Desert Plants for Landscaping
by George Oxford Miller
Standing on a busy boulevard in Palm Desert, California, I see a resort with a lake accented with thousands of pansies, palms, and a flock of scarlet flamingos. Across the street, creosote bushes, mesquite, and dozens of blooming desert plants line the fairways of a golf resort. I feel like I’m straddling the continent, with one foot in tropical Florida and the other in the Sonoran Desert.
As one of the greatest paradoxes in the desert West, residents, resorts and even cities live in constant battle with their arid, sandy surroundings. Instead of embracing the environment that makes desert cities the fastest growing in the nation, people plant water-guzzling trees and shrubs and nurture lawns of thirsty turf grass. A week without water wilts leaves, burns grass, and sends petunias to the flower graveyard.
Instead of landscaping yards with thirsty species from wetter climates, why not follow nature’s lead and bring the desert into the front yard? As the most bio-diverse ecosystems in North America, deserts boast hundreds of beautiful, long-blooming trees, shrubs and perennial flowers that thrive in extreme conditions. As an extra benefit, landscaping with native plants helps repair the environment and provide food and shelter for wildlife that might otherwise be displaced.
Why choose native species over the readily available, inexpensive foreign species? Think low maintenance. Think dollars saved. By selecting plants from your area, you have a landscape naturally adapted to whatever climatic extremes may occur. After tens of thousands of years, only those species that could adapt without supplemental water and fertilizer have survived.
Once established, a native plant requires little extra water, even in the driest years. Fewer plants die and require costly replacement. Low maintenance is important consideration, but it does not mean “No Maintenance.” Since a landscape is a planned esthetic design, the plants require some regular care, such as pruning, to maintain their best appearance.
At least two schools of thought exist concerning landscaping with indigenous plants. The traditional approach substitutes native species for the commonly used imported exotics. Native plants substitute for foundation hedges around buildings, border hedges along walks and drives, and sheared hedges, as accent shrubs planted alone, or as container plants. They fit into formal or informal landscape designs. Propagators clone and cross variations within a species to produce cultivars with dramatic flowers, foliage and growth habits.
At the other end of the spectrum, enthusiasts attempt to duplicate the natural plant associations found in the wild. A yard would in effect be a microcosm of nature. The “wildscape” design has no sheared hedges, shaped shrubs, or species or cultivars not from the immediate area.
Of course, many intermediate designs lie between the formal and the wild landscapes. Creating a landscape island maintains natural plant associations while giving open areas a dramatic visual accent. Instead of planting hedges and a few accent shrubs, use a mass planting, or island, of mixed species. A landscape island can be completely contained in an open area, or it can be curved out from a building. It can include one side of a drive or accent a corner. Cacti and xeriscape gardens exemplify the landscape island concept.
For mass plantings, always choose species with the same habitat requirements. For example, don't plant a blue spruce, a mountain species, to accent a gravel-covered yard of cacti and creosote bush. You can mix foliage plants with similar color and shape, or chose species with contrasting shades of blue, gray and green. Also consider size and structure for your design. A palo verde or desert willow adds a vertical accent for low-growing shrubs such as fairy duster or brittlebush.
A group planting can have a different accent for every season. You can provide year-round color, as well as food and shelter for birds and butterflies. Use deciduous plants to provide shades of bright green with new spring leaves and evergreens to add foliage color during the barren dormant months. Hedges, borders and backgrounds do not have to consist of a single evergreen species, but can combine the best nature has to offer. The flexibility of companion planting provides a multitude of design possibilities for an attractive yard throughout the year.
One common mistake made with desert landscaping is overcrowding. Desert plants naturally require surrounding open space so their network of spreading roots can absorb the scarce and infrequent water. A crowded landscape increases the competition for the natural supply of water and requires more supplemental water. Desert landscapes that work best maintain several feet of space between mature plants.
Botanical gardens that specialize in drought-tolerant plants provide some of the best places to see native plants in landscape settings. Gardens in Phoenix, Tucson, Austin and California’s Claremont and Palm Desert display plants that thrive in desert settings. The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert includes an extensive collection of North American desert species.
“The gardens and our educational classes promote by example the use of native plants for landscaping,” Kirt Anderson, head landscaper for the gardens, says. “People move here and want buffed out landscapes year round, but they have to learn to accept the seasonality of the desert. A lot of native plants go dormant in the summer and you can’t force them to keep blooming. People accept deciduous plants back East but not here.”
Anderson wheels his golf cart loaded with landscape tools through the garden section of the biological park and points out his favorite desert shrubs from across the Southwest. He stops at a mounding bush covered with yellow, sunflower-like blooms. “You can’t beat brittle bush,” he says. “It blooms all summer, especially after rains. Creosote bush also blooms after storms and fills the desert with that wonderful fresh aroma. Jojoba is another tough plant. It makes a great hedge with evergreen leaves and dense foliage.”
Penstemons line one ornate, split-rail fence with flamboyant red flowers. “Perry’s penstemon is tops for desert landscapes. They take the heat and re-seed easily,” Anderson says.
Using penstemons and other plants from the surrounding desert is a boon for wildlife, especially hummingbirds and butterflies. “The red flowers of chuparosa attract hummingbirds and desert lavender is a magnate for 17 species of butterflies,” Anderson says.
Anderson offers no pat solutions for watering desert landscapes. “Watering should mimic the desert rain patterns. Generally, desert plants don’t need water at all in the winter. Deserts get summer thunderstorms so a deep watering once a week in the summer keeps plants going. Just keep your eye on the garden and respond to the plant’s needs.”
With some of the most spectacular plants in North America within a few miles of our backyards, why not use nature’s gifts to landscape our homes, resorts, and businesses? Petunias are nice, but let’s give native plants their day in the sun, and our yards.
Interest in native-plant landscaping, or desert landscaping, and xeriscaping is growing, as people look for water-saving and environmentally conscious ways to recreate the beauty of the Southwest in their yards and gardens. George Miller, a native plant botanist and photographer, is the author of the book, Landscaping with Native Plants of the Southwest, considered an indispensable reference on the subject.
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DesertUSA is a comprehensive resource about the North American deserts and Southwest destinations. Learn about desert biomes while you discover how desert plants and animals learn to adapt to the harsh desert environment. Find travel information about national parks, state parks, BLM land, and Southwest cities and towns located in or near the desert regions of the United States. Access maps and information about the Sonoran Desert, Mojave Desert, Great Basin Desert, and Chihuahuan Desert.