Wild desert landscapes, decorated with sculptural plants and painted with deep, earthy hues, can be strikingly beautiful. In desert regions, they are also the easiest type of landscape to maintain. Because they require much less supplemental water than traditional lawns and landscapes, they are also much easier on the environment. Many attractive desert plants are now available at garden centers and nurseries, so a water-wise landscape can be much more exciting than a boring expanse of gravel. Creating a successful desert landscape begins with careful planning and following a few basic guidelines.
Look carefully at the site to determine where water naturally flows and accumulates during rainstorms. Identify areas with specific microclimates, such as a shady cooler northern exposure or a hot sun-baked area, subject to harsh winds. Use these microclimate “zones” to lay out a design that makes use of the specific conditions found on your site.
Select plants that are well adapted to desert conditions. Explore the many stunning native desert plants now in cultivation, because native plants are essential to an authentic desert landscape. You can also use exotic low water use plants, provided they are adapted to your specific conditions.
Group plants with similar water requirements together. Locate plants with higher water needs near buildings or other sheltered locations. You can create a small, shady oasis using desert trees and other associated species. Plant cacti and other plants adapted to xeric (extremely dry) conditions together in exposed, arid places.
Install your plants in fall, or early spring, avoiding the heat of summer whenever possible. Cultivate the soil deeply, and amend it as necessary to provide good drainage. Add organic compost for plants requiring moist conditions. Plant cactus and other xeric plants directly in the native soil with no organic amendments.
Cover the entire planting area with a 4 to 6 inch deep layer of mulch, avoiding the plants' crowns. Maintain this mulch cover to reduce evaporation. Use fine gravel mulch for cacti and extremely xeric plants, and choose organic mulch, such as wood chips, for other desert plants.
Water your new landscape deeply at planting, and then regularly for the first year or two, until the plants are well established. Monitor plants carefully to determine when irrigation is necessary. Water deeply, but infrequently, to encourage good root development. Consider installing efficient drip irrigation to support your landscape.