Desert Gardens and Other Water-Efficient Landscaping

bright colored bushes in low water garden

Desert landscapes offer some of the most beautiful and dramatic garden spaces, though they often have the reputation of being boring or difficult.

While desert gardening does present its challenges, learning to work with the site conditions can help you achieve a gorgeous garden without having to rely on excessive irrigation.

Xeriscaping offers gardeners a way to design desert gardens with beauty and sustainability in mind, by working with specific plants and materials to create a harmonious space.

This article will explain everything you need to know about how to create a beautiful desert garden and ways to use water-efficient landscaping techniques to achieve it.

What Is a "Desert"?

Deserts are landscapes where there is so little rainfall that almost no vegetation can survive. It's important to differentiate between true deserts and those which are merely hot and dry.

There are four "true" desert regions in the US: Mojave, Great Basin, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan. While many of the hottest US states fall within these regions, not all US growing zones that experience heat and drought are in the desert.

All US deserts except the Sonoran desert experience cold winters. In these regions, plants have to tolerate extreme temperature fluctuations, as well as differing rainfall expectancy, and site conditions.

While deserts have sparse plant life, there are species that grow and even thrive in these conditions. Deserts are ecosystems unto themselves, supporting various flora and fauna that are native to the land.

In general, deserts are places of extremes, getting very hot during the day, with temps falling drastically at night. You may live in a true desert, or you may live in a very hot climate with little rainfall.

It's important to know the difference when choosing the right xeriscape plants and water-wise techniques to use in your garden space.

succulents in garden

Xeriscape Gardening

The term "xeriscape" translates to dry landscaping, and is a trendy, gardening method that focuses on sustainable planting for dry, arid places like the desert. Xeriscaping tactics can be used in any garden, however, since drought isn't just a problem in the desert.

Xeriscape gardens focus on choosing the best plants for dry conditions while limiting the need for supplemental watering. Choosing drought-resistant and drought-tolerant plants can reduce water usage significantly, while producing a lush, thriving landscape.

Drought-resistant plants can survive longer periods without water than drought-tolerant plants, but both categories include a number of species with various abilities to survive periods without rain.

succulents growing on a log

Plants for Desert Conditions

Succulents are a type of plant that encompass the qualities needed to survive in dry climates and soils. They are not a taxonomy in and of themselves, but refer to various plants that have similar characteristics like fleshy, rubbery stems and leaves, and the ability to store water.

Cacti, for instance, are succulent, but not all succulents are cacti. Cacti are well-known desert plants and do well in xeriscape and desert gardens. Prickly pear cactus will also perform well in cold climates, and only grows about one-foot tall in clumps, making them easy to design with. Their red fruit is also edible.

Saguaro cactus is the classic "Route 66" cactus shape used to symbolize the American desert. These slow-growing beauties can grow up to 60-feet, however, so plan accordingly. Choose barrel cactus if you want something smaller and compact.

Agave is a genus of plants with pointed leaves and thick fleshy parts, usually growing in an upright rosette fashion. Agave are not cacti, but they are succulents. The flowers, leaves, stalks, and sap of this plant are edible, and agave juice is known for making mezcal and tequila.

Similar to agave, succulent plants in the yucca genus are also excellent desert plants and offer upright, spiky leaves and a variety of species to choose from. Gold and green variegated yucca offer unique color, but simple, bold greens also make an impact in desert gardens. Some are as tall as 8-feet tall, but there are also dwarf varieties.

Joshua trees are a type of yucca.

Aloe vera is a subtropical species of succulent, used commonly as an indoor plant in cold regions, but will thrive outdoors in hot, desert-like conditions making them ideal for xeriscape gardening. While they are similar looking to other succulents, but they are their own genus of plants.

red succulents in rocks

Sedums and Stonecrops

Sedums and stonecrops are yet another genus of succulent plants that perform well in dry, rocky conditions like deserts and other drought-prone areas, but are more drought-tolerant than resistant.

This category of plants offers a ton of variety in color, texture, size, and growth type, giving you lots to choose from.

