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Living Within Your Environment

There are many desert plant lovers living in wet climates, just as there are those who would like to have a tropical garden in the desert. Both desires are practical as long as you consider scale, placement, and plant selection in your design. For example, if you want a cactus garden in Florida, which has a rainy climate, you should plant the cactus in highly elevated beds filled with very porous material like gravel. You may also need to cover the cactus with fiberglass panels to divert most of the rain, while allowing sun light in. If you want a tropical garden in a climate that only gets 4 inches of rain per year, like Las Vegas, keep it very small, seasonal, and use plants that can handle the climate. They are many plant species that look tropical, but are quite drought tolerant.

Likewise, if you are in an arid climate that has freezing nights in the winter, such as Utah and Colorado, you'll want to limit frost sensitive plants or keep them in pots, so you can bring them inside in the winter. However, if you use native plants or plants that are adapted to your climate, all the labor-intensive hands-on management and plant replacement go away.

Overview of American Deserts

Although deserts have an appearance from afar as being a stark, dead environment, they are actually quite the opposite. Deserts are some of the most vibrant and diverse habitats to exist. Hundreds of species of plants, insects, and animals have adapted to the desert's unique environments. To make things more complex, there are many different kinds of deserts. There are cold deserts, hot deserts, dry deserts, and relatively wet deserts. Each of these deserts has it's unique community of plants and animals. Some species are widely spread, others are endemic to tiny localities. For example, the Las Vegas Buckwheat (Eriogonum corymbosum) only grows in Clark County of Southern Nevada. It has just about become extinct from urban development. However, Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata) is quite common in the southern deserts of the USA.

To simplify the vast diversity of the American deserts, and give you some useful information to use in planning your desert landscape, we'll break it down into three desert climates: wet-warm, dry-warm, and dry-cold. Wet-warm desert describes central and southern Arizona and extends into the Mexican state of Sonora. It is called the Sonoran Desert. It has hot summers and relatively warm winters. It is the wettest desert because it has two rainy seasons, one in late summer, and the other in the winter. Some areas of the Sonoran Desert get as much as 15 inches of rain per year and have quite lush vegetation.

A dry-warm desert is basically the Mojave Desert, which goes from east of Anza Borrego State Park in San Diego county to just east of the Colorado River in north western Arizona. It also encapsulates all of Clark County in southern Nevada and the south western corner of Utah. It has hot summers, relatively warm winters, and scant unpredictable rain.

The third desert climate encompasses the cold deserts to the north, the main one being the Great Basin Desert, which encompasses most of Nevada north of Clark County, California east of the Sierra Nevada Range, eastern Oregon, southeastern Washington, southern Idaho, and western Utah. It is characterized by short hot summers, long cold winters, and very low rainfall.

The Chihuahuan Desert of central and southern New Mexico and West Texas is a bit of a hybrid between warm and cold climates; the high average elevation range of between 4000 and 6000 feet tends to make winter nights quite chilly, with temperatures well below freezing possible between November and March; but the fairly southerly latitude mitigates the cold far more significantly than in the Great Basin Desert, which is both the most northerly and the coldest of our four North American desert regions. For practical purposes in this discussion, however, the Chihuahuan Desert can be considered a warm-summer and mild-winter region.

Within these deserts you'll see characteristics of other desert climates and plant communities that are usually dependent on elevation. Here are three examples.

  1. For example, west of Las Vegas, exists a mountain range, called the Spring Mountains, that peak at about 12,000 feet. As you go up the mountain, the plant communities transition from a low desert creosote shrub-land to a pine forest at the highest elevations. Many of the plant species that grow at higher elevations in southern deserts, also grow throughout colder deserts.
  2. Most authorities classify the southeastern most portions of California, from about I-40 southwards to the Colorado River and the Baja border, as Lower Colorado River Sonoran Desert, not Mojave Desert. Anza-Borrego is really Sonoran, as are Imperial, eastern San Diego, and eastern Riverside Counties including the Palm Springs/Coachella Valley region; the transition to Mojave is very abrupt in this area and Joshua Tree NP is Mojave Desert, even though it's located just north of the Coachella Valley.
  3. Just north of Clark County, NV and east of Death Valley is a small desert called the Amargosa Desert. Being nestled between the Mojave and Great Basin deserts, it has characteristics of both. It has very cold winter nights, hot triple digit summer days and very low rain fall.

