If asked to imagine a desert, you're likely to picture large expanses of hostile sand with a straggly plant and a few rocks here and there. While that may resemble the Sahara Desert, it's not what most people would like in their small yards. With a bit of planning, lush water-conserving landscapes are possible for small yards. A desert landscape is best for areas that don't get more than 10 inches of rain and have temperatures that rarely fall below freezing.
Desert River Scape
Desert river beds, though usually dry, are lined with trees and bushes. To replicate the look in your small yard, lay out a curving path of river rocks about 3 feet wide. Intersperse large rocks with smaller ones. Plant three desert trees such as Palo Verde, mesquite or iron wood along the path of the stones, one at each end and one about two-thirds of the way from one end. Along the edges of the river bed plant low-growing plants, ground cover and bushes that grow up to 3 feet. The exact species will depend on your garden's geographic location. Triangleleaf bursage, flame honeysuckle, barberry trailing acacia and desert broom are several varieties to consider.
With the exception of prickly pear, which can double in size every year, cacti grow slowly. Because they mature over many years, buy cacti that are larger than you normally would if purchasing fast-growing plants. Consider planting them closer together as well. Odd numbers of cacti are more aesthetically pleasing than even numbers. A variety of shapes also looks better than cacti that are all the same shape. For instance, rounded prickly pears, with low-growing, tube-shaped hedge hog cacti, and several tall organ cacti nicely complement a cactus with many small leaves, like an elephant food or jade. Check to make sure the variety of cacti you choose all have the same sunlight requirements. Some don't do well in direct sun all day. Accent the cactus garden with large boulders.
Xeriscapes use groupings of plants that have the same water requirements, usually emphasizing low water-usage plants. High water-usage plants, which includes most flowers, are used sparingly and close to the house. Areas farther from the house have plantings that need little or no supplemental water. Drought-tolerant varieties that are native to your area are best, followed by those native to other regions with arid climates. Xeriscape techniques result in a yard that conserves water while maintaining a lush appearance.