Plants for desert landscaping

Desert Garden Ideas: How To Make A Desert Garden

The key to a successful landscape is to work with your environment. Gardeners in arid zones may want to consider a desert garden theme that works with their soil, temperature and water availability. Part of learning how to make a desert garden is finding out what plants are best for desert gardens.

Choosing the right plants will ensure that your landscape is healthy, easy to maintain and conserves resources. All this can add up to big money savings and spare you from the headaches associated with incorrect plants and placement.

How to Make a Desert Garden

Desert soils are one of the biggest obstacles when planning a desert garden theme. They are generally highly alkaline with a pH of around eight or higher. Most plants thrive in moderate pH levels of 6 to 6.5, which means your plant choices are limited.

The best option is to choose plants that are native to your area. Native plants are specially adapted to the soil, weather and arid conditions of desert zones. Plan your landscape with this in mind and use a few other desert garden tips for the

most suitable garden.

Desert Garden Tips

Lawns are not practical in arid zones. Replace traditional grass with drought tolerant ground cover, rocks and gravel. In some cases, re-grading your yard may be necessary to funnel infrequent rains to areas where you have groups of plants. Use drought tolerant plants where possible and set up a rain barrel to catch water for irrigation.

Flagstones and other paving material make attractive paths and patios and combine attractively with other inorganic materials. Once you have the land graded and have set up the bare bones of the garden with non-living focal points and structural elements, it is time to find out what plants are best for desert gardens.

What Plants are Best for Desert Gardens?

While using native plants are among the best desert garden ideas, you can also use adaptive plants from similar regions. Ice plant makes an excellent ground cover and many sedums and sempervivum, like hens and chicks, will thrive in rocky gardens and containers. Choose tall plants for shade such as Acacia, Mesquite and Desert Willow.

Consult with your local extension service for native plant sales and desert garden ideas. Cacti are slow growing and provide native focus in the landscape. Place succulent plants in areas that are low and may collect moisture. These are drought tolerant but tend to use more moisture than cacti.

Desert Garden Tips for Patios

Container plants add dimension and interest to the garden. Smaller agaves, aloes, bougainvillea, mandevilla vine and hibiscus plants make excellent potted patio specimens. Pots can dry out even more quickly than plants in the ground, so take care to give them some supplemental water, especially during establishment.

A small cactus container garden on the patio will tie in the whole theme and lends an air of authenticity to arid landscapes. If you are a beginning desert gardener, container plants are an excellent way of learning about what plants are best for desert gardens and how to take care of them.

Desert Landscape Design

Ideas for creating a low-water, low-maintenance garden

  • Casa Serena Landscape Designs LLC in Tucson, AZ
  • Landscaping Network in Calimesa, CA
  • Grace Design Associates in Santa Barbara, CA
  • Landscaping Network in Calimesa, CA
  • Exteriors by Chad Robert, Inc. in Phoenix, AZ
  • Casa Serena Landscape Designs LLC in Tucson, AZ
  • Landscaping Network in Calimesa, CA
  • Maureen Gilmer in Morongo Valley, CA
  • DC West Construction Inc. in Carlsbad, CA
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Southwestern Landscape Design

Use this design sheet to help you create the perfect Southwestern landscape. You’ll get ideas for color, décor, materials, plants and fabric. It is a great starting point for any desert landscaping project.

Southwest Landscape Design (PDF)

View all Landscape Design Style Guides

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If you are one of the people who think of the term “desert garden” as an oxymoron, it’s time to reconsider and push the images of barren sand dunes out of your mind. Beautiful gardens can exist in the desert, and many desert gardens are incredibly vibrant and full of plant life.

The keys to successful desert landscaping are knowledge and planning. In order to have a lively, functional garden that also has low water and maintenance requirements, you will need to make educated plant and hardscape choices.

This guide will help you select paving materials, native plants, irrigation systems, outdoor furniture, and other amenities ideal for a desert garden. Armed with the right desert garden design ideas and tips for choosing plants that thrive in an arid environment, creating a lush desert garden will be easier than you think.

Get these tips:In this section, you’ll find tips from landscaping professionals on:

  • How to conduct a soil test to determine the nutrients available in your soil and how to supplement the natural soil to create optimum growing conditions.
  • The best type of irrigation system for desert plants and why it’s important to group plants according to irrigation needs.
  • A look at the many varieties of succulents, ground covers, trees and other drought-tolerant plants that will grow well in a desert environment.
  • Advice on growing desert plants in beds or containers.
  • Using synthetic or artificial grass versus a natural lawn that will require a lot of water.
  • Good permeable paving materials to use for a desert patio to avoid water runoff, including pervious concrete, natural stone and concrete pavers.
  • How to add decorative appeal to desert patios through the use of stone borders, different colored aggregates, stains, and special designs.
  • Other factors to consider when paving a desert garden, such as avoiding dark-colored materials that will absorb the heat of the sun and make the garden even warmer.
  • How to select furniture for a desert landscape that will reflect heat, stay cool and resist sun exposure.
  • How to cut energy consumption by using solar lights to illuminate a desert garden.
  • Using a fire pit or fireplace to make your patio more comfortable on cool desert nights.
  • Placement, material options and shade structures for outdoor kitchens in desert climates.
  • Examples of desert gardens featuring modern décor characterized by bright colors, geometric shapes, and abstract sculptures or fountains.