Autumn Joy is a popular upright sedum perennial plant that boasts a bit of color from its light pink flowers. Angelina sedum is a chartreuse-colored ground cover that spreads quickly.

Hens-and-chicks are another common ground cover that loves to spread around and over rocks and difficult soils, just remember to choose the sempervivum variety over the similar-looking echeveria which is not cold-tolerant and more commonly used indoors.

drought resistant purple flowers

Drought-Tolerant Perennials

Drought-tolerant perennials can handle dry, hot climates, but won't survive in true desert regions without extra watering, and protection from the intense heat and sun.

They perform very well in hot, arid conditions, making them excellent choices in xeriscape designs, with some species even performing well in other growing zones that have harsh winters.

Check your local nursery for advice on the best species, but some popular drought-tolerant, versatile perennials are yarrow, agastache, most sage cultivars including Russian sage and meadow sage, salvias, desert mallow, allium, lupines, and roses.

There are a number of native wildflowers and herbs that prefer dry, hot climates including lavender, bee balm, and poppies, so opt for native plants when you can, as they will naturally thrive in the conditions you have.

drought resistant garden

Planning Your Desert Garden

Just like any garden, the micro-climate you have in your yard or site is very specific. Even if your zone is dry and arid, take the time to think about the characteristics of your landscape, specifically when it comes to the sun and other weather conditions.

Choosing native plants specific to your region is the best place to start, but there are other considerations that go into planning your garden.

Is there afternoon shade? Are there spots that receive full sun all day without any relief? Are there windier spots, or other plants and trees that may affect nutrient absorption?

While gardening is often trial and error, thinking about the details of your garden will help you plan where to put your desert-friendly plants, as even amongst the drought-tolerant species there will be other needs to consider.

Types of Soil

When you think of the desert, you probably picture sand. While not all desert gardens are made up of sand dunes, dry regions tend to have sandier soils. This means soil is often lacking in nutrients, but once again, the right plants will do fine or even thrive in poor soils.

If you have your mind set on planting other species other than the ones recommended, you'll have to amend the soil. Keep in mind, this isn't something you can do overnight, and often times, the soil can't be amended enough to provide the necessary conditions for plants that require moderate temperatures and rich soils.

Once again, this is why choosing native plants and a variety of drought-resistant and tolerant plants will make your life a lot easier, as they won't require extra amendments to the soil.

If you are in a region that experiences drought, but has a mixture of clay or nutrient-dense soil, make sure it's well-draining if you are planting xeriscape plants. Even the smallest garden may have a mixture of clay and sandy soil, so you should inspect the site before planting.

Clay soils retain moisture and most drought-tolerant plants will not tolerate soggy conditions. There are some plants that can tolerate a variety of conditions, so if you have a mix of soils, look for low-maintenance plants specific to your growing zone.

In general, desert and xeriscape plants will prefer sandier, well-draining soils without the need for amending the soil with compost or fertilizer.

mulch around rose plant

Types of Mulch

Along with sand, desert gardens make use of rocks and stones to their advantage, as drought-tolerant and resistant plants will thrive in these mediums. Gravel and stone can also be decorative, incorporating two different uses of mulch and beautification.

Smaller stones like pea gravel and river rock are well-draining which is another benefit for desert plants that don't want to sit in water. Deserts and dry regions can experience hard rains all at once, and using stones to help absorb rainfall or lead it to other areas is an important tactic in water-efficient landscaping.

Larger stones, on the other hand, can be used for decorative purposes as well, offering a focal point in the garden and adding contrast to different shapes and textures.

These stones may also provide some shade for lower-growing plants that want respite from a full day of sun and heat. Using various kinds of rocks and stones for mulch, decoration, and protection are great ways to help your desert garden thrive.

Traditional wood mulch can also work in some areas, especially under trees or shrubs where you want more water retention. Wood mulch will also protect plants that are more sensitive, since rocks and stones absorb the sun's heat.

Organic materials can be used as mulch, including dead, non-diseased plant material, and spent foliage. Pine needles, leaves, and other debris can be swept or raked over areas to provide nutrients and act as mulch in regions that use a variety of plants within their xeriscape design.

