Scottsdale Xeriscape Demonstration Garden: gabions, shade sails, and desert plants

Scottsdale, AZ is Phoenix's wealthy neighbor to the east. The city is known for its upscale resorts and golf courses; the New York Times called it "a desert version of Miami's South Beach." As a result, the City of Scottsdale has more resources at its disposal than other cities of comparable size.

Case in point: the Scottsdale Xeriscape Demonstration Garden. This may be the most surprising public garden I've ever visited. I say surprising because instead of cookie-cutter hardscaping and the run-of-the-mill greenery you typically find in a public park, the City of Scottsdale created an outdoor lab showcasing water-saving landscaping techniques for Arizona homeowners as well as plants that are adapted to the harsh desert climate (the garden has over 7,000 plants from 200 species).

The 5.5 acre Scottsdale Xeriscape Demonstration Garden is part of Chaparral Park and seamlessly incorporates the adjacent Chaparral Water Treatment Plant in its layout. In fact, the garden partially sits on top of a buried 5.5 million reservoir of treated water.

Three architectural features are very prominent: gabion walls, massive shade sails attached to rusted steel pillars, and steel panels with intricate geometric forms.

Entrance to the water treatment plant to the east of the garden

Close-up of the entrance. The parking lot here is for employees only, but it was New Year's Eve and nobody was around so I quickly parked here to take these photos.

The project was designed by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects and completed in 2007. Christine Ten Eyck includes gabion walls in many of her designs, but I have never seen such a variety of gabions in one place. This is gabion city!

Gabion walls outside the water treatment plant offices

Shade sails between gabions

What a sophisticated way to provide sun protection

I love how much attention was spent on beautifying a utilitarian building

The industrial printing made this steel beam even more special

A series of steel panels with intricate geometric patterns soften the otherwise bland facade of the water treatment plant.

Closer to the Demonstration Garden, gabion walls and shade sails rise above enormous shallow bowls planted with Yucca rigida:

As much rainwater as possible is harvested for irrigation

Now we're at the "official" entrance to the Scottsdale Xeriscape Demonstration Garden. The building you see in the background is the water treatment plant I'd just walked around. 

Be sure to click on this photo to see a larger version. It's worth it!

Inscribed along the rim of this water basin is an old Indian saying that should be a constant reminder to all us of: “The frog does not drink up the pond in which he lives.”
Map of the garden to help you get your bearing. We started in the top left corner at the water treatment plant and are walking to the right.

Palo brea or Sonoran palo verde (Parkinsonia praecox) lining the main trail

Terraced gabion walls slow down rainwater, which can be very fast-flowing during the summer monsoons, so it can sink into the ground instead of running off.

This curved section of the water treatment plant—maybe a storage tank?—is clad in gabions as well for a unified look

Agaves growing in quite a bit of shade

Water catchment basin

As befits a demonstration garden, there are many signs interpreting a wide variety of topics—from rainwater harvesting... how not to shear desert plants into pineapples

Gabion buttresses against the side of the water treatment plant
Bougainvilleas and palo verdes

Massive shade sails protect an open area next to the water treatment plant from the sun

Different view of the same open area, a great meeting place for outdoor events

Notice the aloes growing at the base of the palo blanco trees: these are what's commonly referred to as "aloe vera." The botanical name is Aloe barbadensis.

My favorite view of this area

A grove, or "bosque," of honey mesquites (Prosopsis glandulosa) with spiraling concrete walls that form an amphitheater and guide rainwater into the center

Weir that can be opened during storms to avoid flooding

Fire barrel (Ferocactus cylindraceus)

At the far end of the Demonstration Garden is what turned out to be my favorite feature: Terraced Cascade, an environmental artwork by Seattle-based artist Lorna Jordan. According to Lorna's web site, this garden is an abstraction of the human body: "a series of rib-like terraces and a vertebrae-like cascade." The layered design guides rainwater into a mesquite bosque (on the right in the photo below) which provides much needed shade in the summer. Plants were selected "for their curious shapes, colors, and textures."

Let's take a closer look.

The birch-like trees are palo blancos (Mariosousa willardiana), an acacia native to Sonora, Mexico. We have a palo blanco in one of the succulents mounds in the front yard.

Take a look at the beautiful design of these walls: alternating layers of stacked stone and river rock

Plantings include a variety of agaves, cactus, yuccas, ocotillos and seasonal wildflowers

This may be the most stunning stonework I've seen in any garden

Ordinary homeowners don't have the space or the budget to build a hardscape this grand. But smaller-scale variations are within reach: say, a low dry-stacked wall for a raised bed or a seating area, or maybe even a gabion feature (yes, you can do it yourself). 

But you don't need fancy hardscaping to achieve the goals promoted by the Scottsdale Xeriscape Demonstration Garden: growing climate-appropriate plants, reducing outdoor water use, and keeping rainwater where it falls. If you live an area that's prone to heavy downpours, you can prevent rainwater runoff simply by creating mounds and depressions (swales) that channel the water to the plants. This works even in a small residential garden.

I was at the Scottsdale Xeriscape Demonstration Garden on December 31, 2016. From posts by fellow bloggers Pam Penick (Digging) and Noelle Johnson (Ramblings from a Desert Garden), it looks like April would be a great time to visit, with the mesquite trees freshly leaved out and many wildflowers and desert plants in bloom.

The Scottsdale Xeriscape Demonstration Garden is in Chaparral Park at the SE corner of Hayden Road and McDonald Road. Parking is off Hayden just south of McDonald near the dog park. Here's a handy map I found on the City of Scottsdale web site:



  1. No pineapples! Gawd I want to thank someone for that sign. I love the stacked stone and river rock walls, and really it's all top shelf design. But where are the people?

  2. Incredibly inspiring, and I think they need your amazing photo work for their brochure.

  3. Gorgeous garden, I love it! I looked into gabions in the past...not cheap. Maybe prices are better now.

  4. Impressive design in every way! I love the curving rows of green twisting trunks of the Palo Verde trees. And the wall in the last three photos -- wow!

  5. Now I'm fixating on gabion terracing for my back slope...

  6. This is really a spectacular garden and will change your mind about what a desert garden can be. Thanks for linking to my post about the garden too! Christine Ten Eyck lives in Austin now, and there are a few of her public projects here and in San Antonio I can direct you to if you want to see more of her work when you come for Garden Bloggers Fling.


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