With careful preparation and plant selection, you can create a desert garden that is far from barren.

Desert landscapes look like the backdrops in old cartoons, endless loops showing a lone cactus silhouetted against the sky while Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote tussle in the dusty foreground.

The starkness also can be romantic, a reminder of the endless western horizon. But if you live in the desert, how do you design a garden that feels welcoming instead of prickly and dry?

For advice, we turned to Phoenix-based landscape architect Steve Martino, who grew up in arid, rocky terrain. As a teenage horse wrangler, he developed an affinity for desert landscapes and native plants that has informed his work for four decades.

“One day I found all these old issues of Arizona Highways from the forties, featuring these guest dude ranches, desert resorts,” he says. The pictures were crazy, with plants that were just so dramatic, natives transplanted from the desert. They didn’t have all the stuff you get these days from nurseries from somewhere else. It was like a stage setting. That’s the feeling I try to create.”

Martino has collected 21 of his favorite landscape projects in a new book called Desert Gardens of Steve Martino (Monacelli Press). Here are 10 garden design tips for how to embrace the natural theatricality of the desert, illustrated with photos from the book.

Photography by Steve Gunther, courtesy of The Monacelli Press.

Cactus Curb Appeal

Above: In Paradise Valley, Arizona, a shallow entry garden (which leads to a courtyard) is planted with Dasylirion, Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), and common prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica). Martino planted the Opuntia ‘Santa Rita’ (at left) “when it was just one or two little pads.”

Entry walls or a front garden fence are a natural backdrop for specimen plants, says Martino. To create curb appeal with cactus, plant Choyas. There are 1,200 plants in the family, and you can go for ones that are trees, ground covers, shrubs,” says Martino. “Use them to create shadows. In the photo, you can see how these guys create their own depth and darkness even in the harsh sun.”

Sculptural Rocks

Above: Non-native plants; not Martino’s favorites. But in a Scottsdale garden on a steep hillside, the transplants are happy planted among “the ten million rocks we found on the site, including hundreds of house-size boulders,” he says.

In the Scottsdale garden, Martino simplified hardscape elements, including a terrace and swimming pool (“removing distracting elements such as the boulder-lined, “lagoon-style” pool and its heavy wrought-iron railings”).

During the process, Martino removed an “exotic cactus” entryway garden that felt out of place, “and moved the exotic cactus around the corner in-between some rocks to make a little home for them.” The result is an unmistakably charming vignette beneath a mesquite tree (“The tree is a native, so it’s OK,” says Martino).

Filtered Light

Above: A privacy wall invites soft, filtered sunlight into a courtyard garden. The clients “used to have a pool twice as big but no privacy and never went out in the garden. Now when they go out, they see this backdrop instead of the neighbors’ house over the alley—so they live in the garden,” says Martino.

To create the translucent wall, rolls of polycarbonate were stretched across a trellis framework. The wall is softened by the silhouette of a grapevine that grows on top. (See more ways to use polycarbonate panels in Garden Hacks: 10 Ideas Under $100 to Create Instant Privacy.)

“You can use trees and shadows and filtered light to make a garden feel comfortable and cool,” says Martino.

Before you build a privacy wall in a small garden, know your local zoning rules, Martino advises. “Say you’re only allowed to build a six-foot-high privacy wall. But if you build an accessory building—like a shed that’s under 200 square feet—you don’t have to have a building permit. And without a permit, there’s no schedule to finish the shed. Suddenly what you’ve built is the first wall of a shed in progress instead of an illegally high privacy fence.”

Ribbon Driveways

Above: A ribbon driveway of pavers set in dirt is designed to “disrupt the land as little as possible,” says Martino.


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When I moved to Southwest 13 years ago, one of my major worries was how well many of my beloved plant species would hold up to the dry heat and low humidity of the area. Although I quickly discovered most plants will thrive with the proper attention and care, there are certain types of landscape design and plant picks that are more conducive to the area that allows your landscape to prosper.