Grass Isn't Greener

Trying to grow grass in the desert is not water-efficient. When we say "grass", we mean the typical species used to create lush, green lawns.

These types of grass species require an extraordinary amount of water, even in moderate climates, making them environmentally unfriendly to plant in deserts or dry regions.

If you want the look of grass, consider a native turfgrass that tolerates drought like buffalo grass, or choose hardy ground covers like clover or a mix of low-spreading sedums.

Otherwise, ask local garden centers and nurseries about native fescues and turfgrasses that will do well in your climate. Not all "desert" landscapes are the same, and be aware of invasive species being sold, even at our trusty retail stores.

Fruit and Vegetable Gardening

While there aren't nearly as many food crops that will thrive in the desert, there are some cultivars that may perform well depending on how hot and arid it gets, as well as how far temps drop.

Pomegranate, pineapple, and citrus fruits are quite possible with some irrigation and the right soil. Other drought-tolerant plants like avocados, tomatoes, peppers, and certain beans may do well, but your best bet is to look for desert-adapted heirloom seeds of whatever types of plants you want to grow and then start a trial.

In this case, fruit and vegetables have the best chance of performing well, but still within limits. Desert gardening will always require more irrigation and emphasis on water retention, soil amending, protection from intense sunlight, and proper rotation of crops.

Trees can be planted to shade lettuce and other greens from excessive heat, runners like beans and sweet potatoes can be planted as ground cover, and drought-tolerant herbs like rosemary, lavender, basil, thyme, and oregano can fill in spots and help to deter pests.

Choose hardy cultivars that can handle temperature fluctuations, and consider building raised garden beds with properly amended soil and drip irrigation systems for the best results.

garden in stones

Xeriscape Rain Gardens

Rain gardens are excellent ways to retain rainfall, even the small amount that falls in the desert.

Dry stream beds can be used to lead water from one spot to another using small stones like pea gravel and river rock. Decorative rocks can add utility by directing water from downspouts and rain barrels into areas of the garden where plants need watering most.

Desert gardens are meant to thrive on little water, but capturing rainfall with rain barrels and other rainwater harvesting systems is a smart, water-wise method of using what nature provides rather than relying on supplemental watering, especially if you want to grow crops or perennials.

Planting things closer together is another water-efficient gardening method, as evaporation is limited, and they can shield each other from heat and sun exposure.

colorful cacti growing in rock garden

It is the only native grass that is also useful as a lawn grass. Buffalo grass lawns are warm season turf which are drought tolerant with better cold resistance than other warm season grasses. The grass is quite tolerant of a range of conditions and establishes with seed, sod, or plugs. As an extra bonus, care of buffalo grass is minimal, and mowing is infrequent.

Read more at Gardening Know How: Buffalo Grass Lawns: Information About The Care Of Buffalo Grass
It is the only native grass that is also useful as a lawn grass. Buffalo grass lawns are warm season turf which are drought tolerant with better cold resistance than other warm season grasses. The grass is quite tolerant of a range of conditions and establishes with seed, sod, or plugs. As an extra bonus, care of buffalo grass is minimal, and mowing is infrequent.

Read more at Gardening Know How: Buffalo Grass Lawns: Information About The Care Of Buffalo Grass

Desert Design

Desert and xeriscape gardens are meant to be unique in their design, and their lushness will look a lot different than the traditional greenery of an English garden, for example.

Color schemes can be just as bold and exciting, with pops of vibrant red, purple, and yellow from vibrant yuccas and desert flowers, and silvery greens and blues from fleshy succulents.

Most of the tones will be slightly muted and earthy, which fits in with the natural landscape perfectly. Terracotta browns and oranges paired with deep greens can be beautiful combinations, while rocks and stones can offer extra texture, and hues to the desert landscape.

Plant containers and pots can also add a flash of color or retain an earthy look depending on what the site calls for. By creating a landscape that naturally thrives on what's available, you can enjoy a desert garden that's water-efficient, and effortless, in both design and beauty.