General Design Archives

As a landscape designer in Sedona, I get asked often by clients considering a fountain about how much maintenance is involved. It seems that fountains often are left untended and dry up because the owners don’t want the  hassle of getting it up and running.  But there is a type of waterfeature that Sedona residents should consider for their landscape design.

Pondless waterfeatures include both the naturalistic boulder style ponds that have a waterfall as their main point of discharge into the feature as well as fountains that usually have a top central return line that allows the water to cascade down the sides or lower parts of the fountain.

Pondless waterfeatures are no different than a regular waterfall and pond except they do not have an exposed surface area of water that you would normally see. Instead, the water pools into a storage basin below ground where you cannot see it. The water still gets recirculated to the waterfall as a normal pond waterfall system. You can enjoy the sight and sound of running water without the downside that the surface of the pond area is normally associated.

The waterfall itself, with its cascading stream and gurgling sound of water over stones and gravel, is the most beautiful and favored part of any landscape design that features water as the focal point or theme. But some people are concerned about debris floating on the water surface or the safety of exposed water. Others may have space limitations.

A pond and waterfall is a natural feature unlike a more formal manmade fountain. Both provide the sound of water, but a waterfall with the sound of water that mimics the real sound in nature, is favored for its realistic, nature-like appearance.

All fountains and waterfeatures whether or not they have a waterfall component, need a basin of water where the pump takes the water back to the point of discharge. This may be underwater at the bottom of the basin area, or in the form of a skimmer at the surface of the water just like in a swimming pool.

Benefits of Pondless Waterfalls

1) Safety

A pondless waterfeature has no exposed water surface, which can be a gathering spot for falling leaves, attract mosquitoes and be a potential drowning hazard for small children or even rodents. Having no exposed water surface can give one peace of mind and can be left operating without worry anywhere in the yard.

2) Cost

Cost can be a important consideration when thinking about the kind of waterfall you may want to have. In most cases, the cost of a pondless waterfall will be lower than a pond, due to there being less labor, less rock, and other materials. Pump size is smaller because of less water to pump, thereby allowing for better efficiency and operating costs.  Because you are not creating an aquatic ecosystem, you do not have to run the pump 24/7.

3) Space Saving Design

The small size of the pondless waterfeature means you can create and enjoy a beautiful waterfeatures anywhere in your garden — even in a courtyard !. As long as there is nearby water and electricity, you’re good to go.

4) Maintenance

Taking care of your pondless waterfall is easier than a waterfall with a pond. Because you don’t have a body of water to capture leaves and debris, the pump’s filter will be clean less often. Because the underground reservoir is not exposed to the sun, it will not evaporate as much and reduce the amount of water needed to offset evaporative loss.

Most pondless waterfeatures are sold as kits that include the basin, the pump and plumbing. These basins have a lid that has small holes that allow water to flow through but not larger size gravel to fall through, essentially hiding it from view yet providing a sufficiently large volume of water as required for the pump to operate efficiently. I can speak with direct knowledge as we recently installed one in a Sedona courtyard as the focal point of the landscape design.

The basins have access ports that allow you to easily get to the pump for maintenance or to adjust the flow if equipped with a flow control valve. They may also have a second access port where the water leveler is usually placed, again hidden from view.

5) Creative Opportunities

A Pondless waterfeature kit can also allow the design of a variety of unique fountains to be built from objects that are not necessarily thought of as fountains. Since many fountains are self contained with their own basins, you are restricted to the entire design. Yet when using a pondless waterfeature basin, you can use vessels such as large ceramic pots or cored out pieces of stone as the main aesthetic feature of the fountain.

A large colorful ceramic pot already has a hole in the bottom, and so you simply feed the pump return tube into the pot, seal it with silicon and as the pot fills up with water, once it reaches the brim, it then overflows and cascades down the sides of the pot giving a subtle yet tranquil feel to the design.

Other devices and objects can be retrofitted in a similar fashion, so don’t be limited to just the off the shelf fountains, get creative!

Outdoor rooms extend the useable living areas of the home. Sometimes they are adjacent to the home itself as in a covered patio. Sometimes they are fully detached and separate from the residence and have their own roof structure.

A simple shade structure may or may not be designed to create the feeling of an outdoor room, because it may only be designed for shade as the primary function. In this case, do we want total shade as in creating a solid cover, or do we want partial shade which allows light to filter through an open beam structure?

Most shade structures are not designed as outdoor “rooms” unless they have some kind of wall or enclosure that defines the area under cover. The furniture and other amenities that are placed in the space also define how well the ambiance feels like an true outdoor room.

Today, many pieces of furniture and fabric can withstand the elements including area rugs. Some outdoor speakers are also designed as water resistant.

