Desert landscaping, or xeriscaping, is becoming increasingly popular across the country. Xeriscapes manage with what little natural precipitation is available, but they also have an aesthetic appeal of their own. They are easy to maintain, and plants mostly have neat, self-limiting growth habits, that thrive in poor soil. With four major deserts in the Southwestern states and many minor ones spread across the country, a desert landscape is very much at home in any American backyard.
Choose Garden Elements With Care
As in any landscape design, plants and hardscape elements should be chosen with care, keeping the desert theme in mind. You can find a host of interesting plants that provide structural and textural variations. Set aside a well-defined area for entertaining and viewing the landscape.
Select desert plants for drought tolerance, structural interest, and flower and foliage color. Consider a variety of shapes, heights, and textures so that you can add visual interest to your garden. In addition, if you choose flowering plants, check on the flowering times and add a variety of plants flowering at different times so that you always have color in your garden.
Hardscape elements include natural rocks and boulders, concrete sculptures, and flagstone walkways. You wouldn't see paved walkways in a natural desert landscape, but you can incorporate them into your garden. They make navigation through the desert garden much safer where many a prickly plant can cause serious injury to those who stray from well-defined paths.
There are a number of different seating types that do well in a desert garden. Consider benches made from stone or wood such as pinyon pine. In addition, you can set up a number of stone boulders of varying sizes for fun and interesting seating options. Old tree trunks laid on their side can also provide bench-like seating. Conventional outdoor furniture can be placed on pavers for more formal seating.
To add additional interest to any of the landscape designs found below, consider adding containers and pots of different sizes and textures to your garden. Large ceramic pots in natural and earth tones work well in desert gardens as do rustic metal containers.
Depending on the space that you have in your garden, you may consider doing more pots and containers and fewer beds. When using pots and containers, be sure to use a potting mix appropriate for your choice of plants. Loamy mixes of soil generally work best. In addition, be sure your containers have plenty of drainage.
Nature Inspired Desert Landscape Designs
The foolproof way to design a desert landscape is to imitate nature. For instance, there's nothing like a saguaro cactus to invoke the feel of the Sonoran desert. Its striking sculptural form is inarguably the dominant feature of the Southwestern landscape. You can have a single specimen to set the tone of your landscape and back it up with smaller shrubs. The large native American yucca (Yucca Americana) with its grayish silver leaves or its variegated version can be just as striking in a desert landscape. So would be, a Pachypodium or a tall, branching Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia).
Rocky Desert Garden
Rocky outcrops in deserts typically have more plants compared to the arid plains. That is because the plants get shade and shelter from the blazing sun. Their roots seek out moisture from the nooks and crannies. This is quite true in cultivated gardens where you often see a succulent growing much more vigorously from a crack in the wall or between pavement stones than where you planted it.
This is ideal if you have a natural rock face in your backyard. Otherwise, earthmoving equipment can help you create your own with boulders of different sizes.
- Arrange them in a natural formation and fill in the spaces between them with soil mixed with sand and gravel.
- Plant some large specimens such as Joshua tree, pencil cactus, or century plants first, taking their mature sizes into consideration.
- Use flowering shrubs and smaller succulents for the understory. You may have to water the plants once or twice a week until they are established.
- Finish by adding pavers or a path around the rocky landscaped area.
Swaying Palm Landscaping
Palm trees are reminiscent of the Arabian Desert where they provide shade and sustenance to weary travelers. Most palm species are drought tolerant once established, so you don't have to limit your choice. As a matter of fact, the native desert fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) is the most common feature of the California fan palm oases.
- It is common for smaller trees and shrubs to thrive in the shade of palms, forming a multi-layered understory.
- Create a beautiful palm garden by planting several palms of various heights.
- Add drought tolerant flowering shrubs underneath the palms, and a row of smaller succulent plants such as aloes or yuccas scattered in a half circle and at the front of the bed.
- Add a stone bench on one side and a few large boulders on the other to complete this garden design.