Minimal plantings, xeriscaping, and arid vegetative picks that require very little natural watering once established are commonplace as desert landscaping ideas. Don’t confuse simple with a lack of maintenance however. Regular weeding and watering may still need to continue, but the time and amount will often be much less. Plus, if you are looking for ways to help get water from one place to the next there are some simple tricks you can take advantage of.

Table of Contents


Xeriscaping, the art of minimalist vegetation amongst the use of a (usually) pebble foundation, is a popular way to landscape your lawn in more arid regions. The display is usually easy to upkeep with some simple weed control, and the use of desert loving plants, such as these cacti, need very little attention.


Minimal plantings doesn’t mean minimal creativity. Add in some eclectic pottery, rock formations, and a skull (or similar find) to your xeriscaping to create an artistic, and interesting appeal.


Rather that look for ways to fill your landscape with vegetation or creative xeriscaping placements, why not build a shallow pond? A waterfall feature helps keep the water circulating, and the mirror like surface will reflect the stunning desert sunrises and sunsets for double the experience.


Lighter colors reflect sunlight and help keep surfaces feeling cool. Many homes are of a light brick or stucco and make for the perfect backdrop for the rich hues often found in desert loving vegetation.


With proper irrigation, you can still have a well manicured, grassy green lawn. If you aren’t interested in the maintenance a vast lawn requires, then you can always consider an alternative in the form of high quality, artificial grass.


As mentioned, stucco is a favorite choice of home siding, and also works as an excellent base for a variety of vibrant colors to help emphasis the other details used within your landscape that are wholly unique.


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Make your careful landscape choices come alive at night with one of a kind lighting that highlights the simplicity of both your architecture and xeriscape choices. This well manicured garden bed comes to life with the detailed lighting that has been chosen.


Large yards require large garden beds. If landscaping a large area isn’t your thing, then consider one well placed garden bed that can embrace the concept of desert living. This perfectly placed oasis of vegetation provides a myriad of eclectic desert picks.


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Simple patios and walkways dominate these courtyards highlighted by well placed, protected plants. These sparse picks makes your job keeping them watered and maintained easy, and the climbing choices makes their foliar coverage look even larger that it is, providing you with the touch of living greenery any landscape needs.


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Xeriscaping is not only popular due to how it helps cut your maintenance time in half, but also because it leaves your yard open to the vast desert skylines. Sunsets and sunrises are often a spectacular occurrence due to the clarity of the sky, and without much to block your view you can take full advantage of it.


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Water sources are often found at the bottom of naturally occurring slopes and mountain foothills. Mimic that effect by taking advantage of any rocky outcrops, or natural topographical rises in elevation that you may have upon your property.


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Deserts aren’t always dry, and dry riverbeds dot the natural landscaping ready to hold the runoff water from the next rainstorm. Incorporating those features that into your yard adds interest and appeal, and also saves you the money from not having to run a water pump for a water feature!


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Not sure what vegetation to pick, and feeling overwhelmed by the many choices presented to you? Choose a few larger plants and use them to make big and bold statements in your yard through the proper placement.


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You don’t need many plants to fill a desert inspired garden bed. Pick a few larger varieties of desert plants that have thinner and wider vegetative branches to provide a sense of fullness and greenery. Many of these also provide colorful blooms throughout the growing season that are a favorite of hummingbirds and butterflies.


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One thing desert scapes hava lot of is rocks. And it is often put to good use in landscaping design, as well as architectural decor. This rock siding provides a cottage like appeal, which is further supported by the multicolored vegetation and bright blooms of the arid loving trees and cacti choices on display.


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Don’t condemn the idea of a grassy area just because you have very little rainfall. Small, useful areas of grass can be easily grown if the proper amount of watering is applied. If the idea of a lawn, albeit a small one is appealing to you, then find a place where you can easily keep it thriving.


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Never underestimate the power of a well placed sculpture. These natural looking stones blend well into the landscape design, despite being drastically out of place. This sculpture attempts to defy gravity, and is sure to be a topic of discussion at your next dinner party.


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Bring peace and tranquility to your yard with a waterscape feature that provides a trickling waterfall. Scarce in the desert, waterscapes will be an attraction to a bounty of beneficial birds and insects to help keep your garden thriving.


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Just like a vast green lawn that is easy to gaze upon, a well manicured xeriscape provides the same sense of peace and accomplishment. Small pebbles, mixed with stepping stones provides a simple pathway through the yard, as well as visual interest.


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All you need is some cinder blocks and some succulent plant choices and small cactus and you have yourself a fun, and simple way to add greenery to an otherwise empty, starck area. This is a quick and easy project anyone can complete, which is just as easy to maintain as it is to make.


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High desert landscapes are naturally coid of most vegetation, and the beauty of the area is often found in the shapes, colors, and textures of the rocks. You can embrace this look with careful placement of varying rocks and simple planting, which can also come to life even further with careful nighttime lighting.