Being aware of your local desert's climate characteristics helps you choose the correct palette of plants for your landscape to maximize beauty and minimize maintenance. We'll further describe each of the three desert climates, then suggest some plants that would be suited for each.

Wet-Warm Deserts

The Sonoran Desert is both the warmest and the wettest desert, with mild winters. This tends to result in plant species and ecological structures in which the vegetation is both bigger and denser. It is a very lush desert, but distinctly different from other lush environments. The majority of the shrubs and trees have thorns. It is often referred to as a thorn shrub, or thorn forest habitat. The dominant tree families fall mainly into three categories: mesquite (Prosopis), cat claw (Acacia), and palo verde (Parkinsonia). These trees can grow to a size dependent on their exposure to water. All three tree families have spines.

This desert climate also has some very large cactus species that go by names such as Saguaro, Cardon, and Organ Pipe.

The largest cities in this desert type are Phoenix and Tucson. Tucson gets a little bit colder in the winter, but to keep it simple, we'll treat the two cities the same.

Arizona (AZ) Landscaping

Northern Arizona is a cold climate. See suggestions below in the cold desert section for landscaping ideas.

Central and southern Arizona lie within the Sonoran Desert; this includes most of Arizona's population which is situated either in the Phoenix or Tucson metropolitan regions. As noted earlier, it is the lushest of the four American deserts. However, it is distinguished from other wet climates by excessively hot summers, fast-draining sandy or rocky soils, and large desert shrubs which can't survive in truly wet tropical climates. This area typically has two rainy seasons: late summer and winter. The summer monsoon rains come from a combination of the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, including the Sea of Cortez (aka the Gulf of California.) Winter rains originate with moisture and frontal systems developing mainly in the central and northern Pacific Ocean, including the Gulf of Alaska.

Because of the higher rainfall (in some places up to 16 inches per year), the vegetative canopy tends to be much denser. While it is possible to grow many exotic species of plants in the Sonoran Desert with enough artificial irrigation, there are so many amazing native Sonoran species to grow that we encourage using those first.

Phoenix Landscaping

We've seen many great landscaping ideas in Phoenix. Most start with a desert concept, then the sky is the limit. Many residents from other climates move to cities like Phoenix, and try to grow the same type of landscape they did back home. After one or two unsuccessful attempts, they seek help from desert landscaping experts. Once they find the correct palette of plants and some basic desert landscaping principles, they begin flexing their muscles. Some pay a professional landscaper to design and install the landscape because they are too busy with their careers. Others do it themselves, through trial and error, until they find a winning combination of design, plants, and irrigation. Then they become hooked.

Some Suggested Plants for Southern Arizona Landscapes

These plant species are very common in the southern Arizona natural landscape. They should also be readily available from local independent plant nurseries in the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas.

  • Acacia constricta
  • Ambrosia deltoidea
  • Asclepias subulata
  • Calliandra californica
  • Carnegiea gigantea
  • Celtis pallida
  • Dalea Species (Indigo Bush)
  • Chilopsis linearis
  • Fouquieria splendens (Ocotillo)
  • Fraxinus greggii
  • Justicia californica
  • Opuntia santa rita
  • Parkinsonia microphylla
  • Parkinsonia x 'Desert Museum'
  • Penstemon parryi
  • Prosopis juliflora
  • Psilostrophe cooperi
  • Quercus turbinella
  • Senna wislizenii
  • Simmondsia chinensis
  • Sphaeralcea ambigua
  • Tagetes lemmonii 'Compacta'
  • Vauquelinia californica
  • Vitis californica
  • Yucca elata
  • Ziziphus obtusifolia

This list does not even scratch the surface of species adapted to the Sonoran climate. However, it's a good palette of plants, large and small, to help get you started creating a low water use, nature friendly landscape.

