To design a desert garden, start with an idea of what you want and then check the prices of the plants and garden elements you want against your budget. It’s okay if you need to revisit your plan due to budgetary restraints. Prepare your yard or garden space by removing unwanted plants and tilling the soil. Dig a wash and install your plants. Think about how you can design your desert garden to keep your home cool and protect it from the wind, especially if you’re out on the desert plains. Add protective edging around your plants and think about placing a patio beneath trees to take advantage of the natural shade.
Readying Your Future Desert Garden Download Article
Visualize your garden. Before you get started, you should be able to walk through the space that will become your garden and imagine what goes where. Imagine, for instance, where your wash will be, where your trees will be, and where your cacti will be.
- It might help if you walk through the space with a friend or family member and explain the future desert garden to them. This will help solidify the plan in your mind and allow you to confront issues that you might not have thought of, but that your friend or partner might raise.
- You could also sketch a 2-D layout or map of the future garden to help you get a better grip on what your desert garden will look like. Include all the major elements of your desert garden on the map.
- When visualizing your garden, you should imagine how large the final, mature plants will be. Plan your desert garden accordingly, with enough space for trees to grow to their full height.
Come up with a budget. Once you know what you want in your desert garden, you should investigate the price of the plants, rocks, and other elements you want. Depending on your financial resources, you might need to revisit your initial plans in order to determine if you need to scale back your vision for the garden.
- The amount of money you should budget toward your desert garden depends on your own income level and commitment to the project.
Remove unwanted plants. Crabgrass and other non-native plant growth should be eliminated before beginning your desert garden. Uproot plants and larger shrubs and discard them in garden waste bags. After mowing your grass short, layer newspaper and cardboard on top of it. Wet the layers, then cover them with compost.
- Once the grass is dead, rototill the area.
Plow the yard. In order to turn the earth over so as to ready it for desert plants, you’ll need to obtain a tractor or hand plow. For most mechanical tractors, you can use a front scoop or a rear blade to turn your future garden land over.
- Usually, the rear blade is the easier option when plowing your land.
- With a small plot, you could probably use a rototiller or similar handheld plowing device.
- Consult manufacturer directions for more information about how to use your mechanical tractor or plowing device.
- You can often rent small tractors from home and garden stores.
Dig a dry stream bed. A dry stream bed (also called a wash or arroyo) is a low depression that allows water to run straight through the desert garden. You should dig the basic outline of the wash when you are plowing your yard with the tiller or tractor by running a straight line through the future desert garden at a slightly greater depth than you tilled the rest of the yard.
- Once you’re done tilling the yard, go back over the rough outline of the wash and refine it somewhat with a shovel, tamping down the banks and deepening the trough of the wash.
- The wash should be about 9 inches (23 cm) deep.
Line your dry streambed. After digging the dry streambed, you’ll need to lay rocks about the size of a fist along the wash. Place them tightly together along the bottom. You can obtain these rocks from rock and gravel companies in your area.
- There’s no need to add water to the dry streambed. The dry streambed’s purpose is to secure the soil, direct precipitation during the rainy season, and beautify your desert garden.
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Choose shrubs. Shrubs are some of the most common and resilient of desert plants. Shrubs provide beautifying color for the garden, and cover for smaller plants that can thrive in their shade. Apache plumes, fern bushes, sages, succulents, and curl-leaf mountain mahogany are some of the most popular desert shrubs.
Select some trees. Trees can serve as a visual anchor for your desert garden. Of all desert flora, trees have the largest requirements for water, so you should plant your desert trees close to the wash. Monitor your trees closely and look for signs that they are withering (for instance, dry leaves and loss of leaf cover). Water your trees if they show signs of drying out. Some trees that grow successfully in the desert include:
- white thorn acacia
- leather-leaf acacia
- sweet acacia
- palo blanco
- anacacho orchid
- Mexican blue palm
Incorporate native plants into your garden. Desert plants like Palo Verde trees, mesquite, chuparosa, and desert lavender thrive in a desert garden. Various species of cactus – including the saguaro cactus, barrel cactus, and vine cactus – are also appropriate in a southwestern U.S. desert garden. These plants will do well because they require little to no water, a resource which is in short supply in the desert.
- Do not incorporate plants that don’t thrive in the desert into your desert garden.
- You can obtain plants for your desert garden from home and garden supply stores.
Encourage biodiversity. A diverse family of plants fosters resilience within your garden’s plant community. Don’t limit yourself to just a few species of grasses or cacti. Instead, include a variety of plants in your desert garden. Other plants you could include in your desert garden include: 
- Globe mallows
- Brittle bushes
- Poverty bushes
Install your plants. Dig a series of holes in your yard to accommodate the incoming plants and bushes. For most plants, a hole 12 inches (30 cm) wide and 18 inches (46 cm) deep is sufficient. Once you’ve dug the holes, place your plants into the holes, then fill the soil you’ve removed back into the hole to keep the plants anchored in place.
- It will probably take several weeks to obtain and install all your plants.
- Each plant grows best under particular ecological conditions. For instance, baby penstemons, brittlebush, and globe mallow thrive when planted near the edges of the wash and in other areas of disturbed soil.
- Space your plants out appropriately.
- Consult a guide of desert botany to determine the best location and provide adequate space for each plant species you incorporate into your desert garden.
Water your plants. Even though the plants of your desert garden should be hearty and capable of surviving in arid conditions, if there’s a serious drought, you’ll want to ensure your desert garden survives. Ensure your plants get watered at appropriate intervals.
- Each plant has different water needs. Consult a guide of desert botany for more information about how much and how often to water your desert plants.
- Some plants can be watered too much. Brittle bushes and globe mallow, for instance, will quickly explode beyond a reasonable size if watered frequently.
- When it comes to watering desert plants, err on the side of watering too little rather than watering too much. Providing too much water (and fertilizer) can cause your plants to grow too fast, leaving them vulnerable to wind breakage.
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Install a patio. When your trees start to grow significantly, you might want to add a patio beneath them. A patio beneath a tree is the best option because the tree’s branches provide excellent shade from the desert sun.
- Do not place a patio beneath trees that drop fruit or attract birds.
Place evergreens on the edge of the garden. With evergreens on the edge of the garden, your garden will be better protected from the wind. This arrangement will also provide a sort of visual enclosure to the garden as a whole.
Add edging. Edging is a low barrier in front of a row of plants or shrubs that encloses the space. Within the edging, you might add an extra layer of gravel or other topdressing in order to set the area apart visually from the rest of the garden space.
- You could use straight lines in front of a row of plants to give it a minimalist look, or use a curved line of edging in order to give the space a more organic flow.
- Plastic or steel barriers of an inch or two (three or four centimeters) are your best options for a well-designed desert garden.
Plan for energy efficiency. There are several ways to design your desert garden so as to maximize your household’s energy efficiency. Planting smaller trees near windows, for instance, can help prevent sun from heating the home to an uncomfortable temperature. 
- When planted close to the west and south of the home, deciduous trees can increase solar gain during the winter and reduce heat load during the summer.
- Evergreen trees planted just north of the home can reduce heat loss during the winter.
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What kind of plants can survive in the California high desert?
Lauren Kurtz is a Naturalist and Horticultural Specialist. Lauren has worked for Aurora, Colorado managing the Water-Wise Garden at Aurora Municipal Center for the Water Conservation Department. She earned a BA in Environmental and Sustainability Studies from Western Michigan University in 2014.
Choosing native plants is especially important in harsh desert climates. You will have more success with plants adapted to your climate, such as desert willow, four-winged salt brush, rabbit brush, desert four o’clock, and red barrel cactus.
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