Desert landscapes can be lush and exciting, with plants of many different colors and textures. A well planned desert landscape will also look great year after year with little maintenance, and much less water than a conventional landscape or lawn. Landscaping with desert plants does require a little planning and forethought, but the reward will be a rich, beautiful garden that is well adapted to the rigors of desert life.
Take Advantage of Micro Climates
In the desert there are many microclimates where temperatures and moisture levels can vary radically. Many desert plants are adapted to specific microclimates, and will grow best if you plant them in a spot with similar conditions. For example, Mexican evening primrose, which is a pink-flowered, low-growing ground cover adapted to the partial shade of rocky crevices and taller plants, should be planted under desert trees, such as acacia, that produce light shade.
Choose Plants Wisely
Choose plants for your landscape that are well adapted to your particular area. Some desert plants, such as the cholla cactus, are found over a very wide range, but particular species can withstand colder winters or different soil types. Seek out species adapted to your specific climate and soils.
Select hardy, long lived plants, such as acacias and agaves, for the majority of your landscape. Use more ephemeral perennials, like penstemons, where they can easily be replaced if they die out after a couple of years or do not reseed.
Shade is the second most valuable commodity in the desert, after water. Even small shady spots, like crevices in rocks, can provide cool shelter for tender plants and wildlife. Cool,shady areas also significantly enhance a person's enjoyment of the desert landscape.
Desert trees are most often found in areas with relatively high moisture, such as along washes or in canyon bottoms. Although trees will require a little more irrigation, the benefits of a well-chosen desert tree in the landscape will be well worth the extra water. Good choices for shade include small- to medium-sized native trees, such as New Mexico locust, palo verde and desert willow.
You can also take advantage of the shade on north sides of buildings or walls to create a cool oasis garden. An overhead trellis, planted with desert adapted climbers, such as silver lace vine, can work well to create shade in places where trees are not practical.
Provide Proper Care
While its possible to create a very low maintenance landscape with these plants, they do need some care to look their best. Desert plants are adapted to low moisture and poor soils. Many desert plants benefit from irrigation during times of drought and periodic light feedings, but too much water or fertilizer can actually harm desert species.
Irrigate your desert landscape once every week to two weeks during the first growing season, while the plants are becoming established, and then only water during periods of extended drought. Feed the plants with a balanced liquid fertilizer, diluted to half the recommended strength, once a year in the early spring.