Imagine sitting in your comfortably cool high desert home, enjoying the view of the lush gardens outside—and knowing you’re saving water and money. With the right plants and landscaping design, it is possible.
You can do a lot more with your landscape than just stick a few cacti among the rocks.
This article provides a basic overview of how to go about landscaping in the desert. If you don’t mind a bit of construction dust, though, (we’re still working on this project), you’re welcome to come into our new desert landscaping section to read more in-depth articles.
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At first take, the problems of desert landscaping can seem insurmountable — few climates can
compare to the high desert for odds to overcome. Lack of water is the most obvious problem,
but not the only one. Overnight temperatures in the desert can be quite cool, which
delays the ripening of many crops that need heat twenty-four hours a day.
Strong winds break seedlings and rob the soil of any moisture it might have accumulated from winter snow. Despite all this, there are ways to create a thriving desert garden.
Desert landscaping basics
Efficient desert landscaping — also called xeriscaping — utilizes native, water-efficient
plants that conserve water by eliminating the
need for constant watering of lawns. Shaping the land (creating slopes) to make
the best use of the rainfall, grouping plants of similar water
requirements together, and installing an efficient irrigation system are also important factors.
Plant choice – go native to save water, money, and effort.
Choosing arid-adapted plants saves not only water, but lowers maintenance and energy
costs, as well. Because deserts differ their exact temperatures, amounts of rainfall,
and soil types, what you plant will depend on the specific conditions in your region.
For example, the Coachella Valley in California receives three to five times less rainfall
and reaches temperatures some thirty degrees than the Sonora valley, also in California, so each area requires different plants. Keep in mind that most xeriscape literature is aimed at Southern
California’s coastal plain or Arizona’s Tucson area. Especially if you live outside one of these areas, consult a local nursery or look around gardens in your neighborhood to find out exactly which plants will do well for you. Remember that even the most drought-resistant native plants need
more frequent watering during their first few years. This helps them establish the extensive root system that will see them through when rain is scarce.
Choosing the right xeric plants will also attract native butterflies and birds. Keep in ming, though, that typical hummingbird and butterfly gardens require more water and care that a typical xeriscape garden, so you may need to be creative in choosing your plants.
Plants for desert areas include:
Trees and Bushes
Trees that do well in the desert include willow trees, olive trees, palm trees, and conifers. If you plan to use conifers in your gardens, the dwarf varieties will fare better. Juniper, spruces, and pines are the most popular. Dwarf conifers do not grow more than 3 to 6 feet tall in about a ten year time span, so your other plants will not get overpowered by taller pine trees. Oleander bushes, crape mytles, Texas Sage bushes also grow with very little water in arid climates. Mesquite (Prosopis spp.), palo verde (Cercidium floridum) and (Cercidium microphyllum) can also provide shade.
The leaves of succulents add a lush, almost tropical feeling to your garden. Possible choices include Red, orange, and yellow Aloe vera species, scarlet paintbrush (Crassula falcata), orpine (Sedum telephium), Autumn Joy sedum, and ice plant (Delopsperma cooperi).
Ornamental grasses offer a beautiful alternative to thirsty lawns. Drought resistant, these plants require minimum care. Various grasses offering up an array of colors include: Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides setaceum ‘Rubrum’ — an annual grass), Maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Adagio’), Yellow pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana), Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima), and Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens). Most do well in the sun and bloom in the summer and fall.
There are many wildflowers that grow in abundance in the West. Here are a few to start off with. Desert gold poppies (Eschscholzia glyptosperma), Marigolds, African daisies (Osteospermum ecklonis), Indian blanket (Caillardia pulchella
— a Florida native), and Cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus)
Shaping the land for efficient water usage
In areas with low rainfall slopes, hills, and contours in the land are a major asset when trying to direct the water flow. Contour the land to focus rainwater onto the thirstier plants on your property can help them get the water they need with less work from you. If you’re starting with a flat area, simply create hills of earth with a slope of 4% or less, with water-needing plants at the bottom of this slope.
Choice of plants and landscaping design work together. Your landscape design will also offer shade to your house, which will make it more economical to cool with modern heat pumps and other types of refrigeration because they do not have to work as hard. Plants also bring the psychological benefit of making the area look cooler.
Vines like trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), fire thorn (Pyracantha coccinea) or cat’s claw (Macfadyena unguis-cati) can be trained on a trellis to provide shade on patios and block direct sunlight from the house. Other plants that work well for shading include sweet acacia tree (Acacia smallii), blue palo verde (Cercidium floridum), foothills palo verde (Cercidium microphyllum), Chilean mesquite (Prosopis chilensis), Texas honey mesquite, (Prosopis glandulosa), and ironwood tree (Olneya tesota). Trees that lose their leaves in winter are espcially good choices, as they’ll let light in just when you need it.
Near walkways or other high-traffic areas, avoid spiky plants like cacti or agave.
Opt instead for pork-and-beans or artemesia, which are succulents ground covers that offer attractive flowers.
Be sure to leave a little more space between them than specified on the containers, so there will be less competition for water and nutrients.
A rock garden can be more just a few stones and cacti. Bury larger boulders halfway into the sand and place clusters of succulents in between the rocks. Contrast different sizes and colors of rocks to add visual interest to your landscape. Making winding paths and borders offers relief from what could otherwise be a plain and dull yard.
Garden water features for a cooling affect
Although they seem too draining for a desert garden, ponds actually use less water than a lawn would. Even a smaller lawn would require 1,000
gallons of water a day in summertime just to keep it from turning brown. Ponds and fountains, however, re-circulate water. A small pond provides a watering hole and rest stop for birds on their migratory paths north and south along the western North American flyway, depending on the seasons.
[See BLI’s section on backyard water features for information
on how to build a pond. If your budget allows, adding a pool or hot tub will not only bring the cooling sight and sound of water, but make good entertainment, as well.
Remember that even the most drought-resistant native plants need more frequent watering during those first years to establish their root systems. Drip irrigation delivers water to plants in an economical and efficient manner. Each plant receives water through a polyvinyl line of ever decreasing diameter. Emitters that regulate flow rates can be positioned near each plant. Irrigation times and duration can be controlled at by a solar powered photovoltaic timer. Drip irrigation dramatically reduces loss to evaporation because all irrigation water goes directly to the root zone of the plant. Other plants, such as trees and large shrubs which require more water, are watered by flow-regulated bubblers. If you find that you do need to water your plants occasionally, do it late in the evenings, to slow evaporation, and allow the plants to make the best use of the water.
For more on installing irrigation, see BLI’s Landscape Irrigation page.
Mulch to conserve water, protect soil, and add color
Mulches such as decomposed granite and wood chips have many water-conserving benefits. Mulch protects the soil from erosion, slows evaporation and heat buildup, and inhibits the growth of unwanted weeds that compete for water, nutrients and space. Organic mulches, like bark or shredded wood, are useful because they add too the soil’s organic content, improve aeration, and increase water holding capacity. Inorganic mulches, including decomposed granite, gravel and rock, cool the soil surface and slow evaporation.
Desert garden lighting
In the relatively flat terrain of a desert, flood lights can wash out the garden’s colors and textures and are therefore best avoided. Low-intensity inset lights can be used to
set of the texture of a decomposed granite path and effects such as up-lighting and silhouetting can highlight the dramatic forms of spiky desert plants.
Torches and chimineas also add light and bring an exotic atmosphere to the garden.
By selecting arid-tolerant plants, shaping the land to direct water, and irrigating efficiently, you can create a high desert landscaping design that both looks good and saves you money.
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