Modern Phoenix Neighborhood Network

Desert Landscaping Tips for the DIY

Compiled by Tom Gatz
First published in The Central Spine by the Central Arizona Cactus and Succulent Society

If you are planning to landscape your property or just have a corner of your yard that you would like to make-over into a more natural, appealing landscape, here are some tips I have gleaned from the experts over the years. Great examples of these concepts in practice can be seen in much of the new landscaping at the Desert Botanical Garden entrance and around the new buildings and patios such as the new Queen Victoria agave rock garden near the entrance to the library.

  • Add elevational relief with low, gently-sloping mounds.
  • Use one large year-round focal point (a large columnar cactus, for example) or a few seasonal focal points (large shrubs that flower at different times of the year).
  • For a more natural and aesthetically pleasing look, repeat 2 or 3 primary accent species of shrubs and cacti instead of the cluttered look of a collector's garden with one of each species.
  • Similarly, use several individuals of the same species of tree.
  • Mimic nature by clustering groups of the same species and boulders together, using uneven numbers (3, 5, 7) of each.
  • Irregularly space clusters and individuals, leaving some open areas and meandering paths between planting islands.
  • Bury your boulders about 1/3 deep to eliminate the "just fell off truck" look.
  • Use plants with contrasting shades and shapes such as low gray foliage plants in front of taller, green foliage plants.
  • Add movement to your landscape with native bunch grass accents.
  • Soften the cacti, agaves and rocks by inter-planting with leafy desert shrubs.For example, try a prickly pear and a fairy duster together.
  • Add architectural exclamation points by using specimen plants in large pots, especially in transition areas near patio, entry-ways and walkways. Again, cluster them.
  • Use one species of low shrub or perennial to knit the entire landscape together. Bursage, desert marigold, or creosote work well.
  • Use gravel, rock mulch and boulders of the same color for a natural look.
  • To combine higher water shrubs with low-water succulents, try planting the plants that need less water and better drainage higher on a berm and the leafy plants at the base of the berm where the water will collect. The elevational relief will also allow the higher succulents to make more of a statement.

Also Consider:

  • Planting species like cholla and native bunch grasses where the western sun will back-light them.
  • Replicating natural associations like cacti/nurse-tree growing together.
  • Think of flowers as a seasonal bonus instead of a year-round focus and depend instead on variations in shades of green and plant textures to provide year-round visual interest.
  • A nice 3-way combination is the boulder/succulent/perennial combo. The perennial (penstemon, desert marigold, etc.) softens the boulder and provides seasonal color, while the succulent (cacti, agave or aloe) provides year-round visual interest with the boulder as a backdrop.

Hardscape Considerations

  • Walls, fences, walkways and seating areas provide a touch of civilization to a natural landscape and can complement or set off the plants.
  • Pull from the architecture of the house for your hardscape (brick, tile, adobe, wood).
  • Stone walls or rock veneer over cinder blocks look great with desert plants. Wedge old stockings filled with dirt to create planting pockets between rocks in the wall.
  • 18" walls are the best height for seating.
  • Add color by painting boring, cinder-block walls. Be brave!
  • Use old and/or interesting gates to add character.
  • Use vine-covered arbors between areas of the garden to give illusion of separate garden rooms.

Many of these ideas are from landscaping lectures and classes I have taken at the Desert Botanical Garden and during workshops offered by Master Gardeners and the City of Phoenix. I have picked up many of these tips from Judy Mielke, Carol Schuler, Carrie Nimmer, Ron Dinschak, and Kent Newland.