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Zen gardens focus on simple contrasting colors and shapes for a peaceful, relaxing experience. This courtyard provides a relaxing retreat with calming beige and brown hues with a touch of vegetative texture.


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Limiting your choices of plants to a scant few that you know will thrive in your climate can act as a the perfect yard filler. Allow the texture and color mixtures to provide the perfect foreground to the rest of your property.


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Contemporary design often incorporates varying straight lines, right angles, and minimal color- often highlighted by the surrounding landscape choices. These planters are incorporated into the housing architecture and provide a welcoming walkway up the front porch.


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This fantastic hot tub and lap pool design is hedged by an embracement of the surrounding horizon as part of the property landscape design. By taking advantage of the stunning vista and cacti that dot the area, native plants have been incorporated into a rock garden, complete with nighttime lighting, to provide the assemblance of a desert oasis


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Desert soils are notoriously devoid of nutrients and are also extremely hard to dig into. If you are in want of some garden life, but aren’t interested in the time it might take to try and break ground for your garden beds, consider creating a series of potted gardens.


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Another way to avoid having to put too much effort into digging into the ground and creating garden beds is to incorporate small, simple space where tough desert varieties, and potted plants, can make themselves a home.


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Welcome your guests and keep desert dust away with intricate brick walkways and drives. Pick your favorite cactus to create an added interest and texture, combined with some well placed lighting, and you have a home to make people slow down to admire.


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This waterscape seems to disappear into the surrounding desert inspired backyard. Incorporate your own shallow reflecting pool in awe inspiring ways to take advantage of the gentle trickle it provides as it disappears into the rocks below.


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Pools are a popular backyard feature in many arid regions to help alleviate the heat of the day. Incorporating them into your natural landscape in creative ways allows you to enjoy the natural beauty of the area without having any modern looking eyesores.


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Even small spaces deserve the elegance of a small garden plot. Build your garden into any area you have; with a little ingenuity you can provide a burst of color in an otherwise gray, urban setting.


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If you have a lot of space to fill in, consider using a combination of vast lawn and rock coverage within which it is much easier to create desert inspired garden beds. Texture and greenery are more easily added through the use of rocks to provide the height and background they add to the garden.


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This unique walkway provides an easy hillside climb surrounded by well manicured xeriscaping. This type of ground coverage allows the water to seep to the soils beneath to get to where it needs to be without evaporative loss. These plants will eventually grow much taller as a privacy screen and area of shade.


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Large patios are a popular pick for many Southwestern homes. They require very little maintenance and also serve as a dual outdoor living space. Add in a change of pace with raised garden fountains and small raised garden beds for an even more relaxing feel.


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If you build in an otherwise rocky area, don’t despair on your ideas of an elegant landscaping design. Use the surrounding landscape as inspiration and tie in the natural rock formations and locals plants to provide a rambling garden walkway. This type of design also makes it easy to include more delicate plants in pots so you can better care for them.


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Who said rich green gardens couldn’t live side by side with the desert? This east meets west idea provides a well mulched (to help retain moisture), perennial planted garden bed, as well as a more desert inspired, rolling bed. Divided by a simple rock walkway, this front yard design provides a beautiful contrast between varying plant types.


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This yard is definitely dominated by the palm trees planted amongst the entire landscape design. Popular hot weather trees, palms can survive some of the harshest bouts of drought and still provide shade beneath. As these trees continue to grow, their canopies will allow for the vegetation beneath to thrive and grow even more.


Desert landscaping depends much upon the uses of shapes, textures, and colors of varying materials and plants to provide a yard to be proud of. Even though many of these ideas require a bit less maintenance in the way of lawn care, they do require some specific attention to their watering needs- at least until any plants you have used are well established.

I love the ideas presented here, and since getting water to my front yard is quite a challenge, I have been looking for ways to get creative for a more enjoyable, and less of a hassle, landscape design. We’d love to hear which idea is your favorite, or see examples of how you have taken advantage of desert inspired landscapes below! And as always, please share!


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Desert Landscaping Ideas to Save Water and Create Low Maintenance Gardens

Desert landscaping ideas allow creating beautiful low maintenance yards and beautifully accentuate homes in hot and dry climates. Natural landscaping rocks, sand, desert plants and flowers combined with creative accents look amazing, especially during the blooming season. Lushome collection of desert landscaping ideas and tips are for all who live in sunny and dry areas and are too busy for watering plants.

Water-saving landscaping ideas can be useful for residents in a moderate climate also. All who appreciate rocks, succulents and cacti will like the collection and inspirations for stone and sand yard landscaping with drought tolerant plants. Ornamental grasses, cacti, and succulents can create a beautiful environment. Citrus trees and beautiful flowers growing in planters add bright colors and fabulous aromas to front yards and backyard designs but require regular watering.

