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Bottle walls, then and now

TNSThe essence of a rustic entry gate is flanked by mixed bottle walls featuring slag glass and a variety of colors.
TNSThe essence of a rustic entry gate is flanked by mixed bottle walls featuring slag glass and a variety of colors. TNS

Wherever men mined in the desert, necessity became the mother of a curious recycling project. In an arid western land of few trees, everything was hauled in by mule trains, including milled lumber. Building anything was exorbitantly expensive, yet prospective miners needed a home. Among the most common castoffs were empty saloon bottles that masons stacked with plaster into walls that allowed natural lighting within these dark rooms. To this day, these curious homes still stand in ghost towns to inspire a whole new century of creative masons who are also keen on recycling.

Glass bottles are beautiful, colorful and amazingly adaptable to repurposing. The glass bottle that is making a comeback all over America as a free building material is generating a creative new look in garden masonry.

Landscape gardeners Gino Dreese and Troy Williams began implementing their own brand of bottle construction at their getaway in the California desert. Their found rock and desert artifact crazy quilt masonry gradually contained more and more glass bottles over the years until eventually they built up enough supply to attempt more ambitious projects. These included whole walls of their home to catch the sun as it sets over the high desert. These bottle walls aren't uniform like the miners,' but designed for a constellation of light, color and shapes that rival stained glass windows.

For the rest of us, wherever we live, their work demonstrates a range of great ideas for the creative gardener looking for a one-of-a-kind element in the landscape. The blending of bottles and mortar involves very simple materials that may be configured in many different ways to create green constructed elements. YouTube is full of videos that demonstrate the how-to of building with bottles in different climates.

In the landscapes created by these creative masons are charming smaller details that give these gardens a truly unique look.

Planter wall

A low curb or slightly taller planter wall can result in a really neat, one-of-a-kind detail on patio or in the garden. The wall may be constructed within an existing planter or freestanding.

Seating area

This is a freestanding bottle wall designed with a top surface to serve as a seating area. Often bottle walls are topped with Arizona flagstone to give them a rustic feel. Others can be topped with a salvaged granite or marble counter top or milled slab for a tidy modern look.

Gateway panels

A gate becomes a gateway when it's flanked by fences or walls. These masons have turned the flanking walls into artistic opportunities to bring light to an entry. It also allows a vintage door or gate to be featured within a glittering field to provide plenty of eye candy while visitors wait for you to answer the bell.

The beauty of working with bottles is the potential transparency, which is often best when oriented toward the west to catch the setting sun. To capture a style, know that perfectly spaced identical bottles are more urban and upscale. Blending a wide range of bottle colors suggests more festive digs. What the MRR guys do best is to bring in even more glass, which is their signature style.

Over time, as they began using very large bottles such as vintage water containers, these can be integrated into the bottle stacking system to create see-through windows. Slag glass, a bluish byproduct of glass recycling, also plays a big role in these projects where they want more light to come through to reflect sky beyond.

While many bottle wall makers today are working in the simplest way to create handmade housing, Gino and Troy have maintained that whimsical Route 66 approach with their work around Palm Springs, Calif. The bottle walls created by these originators of this ground-breaking style challenge others who share their vision. Let them inspire everyone to try something new this year by learning bottle building. All that's needed is to save your wine and liquor bottles until there are enough for your first glass wall creation.

Maureen Gilmer, is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer.