The challenge of desert landscaping is to make it resemble as much as possible the natural, wild desert while expressing your own preferences so the end result fits your family's needs. Low water usage is a goal of desert landscaping. Plants that are suitable for a desert landscape designs come in a surprising number of shapes, foliage and flower colors, and sizes. The immediate tasks when beginning a desert yard are to become familiar with the most popular plants and sketch out design plans with various combinations.
Rock mulches are used in desert landscape designs to give the yard a finished look. They come in an assortment of diameters, from finely crushed granite, to gravel sized or pebble sized pieces. They are available in different shades, so you can use one main color, and another color to define a border or pathway. Select colors that look natural and harmonize with the style and color of your house. A soft beige or coral shade would be preferable to black or gold rock mulch. River rock can be used to create the look of a stream running through your yard.
Choosing native plants makes your job easier because they can survive drought conditions and unending days of hot sun in the summer. They also are more adapted to the desert soil conditions, which can be alkaline and lacking in nutrients that many plants require to thrive. Planting non-native plants species requires time and effort in soil preparation, including adding compost for extra nutrients and gypsum to balance the alkalinity.
By using flowering shrubs and groundcovers, a desert landscape can feature eye-catching bright colors from the spring through the fall. Lantana is widely used because it grows energetically, does not drop leaf litter, and flowers in interesting colors such as red, gold, pink, and purple. Consider bright additions to your landscape such as the aptly named firecracker penstemon, which reseeds itself each spring, or the fast growing superstition mallow, with its cheerful orange-yellow flowers.
Desert landscapes have more open space, or a lower density of plants, than other gardening designs. This mimics the wide open spaces of the natural Sonoran desert. Go beyond randomly placing cacti in the yard. Place plants in groups of four or five, with a 10 foot separation, creating islands of desert plants. Use plants of different size, foliage and texture to create more visual interest.
Installing a drip irrigation system is a good idea even if you are using low water usage plants. There will be times in the hottest, driest part of the year when plants will benefit from a boost of irrigation. Having an irrigation system in place allows you to have some non-native plants in your design for variety, such as the beautiful bougainvillea, a tropical plant with abundant color that thrives in the heat as long as it gets periodic watering.
Many desert plants--and not just cacti--have sharp, dangerous thorns that can hurt children or dogs if they run into them. The Texas ebony tree, useful both for shade and for privacy screening in a yard, has nasty thorns that make it hazardous to trim. Keep these dangers in mind when planning your desert landscape. Put thorny plant varieties away from high traffic areas, or put them behind garden fencing, which can serve a decorative as well as protective purpose.