Deseret plants do not need much water or care. They stride and bloom in harsh desert conditions adding vivid hues and beautiful greenery to outdoor living spaces. Creative arrangements of desert plants and landscaping rocks are visually appealing, elegant, and complimenting to the unique architecture of mid-century homes. Desert gardens with pebbles and rocks enhance curb appeal and connect modern homes with nature.

Chlorine-free natural swimming pools, eco-friendly backyard ideas

Latest trends in decorating outdoor living spaces, 25 new yard landscaping ideas

Desert landscaping ideas

Palm trees and cacti for natural desert yard landscaping

Cacti and succulents

Cacti are ideal plants for the desert garden. Cacti variety is impressive and adds captivating shapes and natural colors to outdoor living spaces. There are so many different plants for gardens and yard landscaping that grow in attractive, familiar and unusual ways. A large mature plant becomes a focal point of yard landscaping giving character to unique outdoor living spaces and complementing house facade.

Succulents are another kind of beautiful plants for desert gardens. Cacti and succulents are plants that withstand hot and dry weather conditions. Growing in sand desert plants look fabulous among rocks on pebble flowerbeds, bringing bright and beautiful flowers that accentuate yards. Aloe Vera plants are a very attractive choice for the desert garden. These plants require some water to produce juice in their leaves which is helpful for treating sunburns and rashes.

Spring flowers for desert garden designs

Green ideas

Water is a valuable resource. Creating a natural garden and using water wisely is the right way to go Green. Fighting the desert nature and growing lush shrubs in desert cities are not modern or smart. Desert landscaping offers great possibilities to beautify front yards and create attractive backyard designs without wasting precious and sometimes expensive water in dry places.

Bougainvillea shrubs blooming in spring, desert landscaping ideas

Desert garden

Smart desert landscaping is a money saving, stress-free, and beautiful way incorporate Green ideas. Plants that can withstand the harshest hot environment and extended periods of drought are perfect for low maintenance garden designs. There are gorgeous trees, shrubs, decorative grasses, cacti, and small, slow-growing succulents which require little water. Low-lying plants, ground covers, natural rocks, massive boulders, and pebbles create stunning displays of attractive contrasts, textures, and colors.

Mid-century modern home and desert front yard landscaping ideas

Desert plants offer a wide variety of ornamental grasses, trees, shrubs, and flowers, cacti and succulents. You can choose what you like to see in your garden. Native desert plants tolerate unpleasantly hot weather, poor soil, and lack of water. These plants and flowers can attractively accentuate your rock garden designs or create a spectacular focal point for lush, green yard landscaping.

Cacti and desert flowers, smart, eco-friendly yard landscaping ideas

by Ena Russ

Desert Plants for Landscaping

Drought Tolerant Plants

by George Oxford Miller

Standing on a busy boulevard in Palm Desert, California, I see a resort with a lake accented with thousands of pansies, palms, and a flock of scarlet flamingos. Across the street, creosote bushes, mesquite, and dozens of blooming desert plants line the fairways of a golf resort. I feel like I’m straddling the continent, with one foot in tropical Florida and the other in the Sonoran Desert.

As one of the greatest paradoxes in the desert southwest, residents, resorts and even cities live in constant battle with their arid, sandy surroundings. Instead of embracing the environment that makes desert cities the fastest growing in the nation, people plant water-guzzling trees and shrubs and nurture lawns of thirsty turf grass. A week without water wilts leaves, burns grass, and sends petunias to the flower graveyard.

Instead of landscaping yards with thirsty species from wetter climates, why not follow nature’s lead and bring the desert into the front yard? As the most bio-diverse ecosystems in North America, deserts boast hundreds of beautiful, long-blooming trees, shrubs and perennial flowers that thrive in extreme conditions. As an extra benefit, landscaping with native plants helps repair the environment and provide food and shelter for wildlife that might otherwise be displaced.

Why choose native species over the readily available, inexpensive foreign species? Think low maintenance. Think dollars saved. By selecting plants from your area, you have a landscape naturally adapted to whatever climatic extremes may occur. After tens of thousands of years, only those species that could adapt – without supplemental water and fertilizer – have survived.

Once established, a native plant requires little extra water, even in the driest years. Fewer plants die and require costly replacement. Low maintenance is important consideration, but it does not mean “No Maintenance.” Since a landscape is a planned esthetic design, the plants require some regular care, such as pruning, to maintain their best appearance.

At least two schools of thought exist concerning landscaping with indigenous plants. The traditional approach substitutes native species for the commonly used imported exotics. Native plants substitute for foundation hedges around buildings, border hedges along walks and drives, and sheared hedges, as accent shrubs planted alone, or as container plants. They fit into formal or informal landscape designs. Propagators clone and cross variations within a species to produce cultivars with dramatic flowers, foliage and growth habits.