Look at this slide show of projects I have designed and built giving some examples of Ramadas, Gazebos, View Decks and other structures and spaces:

An upscale residence, perhaps worth $1 million or more can be described as elegant — and usually has elegant landscape design features that are consistent with the degree of architectural elegance designed for the structure itself.  After all, skimping on the outside will certainly be evident when comparing it to the home itself. Most upscale homes include a pool, outdoor grill and expansive entertainment patio spaces, sometimes with a an outdoor fireplace. A waterfeature or fountain is always a  must have element.

Most of these types of high end landscapes are installed during the initial construction of the house when it was first built. This is because a master plan has been prepared for the outdoor areas. Most likely, the building architect brought in a landscape designer who could collaborate with the architect to arrive at an integrated design approach between the elegant indoor and the landscape features of elegant outdoor living areas. The outside of a luxury home is more than just trees, shrubs and patios.

Sometimes I get to design an elegant style landscape where the client wants all the “bells and whistles” — especially when their property can handle a lot of different spaces and features to essentially extend the useable living space of the interior.

Pools, spas, ponds, fountains, outdoor kitchens, gazebos, ramadas, fireplaces, fire pits, sculpture, artwork, accessories, synthetic grass and other amenities must be carefully designed along with the infrastructure of grading, drainage, plumbing, electrical, irrigation and lighting.  All of this detail must certainly be planned out starting with a conceptual design and working into specific details about how everything is to be built.

Not all such projects need to be installed when the home was first built. I have done many extensive remodels of existing landscapes — especially when new owners take over a landscape that is far from what they want. It is especially fun to transform a landscape that needs a lot of work into an elegant, sophisticated work of art customized to the clients wishes.

Remodels are sometimes challenging because often there are mature trees to deal with and many underground and unseen potential difficulties. Demolition of hardscape items such as concrete and masonry can add much to the cost of just getting to a clean slate. So sometimes when there are many elements that cannot be incorporated in the new design, I see the spaces as if nothing existed and thereby I don’t let what I see hinder my creativity.

Here is an example of an extensive backyard remodel I have done as part of my design and construction portfolio. I would consider it to be in the style of elegant with a Tuscany flair:



How to make the most out of any small size yard, garden or patio

You don’t have to be a professional landscape architect to create an inviting courtyard or patio space. Just follow a few basic design principles and you too will get that designer look.

Gardens and landscape areas or any outdoor space for that matter can be approached as a challenge to create defined spaces. These spaces may be either the given size of what you have or a desire to create several spaces depending on your needs and the suitability of the area you are working with.

There are many design idea books and magazines that feature “small space gardens”, “balcony garden”, “container gardens”, “courtyard gardens” or even creating “garden rooms”. The key here is that they are all designing for a distinct area that has some sort of size limitation.

Small Space Gardens

While you typically cannot physically increase the size of a small garden, you can create the illusion of a larger space with some clever ideas and design principles.  For example, keep the design simple and uncluttered by keeping the purpose of the space limited and do not have multiple things going on such as a sitting area, a fountain, a group of pots, a lawn area and a bbq area.

Make sure the plant material is in scale with the size of the space and does not mature to a size that would reduce the useable area. Consider placing fountains against walls rather than free standing. Keep the ground expansive and don’t subdivide the space by building raised planter or low walls.

Consider the use of a mirror perhaps strategically located at the end of a corridor to create the illusion that the space is deeper and continues. Be careful to not place it so it will confuse birds that may fly into the mirror. Also think about if it does crack, that you would be able to easily replace it, so don’t fasten a frame around it that you cannot remove.


Gardens that are surrounded by a building or walls that essentially screen out the outer areas are enclosing, intimate and private. This type of garden is actually one of the most historical in ancient times where the “walled garden” was considered a style of garden where roses and other cultivated plants were grown to separate them from passersby.

A courtyard is essentially an outdoor room. Its use and purpose define the scale in terms of its intimacy. Architecturally, a courtyard fully enclosed within the building walls and open the the air above can add a dramatic impact to the flow and views from within the building.

A courtyard is typically in the front or side of a house and is integrally connected to the building via doors and windows. The entrance to the courtyard is often through a gate that may or may not have a arched structure above it. All courtyards must be designed with a seating area. The inclusion of a fountain can provide the sound of water as well as a focal point and make the space more inviting.

Outdoor Rooms

The concept of the outdoor room stems from extending the interior space outdoors. It is typically not much different than the typical back patio adjacent to the rear access doors. But what makes it a distinct room is the sense of enclosure. Creating an outdoor room not connected to the home, you must design it in such a way that you create a floor, walls and a canopy or ceiling so that the architecture of the space is structured to convey the sense of an indoor room but without the climate controlled environment of the indoors.