Sonoran Desert Landscape Resources

Here are links to more information from Arizona organizations.

The natural and home landscapes of central and southern Arizona are some of the most beautiful desert landscapes in the world. Take a look at some Phoenix and Tucson Desert landscaping ideas in this slideshow. The slideshow can be viewed full screen.

Dry-Warm Deserts

The Mojave desert, which consists of Southern California east of San Diego and San Bernardino, Southern Nevada, and Northwestern Arizona, is much drier than the Sonoran Desert. It also has much warmer average winter temperatures than the Great Basin Desert. The valleys and alluvial fans tend to have very scant vegetation. The valleys are sometimes dry lakes that have turned white from the build up of salts, alkali, and Boron. Not much can grow in these dry lakes except for plants that are adapted, such as salt bush (Atriplex species).

However, as arid and seemingly lifeless as the Mojave Desert is, there are a wide variety of plant communities and diversity that is highly elevation dependent. Driving up a mountain road is like driving north. The vegetation changes to more cold hardy and wet tolerant. Homeowner in the cities of Las Vegas, Victorville, Needles, Kingman, Lake Havasu, Borrego Springs, and Lancaster can create beautiful desert landscapes using plants that are adapted to the harsh Mojave climate.

Its good to get out see the unique beauty of the Mojave desert. Fortunately there are many large national parks and refuges in southern California and Nevada, where you can go to get many great landscaping ideas. Take a look at some of our slide shows of great places to visit in the Mojave desert.

Las Vegas Landscaping

Las Vegas has been very attractive to visitors and long term residents moving in from non-desert areas for the past 30 years. Most of the growth in population has been during the past 15 years. When people buy a home in Las Vegas metro area, they want to landscape the yard to their liking and familiarity. They see the large man-made fountains, lakes, palm trees, and rivers on Las Vegas Boulevard and they want to duplicate it in their own yard. Then they get the water bill and think, something has to change. Here's a great video that gets at the heart of the problem.

Here are some suggested plant species for home landscape in the Mojave Desert. They are available from local community colleges and botanical gardens in major Mojave cities.

  • Acacia greggii
  • Acacia smallii
  • Agave desertii
  • Ambrosia dumosa
  • Asclepias subulata
  • Atriplex hymenelytra
  • Baileya multiradiata
  • Calliandra californica
  • Celtis pallida
  • Chamaebatiaria millefolium
  • Coleogyne ramosissima
  • Cylindropuntia echinocarpa
  • Cylindropuntia ramosissima
  • Dalea Species (Indigo Bush)
  • Encelia farinosa
  • Encelia virginensis
  • Ephedra nevadensis
  • Fallugia paradoxa
  • Ferocactus cylindraceus
  • Justicia californica
  • Grayia spinosa
  • Opuntia basilaris
  • Eriogonum corymbosum var. nilesii
  • Eriogonum fasciculatum
  • Kraschenninikovia lanata
  • Larrea tridentata
  • Mirabilis multiflora
  • Penstemon palmeri
  • Quercus turbinella
  • Salazaria mexicana
  • Salvia columbariae
  • Salvia dorrii
  • Salvia funerea
  • Senna armata
  • Thamnosma montana
  • Sphaeralcea ambigua
  • Yucca schidigera
  • Yucca baccata
  • Xylorhiza tortifolia
  • Ziziphus obtusifolia

Mojave Desert Landscape Resources

Here are links to more information from Mojave organizations.

The natural landscapes of the Mojave desert are beautifully unique. Take a look at some native flowering plants throughout the Mojave desert to get some home desert landscaping ideas. The slideshow can be viewed full screen.

Dry-Cold Deserts

These climates have short hot summers, long freezing winters, and not much in between. Rainfall levels are very low, typically, below 10 inches per year. They receive more than 300 days of sunshine. The region is often referred to as the Intermountian West, and it includes a vast expanse of parallel mountain chains separated by broad, gently-sloped valley floors. The region encompasses part or all of at least 7 states, including California east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, southern Idaho, eastern Oregon and Washington, all of Utah, all of Nevada outside of the southern tip/Clark County, southwestern Wyoming, western Colorado, and much of northern Arizona.