Oases in the Desert
Oases (singular: oasis) are islands of greenery in the deserts, usually found in low-lying areas or around artesian springs. They are as much of a part of the desert as the sand dunes. Oases are crowd pullers, many of them eventually becoming permanent settlements and big cities like Cairo. The Las Vegas Valley in Nevada and Salt Lake City in Utah were once oases.
If your property is surrounded by miles and miles of arid land with little vegetation, it pays to create an oasis of your own in the backyard. Water is the main feature of an oasis, so you can start by creating a pool or a spring. If that is not feasible, you can at least create the illusion of water with a dry creek or pond with pebbles. Add rocks and boulders in keeping with the natural setting and complete the scene with lush planting.
Plants which remain green round the year, like junipers, pines, and other evergreens are good choices.
- Conifers are generally associated with alpine settings, but California junipers are found in the Colorado Desert and pinyon pines in the Mojave Desert.
- Bushy evergreens like red pencil trees (Euphorbia thirucalli), a hybrid spurge (E. characias), and cactus varieties like Pereskias work well.
- Drought-resistant ground covers like hens n' chicks, stonecrops like Sedum rupestre 'Angelina', and creeping thyme will form bright green patches.
Colorful Flowering Landscape
If you love color, you don't have to settle for the monotony of grays and greens that dominate desert landscapes. As a matter of fact, deserts are known to burst into a riot of bright colors following occasional rains, although the flower show is all too short-lived. Capture that transient face of the desert and give it a more permanent existence in a desert landscape.
Choose a flowering tree like chaste tree (Vitex angus-castus) or palo verde (Parkinsonia florida) as the main feature, or plant large palm trees, and add smaller flowering shrubs that thrive in the sun and heat in a half circle around the tree. If your landscaping is more linear, arrange nicely around the main trees. Plant recommendations include:
- Many cacti have brightly colored flowers, so do succulents like aloes. Giant hesperaloes with their tall flower spikes are particularly striking.
- Desert rose (Adenium spp.) with its obese bases can add both color and structural interest. Consider adding one in a container so you can adjust the look as needed.
- The fall foliage of Arizona ash (Fraxinus velutina) and Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis) and the winter color of bright poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) can add seasonal interest.
- If you used palms instead of flowering trees, use bougainvillea on structures near or behind the trees, such as fences, to bring additional color to the landscaping.
If you have a smaller garden space, consider a flowering tree with a variety of containers around the tree for interest. If you have room, a simple bench made of wood will round out your garden design.
Edible Desert Landscape
If you believe that gardens should have something to offer other than just looking pretty, consider an edible desert landscape. Date palms may be the first edible desert produce coming to mind, but unless you are living in Southern California or Arizona you will have very little success of getting edible quality fruit because they need dry heat for the better part of the year to ripen.
Prickly pear cactus is a must have in an edible desert garden. Pitaya (Hylocereus), or dragon fruit, is a cactus popularly grown for its edible fruit. The fruit of other cacti and succulents are also edible.
Figs and apricots are two fruit trees that do well in desert climates. Olive trees and pomegranates are nice additions too if they grow in your zone. There are a number of drought resistant herbs and vegetables that can be part of this landscape. Once established, rosemary and asparagus can do well with very little water.
To create a landscaped design using edibles, follow these recommendations:
- Consider planting a triangular-shaped bed with larger trees such as figs and apricots in the two back.
- Add a variety of herbs and vegetables in the front section of the bed.
- Place a number of rocks, of various shapes and sizes in the garden and fill gaps with oregano, thyme, and lavender. Jerusalem artichoke, with its large yellow flowers and edible tubers, is also an asset.
- Complete the landscaping by adding bricks and stones around the bed that match your home's style.
Playing With Size and Form
Desert landscaping is about playing around with plants that display a large variety of contrasting form. Experiment with different colored rocks, stones, and gravel until you are happy with your arrangement.