Outdoor rooms can be done simply by building a gazebo, or an outdoor kitchen with seating area and overhead canopy. You can also create an outdoor room that is sometimes called by another name, such as a garden retreat or secret garden.

The Strolling Garden

Perhaps one of the most dramatic and interactive garden to design is a garden that is basically a series of loosely interconnected spaces linked together with some kind of path. Such a style was utilized in many of the traditional gardens built in historic Japan.

If the property is large enough, consider creating distinct spaces so that you can enjoy the garden from several perspectives and vantage points. Having several small seating areas or even a bench, located at strategic spots can make full use of the limited area. Garden features can be “hidden” so that one only realizes them after meandering along the pathways. Revealing everything a garden has to offer from a single vantage point is perhaps not the most creative way to make use of the space you have to work with.

Are you getting the most spatial value from your yard?

Do you feel a sense of spaciousness regardless of how small or large it is?

Do you have a front yard but never “use” it? Could you create a courtyard?

Depending on what you have to work with, creating spaces in an otherwise uninspiring yard can be achieved if you put your mind to it and get creative.


Landscape Design Tips for Sedona can also be a list of things to avoid. Sometimes by simply avoiding common mistakes, your landscape will end up appearing more professional and not appear like you did it yourself with questionable results.

Those who live here in Sedona, especially those fortunate to have property with great views or back up to National Forest lands, obviously appreciate the natural landscape that surrounds us.

Development in Sedona is guided by the Land Development Code which serves as an ordinance and a set of guidelines to insure that structures including landscape are sensitive to the natural environment by lessening the impact of development.

Apart from citing regulations and policies, I wanted to share some ideas and things to avoid that I feel are appropriate to consider when creating a new or remodeling an existing landscape or outdoor space.

1) Functional swales vs. decorative dry streams

Many homes have some kind of drainage that flows across their property or from the roof. The use of rock swales is often used to guide the water to the street or existing washes.  If you truly need to control erosion, the use of rip rap Sedona Red rock is much better than using the smooth and rounded river rock. Rip rap will lock into place and do a better job of slowing down the runoff.

Many people use river rock to create a swale from downspouts to the street. These can dominate the landscaped areas and is often not needed if underground drainpipes are used instead. On a relatively flat or gentle grade, using river rock for a swale usually gets filled up with sediment because there is not enough speed to wash the sediment downstream. If you want drainage swales for relatively flat areas, just create a swale and cover with the surrounding gravel. It will function better and not look cluttered or artificial as does river rock when used outside of a true riparian environment.


2) Use Sedona Red crushed native rock to cover disturbed areas

In Sedona, the soil is red and the rock varies from a dark red to light tan. Using decorative gravel that is different than these natural choices can only take away from the intent of blending in with the surrounding area. The use of ‘Madison Gold’ which is very prevalent in the Phoenix area since it does mimic the surrounding desert floor color is not appropriate in the Sedona area in my opinion.

3) Preserve the native trees by designing around them

As a landscape designer, I am frequently at odds with the interests of other professionals including the Sedona fire department, insurance agents, real estate agents who all seem to be more concerned about the threat of fire because the trees are too close to the home or that they block the red rock views. A native tree on your property is valuable. It is unfortunate that so many people do not revere trees but rather see it all as ‘overgrown brush’.  Trees are extremely valuable as elements in a landscape and that is why I view them as sacred.

4) Remove all the ‘green meatballs’ in your yard

When plants are placed in inappropriate locations or the wrong plant is selected without understanding its size at maturity, it becomes overgrown and either should be removed or pruned back. What happens is when a shrub is constantly pruned by giving it a hair cut with hedge trimmers, it ends up as a ‘green meatball.’  Although many people actually like this neat, controlled groomed look, most all landscape professionals abhor the practice.

Shrubs should be ‘selectively’ pruned whereby certain stems and branches are cut back to the trunk or main stem rather than uniformly cutting back everything as in trying to give the shrub some kind of unnatural ‘shape’.

Scrub Oak, Rhus, Barbery, Euyonomous, Cotoneaster and many other species planted around Sedona in a typical front yard are planted in the wrong locations, too close together and have not been replaced with appropriate species. Many people just don’t realize that poor design choices were made in the past and just don’t know what to do to make the garden look more natural.

Summary of Sedona Landscape Design Tips

As a landscape professional, I perhaps am much more sensitive to what I see people doing with their landscapes. Much of the criticisms I have are simply because the owners choose not to prioritize having a decent landscape. Money is also a big factor as many do it yourself gardener designers choose not to employ a professional to do it well. The use of the cheapest material also contributes to the unprofessional look.  The more expensive the home, the more likely the landscaping will be a high priority.


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