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10 Outstanding Desert Landscaping Ideas

While not as boisterous as a cottage garden nor as lush as a tropical garden, desert landscapes have an undeniable beauty and character born from their tough surroundings.

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Make the Environment Look Real

One way to make your backyard look natural is with rocks, which are a natural feature in desert landscapes. Rocks also serve another purpose: They give the eye a place to rest. Picture these cacti without the rocks. They’d seem like a big jumble without any focal point. Here are some excellent tips for moving heavy objects, such as rocks.

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Consider Mulch

Wood chips, shredded bark and compost are out. Stones, gravel and sand are in. This looks more natural for a desert yard/garden—and it drains quickly, so plant stems won’t rot from a wet mulch piled against them. Learn more about mulches in our mulch guide.

Plus: Check out even more amazing landscaping ideas with rocks here.

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Be Intentional with your Backyard

If you’re going to try something out of the ordinary, be intentional about it. Make it obvious that your desert landscape is planned, not accidental. These barrel cacti, planted in matching blue planters and lined up in rows, add architectural interest. Using planters like this is one of our favorite desert landscape ideas for backyards.

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cactus lalcreative/Shutterstock

Mix it Up

An easy way to add visual interest is to mix plant shapes, colors and sizes. You can lay them out in a regimented design, such as this one, or group them in more natural-looking vignettes. Xeriscapes (landscapes featuring water-wise plants) can be beautiful. Learn more about xeriscaping here.

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Go Native

What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, if you live where there’s plentiful rainfall. But this home is in Las Vegas where landscape watering is often restricted or banned. Be kind to the environment (and save money and maintenance costs) by using native plants—those suited to desert conditions. For instance, you could substitute stone mulch and patches of succulents for the lawn grass seen here. Learn more about succulent groundcovers.

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Create a Stage

Desert landscapes often include smaller plants without the visual stopping power of, say, a large shade tree. Give them a stage in your backyard, as seen here with a rock-lined planting pocket. Call further attention with meandering stone paths leading to the stage.

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wagon wheelKathy Burns/Shutterstock

Add Some Garden Art

An old rusty wagon wheel and a piece of driftwood look right at home in a desert landscape. They add interest and allow you to show off your personality. The key is to keep them authentic to the desert (leave out the pink flamingos!) and use them sparingly (too many pieces can make a garden look kitschy). Here are 12 tacky lawn ornaments you need to see.

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Group Smaller Plants

When you group smaller plants, you multiply their visual impact. This looks most natural when you use identical species and repeat them in odd numbers, as seen here. Informally placed rocks call attention to the plant vignette. Mixing texture like this is one of our favorite desert landscape ideas for backyards.

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flowersKathryn Roach/Shutterstock

Be Bold

Place a focal-point plant where it can be appreciated—by an entryway, walkway, or in front of a wall. What makes it a focal point? A bold attitude, whether it comes from size, shape, or in this case, color. By the way, this pineleaf beardtongue (Pennstemon pinifolius) is hardy in Zones 5–9, so you can enjoy it even if you don’t live in the desert! These three projects up the curb appeal of your entryway.

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window Beneda Miroslav/Shutterstock

Make it Portable

A good way for non-desert gardeners to enjoy a taste of the desert backyard landscaping is with potted plants. You can create a pretty vignette on the patio or deck and enjoy it for the summer. When cold weather approaches, take the plants inside for the winter. Note: Desert plants are conditioned to drying out somewhat between waterings, so if you live in a rainy climate, you may want to add some overhead protection. Meet some great plants for container gardens.

Luke Miller
Luke Miller is an award-winning garden editor with 25 years' experience in horticultural communications, including editing a national magazine and creating print and online gardening content for a national retailer. He grew up across the street from a park arboretum and has a lifelong passion for gardening in general and trees in particular. In addition to his journalism degree, he has studied horticulture and is a Master Gardener.