At the other end of the spectrum, enthusiasts attempt to duplicate the natural plant associations found in the wild. A yard would in effect be a microcosm of nature. The “wildscape” design has no sheared hedges, shaped shrubs, or species or cultivars not from the immediate area.

Of course, many intermediate designs lie between the formal and the wild landscapes. Creating a landscape island maintains natural plant associations while giving open areas a dramatic visual accent. Instead of planting hedges and a few accent shrubs, use a mass planting, or island, of mixed species. A landscape island can be completely contained in an open area, or it can be curved out from a building. It can include one side of a drive or accent a corner. Cacti and xeriscape gardens exemplify the landscape island concept.

For mass plantings, always choose species with the same habitat requirements. For example, don’t plant a blue spruce, a mountain species, to accent a gravel-covered yard of cacti and creosote bush. You can mix foliage plants with similar color and shape, or chose species with contrasting shades of blue, gray and green. Also consider size and structure for your design. A palo verde or desert willow adds a vertical accent for low-growing shrubs such as fairy duster or brittlebush.

A group planting can have a different accent for every season. You can provide year-round color, as well as food and shelter for birds and butterflies. Use deciduous plants to provide shades of bright green with new spring leaves and evergreens to add foliage color during the barren dormant months. Hedges, borders and backgrounds do not have to consist of a single evergreen species, but can combine the best nature has to offer. The flexibility of companion planting provides a multitude of design possibilities for an attractive yard throughout the year.

One common mistake made with desert landscaping is overcrowding. Desert plants naturally require surrounding open space so their network of spreading roots can absorb the scarce and infrequent water. A crowded landscape increases the competition for the natural supply of water and requires more supplemental water. Desert landscapes that work best maintain several feet of space between mature plants.

Botanical gardens that specialize in drought-tolerant plants provide some of the best places to see native plants in landscape settings. Gardens in Phoenix, Tucson, Austin and California’s Claremont and Palm Desert display plants that thrive in desert settings. The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert includes an extensive collection of North American desert species.

“The gardens and our educational classes promote by example the use of native plants for landscaping,” Kirt Anderson, head landscaper for the gardens, says. “People move here and want buffed out landscapes year round, but they have to learn to accept the seasonality of the desert. A lot of native plants go dormant in the summer and you can’t force them to keep blooming. People accept deciduous plants back East but not here.”

Anderson wheels his golf cart loaded with landscape tools through the garden section of the biological park and points out his favorite desert shrubs from across the Southwest. He stops at a mounding bush covered with yellow, sunflower-like blooms. “You can’t beat brittle bush,” he says. “It blooms all summer, especially after rains. Creosote bush also blooms after storms and fills the desert with that wonderful fresh aroma. Jojoba is another tough plant. It makes a great hedge with evergreen leaves and dense foliage.”

Penstemons line one ornate, split-rail fence with flamboyant red flowers. “Perry’s penstemon is tops for desert landscapes. They take the heat and re-seed easily,” Anderson says.

Using penstemons and other plants from the surrounding desert is a boon for wildlife, especially hummingbirds and butterflies. “The red flowers of chuparosa attract hummingbirds and desert lavender is a magnet for 17 species of butterflies,” Anderson says.

Anderson offers no pat solutions for watering desert landscapes. “Watering should mimic the desert rain patterns. Generally, desert plants don’t need water at all in the winter. Deserts get summer thunderstorms so a deep watering once a week in the summer keeps plants going. Just keep your eye on the garden and respond to the plant’s needs.”

With some of the most spectacular plants in North America within a few miles of our backyards, why not use nature’s gifts to landscape our homes, resorts, and businesses? Petunias are nice, but let’s give native plants their day in the sun, and our yards.

Desert Seed Garden Starter Set
Contains seed packets to produce a variety of classic and unique desert flora.

Most Popular Plant Guides

Cactus and additional plants which can store a lot of water that aids them in the dry season are known as succulents. Even if it only rains lightly, they can soak in all the water their bodies area able to hold and store it in their leaves, stems or roots.

A few plants only survive and thrive when it’s the wet period of the year, manufacturing seeds which tolerate the dry weather. These types of plants are known as annuals, since they come back yearly. So, the mature plants lose much more water than the seeds do, and avoid both the dry and hot weather in the dry season.

Additional plants known as perennials can survive for a few years, however, they might stay dormant or remain inactive when it’s the dry season.

Several varied tricks aid these kinds of plants in handling the conditions in the desert. Cactus have pointy spines and a few others are able to shade themselves, thus keeping them cool. A few plants such as mesquite trees can grow quite lengthy tap roots, which reach into the ground more than a hundred feet to get to the groundwater, which is located far under the earth.

