a long desert road, southern Nevada, late June 2015 –

that Joshua Tree should have stayed a Desert Willow…shade!

I’m unsure why I didn’t revisit Mike the architect’s suggestion (namely a tree for the L-shaped seat wall), but if only I stepped back and visualized summer – especially in Las Vegas!

too sparse…and plants at the gas meter, let alone agaves??!?

Now imagine a sunken swale down that planting area splitting the sidewalks. Catclaws, screwbeans or desert willows filling in the canyon created by both buildings, the entire length. Maybe some grasses or shady plants under, maybe just gravel.

Also, when I designed this in 2009-10, I hadn’t yet seen Loree’s blog to become more indoctrinated like today, so there’s no excuse for such an act :-)

and…should be trees in basins, not Joshua trees

While many of the above plants no longer get permanent drip irrigation due to the LEED Gold rating, basins and some hand-watering in summer could keep some going. Though perhaps not desert willows…

Where can people sit? Is there room once the plants grow in, those the contractor wants to substitute over the plants and alternates that I specified?

should be something smaller than the Brittlebush / Encelia farinosa

A favorite quote is from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “a designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

As I continue on a few designs, that plus starting with the big idea like shade, might help force the rest of the design how it needs to go.

6 Replies to “Desert Landscaping: Design Fails and Fixes”

  1. My first house was a xeric landscaping tale of fails. I agree that you can learn a lot by going back and looking at how things played out over the years. I didn’t think about how the plants would look 5+ years later. This led to the new owner having to remove some shrubs!

    My current house has a way better landscaping plan, but I also benefitted from the increased availability of native plants at nearby nurseries.

    I hear you, though I still did OK on my first house when I look at pics. Biggest mistake – eventual tree sizes, not looking at mature examples of them in town. And buffalograss lawn I never used in arid ABQ. Nurseries are better today for sure, but a long way to go. If I win Powerball, though… Thanks for visiting!


  2. Fabulous post, David! You have showed wonderful examples of how we continue to learn and grow. However, I do know that there are a few landscapes I have designed in the past, where I wish there was a “reset” button. But, those past experiences have simply helped me with what I design now.

    Your ‘fails’ are much better than many architect’s ‘best’ :-)

    Thanks, and from you that’s even better! (I really need to be diligent on filling out my project close-out good/bad form) Reset button – as much time as I spend on my PCs, I’ve actually looked for ctrl-Z more than I care to admit. But it’s only there in the virtual world. Sigh…


  3. I have always subscribed to the notion you mention of “when there is nothing left to take away.” But with plants, maintained, I can’t get enough. Over plant, abundantly, and maintain is my new mantra.

    “Some soldiers always talk about their medals, never their scars.” We learn from our mistakes, and if we’re really lucky, from other’s. Thanks for sharing!

    My 2nd house, I managed to “acquire” more plants than on my design…my last 5+ years I started a big pare down, then a historic freeze. I’ll need to post on Jeff Anderson’s garden in Las Cruces for you. Excellent quote – time to learn from others’ mistakes more!


  4. A great post! Being a designer that comes in once and doesn’t even have control of the actual plants that end up being planted is a very challenging job! Being a good critique is a good way to learn. I like to observe how my designs hold up. I also find that as my knowledge grows and I am influenced or responding to changes in climate and clients desires I would like to change things I did previously. The biggest challenge I find is that gardening is all about change…the plants are dynamic and really most designs should be at least refreshed every 5 years, sooner when the climate is harsh. Your design is holding up very well and has much to offer visually in its less is more form! Have you ever thought to ask if they would like an update. We do maintenance on a few past installs and I do get to change things occasionally.

    Thanks, I thought, “what went wrong at my end that I couldn’t go all over the site…then what went wrong from others involved?” We write specs and add careful notes, sizes and conditions of plants. But ultimately, the suppliers have what they do this time, lucking out on a few things, and sacrificing all the others!

    Change is true, and I think at 4 years to establish and change, I should approach the owner and do a walk-through. at least show them what is needed for replacement or change (like the canyon of trees), even some pruning myself a couple places. Too bad I’m no longer a direct 8 hour drive west!


  5. Thanks for this. I am -certain- you would be appalled at the newb mistakes I have made and am now trying to work around. eep. On the other hand, mistakes are part of doing any kind of creative work. Seeing them and learning from them are opportunities for growth and mastery. I really like the sunken swale idea of forming a mini canyon. We have an old un-used driveway that needs to go but I was unsure what to do with the area. I might steal your idea ….

    Not at all, esp. as thoughtful as you are…I would be taking notes! You’re right, its the act of mastering something. Yes, the building walls provide the canyon, the swale the ephmeral stream…even if in the Mojave Desert, ephemeral means 2x a year!


  6. This is great. I appreciate you pointing out it is not only the amateur who looks around their outdoor spaces realizing there are better techniques and approaches that could have been used (or even should have been…).

    Attitudes have changed, information is better and more widespread. Plants now listed as “invasive” were sold by the flat in reputable nurseries 20 years ago as “well adapted to our region”. Commercial spaces around town were routinely landscaped using the same half-dozen plants, none of them natives.

    I keep joking I’m going to start buying lottery tickets and when I win, (because of COURSE I would) I’ll use that money to scrape all my mistakes out and begin again. Hindsight….

    I started a file in my template project folders to document this very thing – what I should have done, with more time or the time I had…have I followed through at each project end? Nope. Where I moved from, invasives are still sold and promoted, even defended over using natives. While I learn to avoid certain non-natives that spread, if a project is near wild areas – Vitex, Yellow Bird of Paradise. Playing Powerball…same here!


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