Desert landscape designs use plants that are either native to desert regions or are non-native species that can tolerate extreme heat, long days of intense sunlight and low rainfall. Desert landscaping has become much more sophisticated and imaginative than just having a yard dotted by cacti. Plants suitable for a desert yard come in an exciting variety of sizes, shapes, foliage, texture and color of their spring flowers.
Select hardscape materials. Incorporate rock materials that look like the natural desert. Make pathways out of flagstone--flat pieces of sedimentary stone. Use crushed granite or other aggregate material to cover bare areas or create a visual transition from one plant grouping to another. Select materials of varying color and diameter to create contrast. Place boulders together in groups of two to four to divide the yard into zones and to create focal points.
Learn about xeriscape plants. Xeriscape is a landscape design concept that emphasizes plants requiring little or even no irrigation. Study the many options available for a low water usage landscape. These include cacti and succulents, but also many other varieties of flowering shrubs and ground covers that add interest and color to a desert landscape.
Consider contrast and color. Pair plants of varying heights and textures such as the tall, spiny saguaro cactus and a softer-textured spreading succulent like the elephant's food plant. Select plants whose spring flowers create striking color combinations such as the lavender blooms of the trailing lantana next to the bright red spikes of the firecracker penstemon.
Make a design plan. Plot out the shape and dimensions of your yard and sketch in your plant choices. Make sure very low water usage plants are placed together, with those that require more frequent watering in another area. This will make installing the irrigation system much easier.
Prepare the soil. Desert soils are often low in nutrients. Add compost if you intend to have a mix of native and non-native plant species in your yard. Look for signs of caliche--hardened calcium carbonate--in the soil. This will slow drainage and make it difficult for plant roots to spread. Take a pick axe or jackhammer and punch through the caliche layer.
Plant trees for shade. Areas of shade make a desert backyard more enjoyable, particularly in the months of June through September. Plant low water usage varieties such as the Brazilian pepper tree, Chilean mesquite and ironwood tree.
Install the irrigation system. To conserve water, use a drip irrigation system rather than sprinklers. Drip irrigation delivers the water where it is needed--down at the root level of the plants. Purchase emitters with varying flow levels depending on the needs of each plant variety.