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Desert Garden Ideas: How To Make A Desert Garden

Desert Garden Ideas: How To Make A Desert Garden


By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

The key to a successful landscape is to work with your environment. Gardeners in arid zones may want to consider a desert garden theme that works with their soil, temperature, and water availability. Part of learning how to make a desert garden is finding out what plants are best for desert gardens.

Choosing the right plants will ensure that your landscape is healthy, easy to maintain, and conserves resources. All this can add up to big money savings and spare you from the headaches associated with incorrect plants and placement.

How to Make a Desert Garden

Desert soils are one of the biggest obstacles when planning a desert garden theme. They are generally highly alkaline with a pH of around eight or higher. Most plants thrive in moderate pH levels of 6 to 6.5, which means your plant choices are limited.

The best option is to choose plants that are native to your area. Native plants are specially adapted to the soil, weather, and arid conditions of desert zones. Plan your landscape with this in mind and use a few other desert garden tips for the most suitable garden.

Desert Garden Tips

Lawns are not practical in arid zones. Replace traditional grass with drought-tolerant ground cover, rocks, and gravel. In some cases, re-grading your yard may be necessary to funnel infrequent rains to areas where you have groups of plants. Use drought-tolerant plants where possible and set up a rain barrel to catch water for irrigation.

Flagstones and other paving material make attractive paths and patios and combine attractively with other inorganic materials. Once you have the land graded and have set up the bare bones of the garden with non-living focal points and structural elements, it is time to find out what plants are best for desert gardens.

What Plants are Best for Desert Gardens?

While using native plants are among the best desert garden ideas, you can also use adaptive plants from similar regions. Ice plant makes an excellent ground cover and many sedums and sempervivum, like hens and chicks, will thrive in rocky gardens and containers. Choose tall plants for shade such as Acacia, Mesquite, and Desert Willow.

Consult with your local extension service for native plant sales and desert garden ideas. Cacti are slow-growing and provide native focus in the landscape. Place succulent plants in areas that are low and may collect moisture. These are drought tolerant but tend to use more moisture than cacti.

Desert Garden Tips for Patios

Container plants add dimension and interest to the garden. Smaller agaves, aloes, bougainvillea, mandevilla vine, and hibiscus plants make excellent potted patio specimens. Pots can dry out even more quickly than plants in the ground, so take care to give them some supplemental water, especially during establishment.

A small cactus container garden on the patio will tie in the whole theme and lends an air of authenticity to arid landscapes. If you are a beginning desert gardener, container plants are an excellent way of learning about what plants are best for desert gardens and how to take care of them.

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Best Plants for Attracting Birds in the Southwest

Welcome desert birds to your garden with these colorful plants.

As a place to see unusual birds, the Southwest is a top destination. Gardeners in the region can lure some of these unusual bird species simply by planting seed plants for them to enjoy. Some of the seed-eating birds you can attract include doves, quail, finches, sparrows, cardinals, and Pyrrhuloxias. Here are a few of the best plants for attracting desert birds to your garden:

Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica), hailing from Mexico's Baja peninsula, produces red-tufted flowers that mature into little seedpods enjoyed by quail. The plant also attracts hummingbirds. This 4-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide shrub is hardy to Zone 9.

Firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella) can be in bloom 10 months in a row, which means it also produces seed 10 months in a row -- a fact not lost on the finches and sparrows that visit it frequently. Its yellow and red flowers liven up perennial planting schemes and reach 2 feet tall and 1 foot wide hardy to Zone 5.

Parry's Penstemon (Penstemon parryi) are often visited by finches, who flex the tall flower stalks like pole-vaulters to get at the seed hardy to Zone 8.


The backside of the shower painted with a coat of Kelly-Moore ‘Silver Blueberry’ (KM4994) becomes a sleek backdrop to show off a collection of a potted palms, cacti, and succulents. Combining foliage, such as the feathery pygmy date palm, with cacti and succulents helps the garden feel lush without needing much water.

In the back of the garden, a towering agave (Agave americana) holds court. The bold, sculptural shape of agave is mimicked by smaller potted agaves (Agave ‘Blue Glow’) sitting on top of wooden pedestals at the garden entry points.


The Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia)

The Joshua tree is a type of yucca plant that grows in the Mojave Desert. This drought-tolerant tree-like desert plant also has names such as yucca palm and palm tree yucca. Native to Arizona, Utah, California, and Nevada, the large sun-loving plant can grow as high as 50 ft. (15 m). The slow-growing tree may take many years to reach that height.

The large desert Joshua tree gets its moisture from the arid landscape by a large root system. The short, stumpy branches have spiky green leaves. These leaves grow in clumps at the end of the thick branches, giving the Joshua tree a barren appearance.


5. Fertilizer

Gardeners should fertilize their potted plants once a month during growing season because watering flushes nutrients from the soil. Most gardeners, he said, like to try out different types of fertilizers to decide what works best for their needs, but instructions on the labels should always be followed.

“Growing things in containers can be sometimes tricky,” Kibler said. “Some gardeners will tell you they learned more from what died than what survived. As with anything, it is a learning experience. The plants will generally let you know when they are unhappy.”

Kim Matas is a Tucson-based freelance writer. Contact her at [email protected]

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Desert Landscaping Plants

This collection of desert landscaping plants includes cacti and shrubs that can be used as foundation plants for desert gardening. Plants that live in the desert, including these carefully chosen perennials, are particularly drought resistant/drought tolerant plants (xeric plants). These desert plants are particularly suited to low-elevation desert gardens in Sonoran/Mojave desert of southern AZ, (Phoenix/Tucson), eastern California (Palm Springs) and Las Vegas, NV and surrounding areas. Learn more about gardening in low-water areas: Water Saving Gardening Tips.

To choose the best plants for your garden, use our filters at left.

To choose the best plants for your garden, use our filters below.

Penstemon pinifolius Mersea Yellow (Yellow Pineleaf Beardtongue) is an English selection of our native pineleaf Penstemon grown for its bright yellow tubular flowers that cover the p.

Nepeta Walker's Low (Walker's Low Catmint) is a robust variety with dark lavender-blue flowers in late spring and aromatic gray-green foliage. Thriving in harsh conditions, this dur.