Here is a list of our favorite plants that grow in the desert: Top 100 Desert Plants

7 Water-Wise Plants for Desert Regions

Jim Martinez has been creating water-wise, environmentally friendly gardens in Dallas and Marfa, Texas, for more than 30 years. He picks seven of his favorite plants to grow in desert regions, including Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. By Lindsey Taylor


Swipe to view slides

  • LEFT: Agave victoriae-reginae growing at the Huntington Botanical Garden. Photo by: Jennifer Cheung. RIGHT: Opuntia cacanapa growing on a property in the Mojave Desert. Photo by: Maureen Gilmer.
  • LEFT: Lavender growing at Matanzas Creek Winery in Santa Rosa, CA. RIGHT: Muhlenbergia capillaris planted by the hundreds. Photo by: Richard Felber.

Landscape designer Jim Martinez has been creating water-wise, environmentally friendly gardens in Dallas and Marfa for more than 30 years. Surrounded by mountains, at an elevation of almost 5,000 feet, the Marfa plateau is subject to extreme temperature variations. “In winter, it can be 60 degrees in the day and drop to 15 at night,” Martinez says. “Selecting plants that are adapted to these conditions is the key to success.” As much as possible, he uses plants that are native or endemic to the region. A particular favorite is Hinckley’s columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha var. hinckleyana), a shade-tolerant plant with masses of yellow blooms that grew only in this area until recently, when the nursery trade discovered it. Fragrant plants grow in abundance on the Marfa plateau, and when he can, Martinez selects plants based on their hummingbird-, butterfly-, and bee-attracting abilities. For design, he takes his cues from the surrounding high-desert grassland, where grasses grow in a well-spaced pattern—nature’s way of ensuring that the plants benefit from the little rain that falls during the “rainy” season, from July through September.

Michael Kraus


Agave victoriae-reginae is a striking, slow-growing cactus that may take as long as 40 years to flower. It’s best grown alone and away from paths because of its sharp leaf tips.

Michael Kraus


Lavandula angustifolia is a dwarf lavender that can grow 18 inches high, making it a good choice for edging. It has deep-purple flowers and greenish-gray, very aromatic foliage.

Michael Kraus


Muhlenbergia capillaris is a drought-tolerant grass that produces a spectacular bloom of billowy, pinkish flowers in the fall. It works well planted en masse in a border-either on its own or mixed with other drought and sun-loving perennials.

Michael Kraus


Opuntia cacanapa is a fast-growing compact plant that reaches a width of 6 feet and a height of 6 feet. In July, bright yellow flowers appear, followed by large, red fruit.

Learn more about growing prickly pear cactus.

Michael Kraus


Salvia greggii is a dwarf, semi-woody perennial native to Texas and Mexico. This tough plant, reaching 3 to 4 feet in height, has long-lasting purple flowers which add color to mixed borders.

Michael Kraus


Tagetes lemmonii is an airy plant with pale-green to deep-green foliage and a distinctive scent. It can reach a height of 3 to 6 feet at maturity and has deep-yellow flowers that appear from September to November.

Michael Kraus


Agave parryi var. truncata is a compact, rosette-forming succulent with squared-off blue-gray leaves; its yellow flowers appear in summer. It can grow 2 to 3 feet tall by 3 to 4 feet wide. Great in a succulent garden or a container garden.

Chihuahuan DesertExtending over 175,000 square miles, from central Mexico into parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas—including the area around Marfa—the Chihuahuan Desert is the largest in North America. It’s what’s known as a rain shadow desert: its position between two massive mountain ranges blocks most of the moisture that would otherwise reach it from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Many smaller ranges and river valleys run through the Chihuahuan, making for great diversity of habitats and of plant and animal life.

This article is a companion piece to our Way Out West: Gardens of Marfa, Texas.

Related: Water-Wise Gardens

Water Wisdom: Eco-Friendly Santa Fe GardenA garden that honors the native landscape and makes the most of every drop of rain that falls. A Waterwise Cactus GardenAt this home in the foothills of Los Angeles, drought tolerant cacti and succulents flourish. Ten Eyck Desert Garden A garden in the Arizona desert designed by Christy Ten Eyck is both water-wise and chic.

Desert Gardening Plants & Books

Native Plants for Container Gardening in the Southwest

Posted April 27, 2018, For Homeowners, Outdoor Living

Gardening in the southwest is nothing like you see in home and garden magazines. In fact, cities like Austin are amongst the top cities that really dig gardening. So, living in a more dry climate, you likely don’t have a verdant backyard with miles of green grass and lush foliage. To the contrary, you need to create a landscape that complements–and accommodates for–the desert landscape.

