Contrary to cliche landscapes represented in old Westerns, desert landscapes should not be confused with dusty, barren scenes dotted with scrub grass, an occasional saguaro cactus and blowing tumbleweeds. A wide variety of indigenous plants thrive in often harsh, hot and dry desert conditions. If you live in the southwestern United States, Texas or high-desert locations in Utah and Colorado, you can create a diverse, striking and ecologically friendly desert landscape with a little research, a landscape design and some gardening know-how.
Adaptation and Survival
In terms of adaptability, desert plants survive the sometimes harsh and extreme desert conditions by storing water and using it efficiently. Cacti and succulents fall into this category. Desert plants' root systems tend to be deeper and more extensive than those of plants growing in wetter climates. Deep root structure allows plants to access water near the water table. Also, many plants die back or become dormant during the dry summer season and revive during the rainy seasons, when they bloom and seed. Wildflowers are among the desert plants that do that.
Some plants, called xerophytes, adapt to harsh conditions by altering their physical structure. Many grow in symbiotic-type communities where they can share shade, water storage and soil retention. When water conservation is the central driver in a desert landscaping design, native plants are chosen, and plants with similar water and nutrient needs are grouped together. Desert trees, shrubs and bushes have deep, extensive root systems and need room. Desert plants needing partial to full shade are planted in areas offered shade by trees, fences or retaining walls.
Xeriscaping is defined as a landscaping design that considers water conservation as paramount. If you build a home or business, or merely revamp your yard, creating a xeriscaping plan can help you to evaluate the location's water and soil needs. Once your create a plan, you can implement it all at once or in steps, depending upon a budget. The first step in your plan is to diagram zones surrounding the site. Southern and western exposures are the driest and are used for native, drought-tolerant plants. Northern exposures are used for certain desert grasses and shrubs that require partial to full shade and nutrient-rich soil.
Desert wildflowers belong to the category of annuals that bloom during the rainy seasons, scatter their seeds and then either die or shift into a dormant state. They grow wild along highways in Utah and Arizona, in wild fields in the high desert regions and in gardens where gardeners wish to attract honey bees and hummingbirds. Low maintenance and hearty, wildflowers are ideal in raised beds, as a burst of color along supporting walls and as a ground cover on rocky or sloped terrain. Cliffrose, primrose, chuparose, brittlebush, sagebrush, sand verbena, yellow beeplant and woolly daisies are examples of desert wildflowers. In addition, desert varieties include marigolds, poppies, sunflowers, chicory, mallow and lily. Many nurseries carry wildflower seed kits that are simple to use.
For filler in rock gardens, in mulch-covered raised beds and along concrete walls, desert grasses such as Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana) provide a visually appealing border. In addition, pairing Pampus Grass, which grows to 20 feet, with Deer Grass (Mulhenbergia rigens) provides an aesthetically visual skirting effect along walls. Desert grasses are generally simple to maintain with little need for irrigation or fertilizer and are ideal where filler space begs for pattern variation. Some of the grasses do better than others in sunlight.
Trees, even in the desert, offer shade and privacy. Xeriscaping avoids planting trees in close proximity to grasses or other plants that have higher water needs. Desert trees and shrubs are among the plants that survive by developing extensive, deep root systems that search for water by growing down to the water table. Too much water stunts root systems and encourages rot. Desert landscaping calls for planting native desert trees such as the Joshua Tree and the Desert Ironwood in dry areas and thorough, but less frequent, watering. In addition, some desert trees' and shrubs' blooms survive and propagate by emitting malodorous scents repugnant to birds and, potentially, humans. For example, the creosote bush gives off a tarlike creosote odor. Though Native Americans coveted the creosote bush for its antiseptic properties, you may not want its scent wafting through your home's open windows.