Desert Landscape Design Basics

Xeriscaping doesn’t usually mean no water and it certainly doesn’t mean all cactus.

Las Vegas Springs Preserve

While I’d never want to discourage someone who aspired to plant a garden that required no supplemental water, I would want them to know they’ve got their work cut out for them.  Even the majority of plants that are native to southern Nevada will require some help getting settled if they’ve been transplanted. Also, your plant palette will be a lot more limited if you’re only using plants that can survive and look good without some water assistance.

Xeriscape gardens will often have irrigation systems in place to help out in times of drought, which is kind of a perpetual state here in Vegas. Of course, hand-watering is also an option if you’re into it. I do want to point out however that as much as I love watering plants in the spring and fall, I love it considerably less in July which is precisely when your garden will need it the most.

Also, if you have to leave town or something, an irrigation system is probably going to be much more reliable than your neighbor’s kid since it doesn’t smoke weed every single night of the week after its parents have turned in for the evening.

Now, with regards to plant selection, there are so many leafy plants that are drought-tolerant and that do great in Las Vegas. While you might have to hunt online if you want something exotic, our nurseries do sell quite a few, especially in the spring and fall.

Encelia farinosa

There are low-growing Acacias that’ll fill in a large area with very little maintenance required. Bougainvillea is a crazy durable vine with unrivaled color all summer long.  Look at the lesser used varieties of Texas sage for long-lasting, low-care flowers during the hot months.  Baja fairyduster, the desert birds-of-paradise, jojoba, Texas mountain laurel, globe mallow, Encelia farinosa (I refuse to call it brittlebush because that’s an ugly name for a pretty plant). It’s kind of ridiculous how many plants you have to choose from that aren’t cacti.


Prickly Pear Cactus
(Opuntia basilaris)

Now all that being said, I do personally believe that a garden without even one cactus in it would be kind of sad. They offer so much texture and the flowers are insane (look at the Flying Saucer cactus, for one). You can even tickle some types of cactus flowers and watch their stamens wiggle around.

C’mon, seriously, if the thought of a ticklish bloom doesn’t win you over, I’m afraid I can’t image what possibly could.

Green’s a nice color but so is blue and silver and red and yellow and orange and pink and purple.

I do understand the love for green, please don’t get me wrong. The appeal of a shrub or tree with lush, green leaves isn’t lost on me, not by a long shot. But if you really want that green to pop and come alive, try putting something with silvery blue leaves right next to it. The contrast is striking, making the green plant appear somehow greener.

I’d definitely encourage you to stay open to color in your desert landscape. For one thing, you’ll obviously have a lot more plants to choose from, whether they’re leafy, succulent or flowering perennials. A variety of colors, shapes and textures will also offer depth and straight-up garden sexiness that a whole bunch of green plants can never hope to match.

Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)
Desert Delight Opuntia  (Opuntia polyacantha var. histricina ‘Desert Delight’ ) 
Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)









UNLV Co-operative Extension Paradise Campus

It’s not and there’s no reason your landscape has to be either. Add a small swell or two to your garden for a more natural look that’s really easy to accomplish.   I mean, it’s fundamentally just adding dirt and packing it down a bit. Even I can do that.

Boulders really do rock.

Don’t forget to work in some boulders! They bring so much to the landscape and I don’t think they get nearly their rightful attention and due.  Granite boulders provide everything I mentioned before (color, shape and texture) for very little money and literally no maintenance once they’re placed.  I say go with granite rather than sandstone because sandstone breaks down over time and gets mineral stains pretty easily.

Here’s what you want to do if you find you’re into this whole garden design thing and you have a little time to kill. Go to the rock yard and look at the boulders. There are some really gorgeous rocks out there and I’m not even being paid by the Associated Boulder Sellers of America to say that. Some have cool markings or vibrant colors, some are smooth and some are all jaggedy, but there’s almost certainly something for everyone at the rock yard.

Now, whether you place the boulder or have somebody else do it, here the crucial part:  find the ‘face’ of your boulder and make sure it’s turned to where you can see it. The face is the prettiest side of the boulder, probably the reason that you chose it above all others, so let it shine. Next you’ll want to bury your new rock into the soil a couple of inches. It doesn’t have to be perfectly even or anything like that. In fact, it would probably look kind of weird if it was too level. Your goal is too make it look like that boulder just kind of landed there after a huge earthquake in the time of the dinosaurs and hasn’t budged since. Or as if the desert winds have eroded the sands around so it’s emerged from the Earth over the last few million years or so. Or at the very least like it wasn’t just left where it was dropped by a wheelbarrow.

Okay, I think we’ve covered enough for now, but please let me know if you have any questions about desert garden design. We’re starting to up our game in this area as a city but we’ve still got a long way to go and I’d like to contribute however I can. Together I know in my heart of hearts that we’ll make Vegas a world-class botanical joint come hell or high water!

I’m hoping for the high water myself but people say I’m an optimist.




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