You don’t need to resort to succulent-only planting and rock garden arrangements quite yet. Container gardens are a great way to incorporate some greenery into your backyard without acquiring a sky-high water bill. You can arrange containers in any formation and bring indoors on exceptionally warm, dry, or cold days or nights. Here are some suggestions for the best native plants for container gardening in the southwest.

Desert agave

Desert agave is a pretty succulent that can be grown easily in a container. These beautiful evergreen plants form fleshy rosettes with ample spines. They tolerate most soils, requiring minimal fertilizer and water. Furthermore, agave plants hold up to crowded conditions quite well and don’t mind sharing space with other plants or residing in small containers.

Blue Flax

Blue flax is a wildflower native to the region and grows indigenously in many areas still today. This vibrant cobalt flower blooms from May to October in most areas, producing hundreds of flowers that die off every day. This plant is great for container cultivation, as it can easily spread out of hand and grow prodigiously in undesired spots. Planting in a container ensures that you will keep it exactly where you want it–nearby so you can enjoy its cheerful colors!

Autumn Sage

Autumn sage produces beautiful flowers and is also left alone by most pests. It can tolerate shade or full sun and attracts both butterflies and hummingbirds. Best yet, it is drought tolerant, only needing water about once a week. Make sure you plant it in a well-draining container so it doesn’t become too waterlogged.

Texas Lantana

Texas lantana produces a delightfully sweet fragrance that attracts pollinators like bees and butterflies.There are multiple varieties of lantana, in all sorts of colors and sizes.

It can easily be grown in containers, although anything besides dwarf varieties will need to be planted in larger pots. Avoid crowding it with other plants in a single container but it makes a striking statement on its own.

Purple coneflower

There are several types of coneflower, but purple coneflower is arguably the most striking. This flower belongs to the aster family and is easy to care for in a container. A drought-tolerant perennial, it prefers full sun and good drainage.

Santa Rita prickly pear

This low-rise cactus develops in large clumps, producing intense reddish pads that can grow up to eight inches. This native cactus tolerates colder temperatures than many similar plants and is drought-resistant.

Texas Ranger

Texas ranger plants are a favorite of more eclectic landscapers because you can prune them in any shape or size. It blooms in summer and can grow in the most difficult conditions. Sometimes referred to as the “barometer bush”, it becomes more vibrantly colored after the rain.

Desert Savior

Desert savior, also known as Echeveria, are some of the least fussy plants and can easily be grown in a pot or even a large glass. These are best grown in containers because they are vulnerable to scorching sunlight and winter rain. If they receive too much moisture, they will experience foliage rot, as they have shallow roots. Planting them in a container makes it easy to bring them inside during especially hot or rainy conditions.

Wild Mint

There are many varieties of mint, but wild mint, or field mint, is native to the central and southern United States. It produces a strong fragrance and can be used, just like cultivated mint, for beverages and flavorings. Although it is a nutrient-hungry plant, it does well in containers. Wild mint is one of the most invasive plants that can be planted in a garden and can overwhelm entire acres within just a few years. Keeping it confined to a container allows you to reap the benefits of herb gardening without losing your entire garden.

Scarlet Star

Scarlet star, also called bromeliads, can be potted or even survive attached to a host plant. This plant is slow-maturing, taking three or four years to reach a blooming stage. However, it produces a series of ornamental stacking leaves as it develops. It prefers very light watering, making it optimal for growth in a six to eight-inch pot.

As you are selecting plants for your southwestern container garden, keep in mind that these species still need adequate sunlight, water, and soil conditions in order to grow properly. Just because a plant is in a container does not mean it doesn’t need to be fortified with nutritious soil or watered regularly. Remember that although your plants are portable, they are still vulnerable to the conditions of the desert.

Tags: Container Gardening, Gardening

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Shade Plants for Containers in Desert Garden

I have a dilemma, I can’t find flowers for our two planters that are in full shade. Making it more difficult, we live in the desert, so it’s hot during the day and cold at night. Do you know of container plants that will survive in these conditions?

This is definitely a test of your green thumb. Start by checking out what works for your neighbors. Good gardeners frequently borrow and share ideas. Then start experimenting. Try rose periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) for continual bloom of white, pink, rose or purple flowers and glossy green foliage. For a bolder effect, plant clivia, which has yellow or orange flowers and wide strap-like leaves that grow up to 1-1/2 feet long. Cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) can give you a vertical accent with its upright green leaves. And green or yellow-leafed moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia) will hang over the edge of a planter while its yellow buttercup-like blossoms add color. Deadnettle (Lamium maculatum) and variegated yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon variegatum) also are good trailing plants. The leaves provide interest long after the flowers fade. Try a few new plants every year until you find what works. Make sure to record both your successes and failures.

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