Water Calculation and Poetic Interpretation


Residential Design

Monterey Cypress, CA, USA | Arterra Landscape Architects


The client’s objective was to create a narrative experience based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth on three quarters of an acre. Our objective was to create a sustainable garden habitat with a story running through it.

We found opportunity for art and storytelling in all aspects of the project. Our goal was to design every built element as both a working feature and a highly crafted work of art. A team of artisans, craftspeople and consultants took our design ideas to the next level. This was a team project.


Ultimately it was art that aligned us on this journey, creating a rich and vital sense of place. The homeowner wished for an experience where his guests might visit many times and each time discover an entirely different world.

The result is a subtle and quietly poetic design that reveals itself slowly and by degree. This is the part you see as you walk the site. What you tend not to see lies embedded within a complex, sustainable garden. There exists a balance of narrative and nature, ancient histories and high tech.

The garden features a robust water catchment system, planted roofs and the Mirror of Galadriel. Native plantings and quail habitat rest at the feet of deities. Ruin walls emerge from overflow winter ponds.

A Sustainable Landscape
This is a coastal site and subject to punishing, salt laden winds and a thick, ethereal fog. The ¾ acre site is nearly level, the soil is sand and the site receives an average of only 19” of rain a year. Water management was integral to the design of the project. The site’s greatest natural feature is the historic Monterey Cypress, which ring the perimeter.

Our design focused on the severity of the site and the limited rainfall. We incorporated a number of ideas for water conveyance. Most of the roof runoff is collected and stored in a 42,000 gallon cistern, buried under the driveway. This water is used throughout the summer to replenish the pond, fountains and for irrigation.

Seasonal site overflow is conveyed to a series of winter ponds. There, water percolates naturally into the soil. The winter ponds are planted with native grasses, sand strawberry and perennials, which help to slow water infiltration and reduce runoff.

Habitat was very important for this project, especially for quail. Plantings were designed to create an ideal nesting site. This was very successful, as there have been multiple nesting pairs on site-including pairs on the planted roofs-for successive years. The pond provides habitat for a rich diversity of species including bats, dragonflies, a great assortment of birds, and frogs.

The resulting landscape is meaningful on multiple levels. The visual narrative, the art, the craft and the native plantings all define this garden. What lies hidden tells an equally important story in the making and maintaining of a garden that is responsive to site and resources. It is a blend of poetic interpretation and water calculation.

Harvests rainwater in underground 42,000 gallon cistern Collects approximately 75% of rainwater from the roof Water is used for fountain, ponds, and irrigation

Winter ponds receive additional waters and hold until they naturally percolate back into the water table All systems are digitally monitored for maximum efficiency

Weather based E.T. controller Low volume drip emitters, targeted specifically to plant root zones Planting by hydrazone maximizes efficiency of circuits and reduces over-watering Irrigation water is drawn primarily from the cistern (75% estimated) with municipal water as back up Irrigation system is controlled by weather based/ET program.

Habitat for birds, fish, turtles and frogs Planted edges form a constructed wetland, filtering the water before it returns to pumps and equipment Make-up water comes from the cistern, eliminating the concern of contamination from the municipal water supply

Native Cypress were protected throughout construction and young cypress trees were planted Plantings are native and low water use, throughout All plants are tolerant of sea coast conditions Many varieties were selected for quail for value-cover or food. Plants are maintained with minimal, seasonal pruning. All areas are mulched to retain nutrients and water. Reduces run-off from the garden and increases groundwater recharge by using smaller paving areas interspersed with planting areas

The two outbuildings have planted roofs These collect and slow the flow rainwater runoff, improving infiltration on site Create habitat Help insulate buildings

Plant List

“It has a refreshing lack of inhibition and is whimsical and purposefully kitschy. The way it integrates into the existing landscape is well done.”

- 2016 Awards Jury


Lead Designer:

  • Vera Gates, ASLA


  • J.E. Caldwell Architect

Interior Designer:

  • Gailie Hopf

Landscape Contractor:

  • Jerry Allison Landscaping

General Contractors:

  • Carrol & Strong Builders; Watersprout

Contributing Artisans:

  • Ellen Tykeson
  • Archetile
  • Manuel Polos
  • Cheney Metals
  • LMNO Arts
  • Photosynthesis
  • Kurt Cook
  • Gilbertina Guarini
  • West Coast Weathervanes
  • Jean-Luc Preti Stonework Studio
  • Designer Grains