Another region that exhibits a similar climate (albeit somewhat milder in winter and with better summer rainfall) is central and southern New Mexico and West Texas between El Paso and the Pecos River, including the Big Bend region. This area lies within the northern Chihuahuan Desert.

Great Basin Desert

Several species of plants dominate the Great Basin desert, which we can call signature plants. They are Juniper trees (Juniperus) and Sagebrush (Artimisia tridentata). Huge sagebrush steppe colonies grow in the valleys. Above 3000 feet in the hills surrounding the valleys are very large juniper tree forests. There are many other species of low to medium growing shrubs that are adapted to this climate. There are also many annuals and short lived perennials that produce spectacular colour. Here's a short list to get you started with your high desert landscape.

  • Achillea millefolium
  • Acer grandidentatum
  • Agastache urticifolia
  • Artemisia tridentata
  • Cercocarpus ledifolius
  • Chrysanthemum nauceosus
  • Ephedra viridis
  • Eriogonum jamesii
  • Fallugia paradoxa
  • Juniperus osteosperma (J.utahensis)
  • Linum lewisii
  • Mirabilis multiflora
  • Oenothera caespitosa
  • Pediocactus simpsonii
  • Penstemon barbatus
  • Penstemon palmeri
  • Penstamen strictus
  • Quercus gambelii
  • Pinus edulis
  • Ribes aureum
  • Salvia dorrii
  • Solidago Canadensis
  • Sphaeralcea munroana
  • Tetranueris acaulis
  • Yucca harrimanii
  • Yucca utahensis
  • Yucca baccata
  • Zauschneria latifolia

Great Basin Desert Landscape Resources

Here are links to more information from Great Basin organizations.

You are welcome to get some high country desert landscaping ideas from this Great Basin desert slideshow.

Northern Chihuahuan Desert

The USA part of the Chihuahuan Desert has many great landscape accent plants that do well in almost any other cold climate; even wet climates. Signature accent plants in the northern Chihuahuan desert are mainly Yucca (sometimes called Spanish Bayonet). In addition to having large trunks and canopies, these cold hardy yucca develop vast swollen root tubers underground, which are especially well developed in Yucca elata, the so-called soaptree, which is the state flower of New Mexico.. Some of the large urban areas include Albuquerque, and El Paso.

Picture Science Name Common Name Comments Max Height Cold Hardy to
Yucca Rostrata Beaked yucca Yucca rostrata is a very elegant cold hardy palm tree looking plant that has soft, pliable blue leaves. Tree yucca, growing slowly up to 12 feet tall (3.6 m) USDA: 8-12
Yucca Rigida Blue Yucca, Palmilla Similar to Yucca rostrata but leaves are wider and stiffer. Branches nicely from upper trunk. Grows like several trees growing together. The dead leaf skirt can be trimmed or left on the trunk. Grows to 15 feet tall (4.5 m) USDA: 8-10
Yucca Thompsoniana Thompson's Yucca Similar to Y. rostrata but does not grow as tall and has more ridged leaves. It is very versatile and easy to grow, and is one of the most reliable trees you can find. It is very cold hardy and can withstand humid cold. Grows to 10 feet tall (3 m) USDA: 7-12
Yucca faxoniana Spanish bayonet Yucca faxoniana has very long pliable but stiff leaves forming a huge rosette to 7 feet (2 meters) wide. It mostly grows as a very stout single trunk tree, but can be found with multiple trunks. Can grow to 15ft (5 meters) tall To 10°F, takes lower temps for a short time

Several other species of succulent plants also characterize the northern Chihuahuan desert. They are Agave harvardiana, A. neomexicana, A. lechuguilla, A. parryi, and A. gracilipes.

In addition, there is a long list of trees, shrubs, cacti, herbaceous perennials, and wildflowers native to the area. Most of these plants are also adaptable to other cold climates. Here's a short list to get you started.

  • Acacia constricta
  • Acacia farnesiana
  • Agave neomexicana
  • Agave harvardiana
  • Agave gracipes
  • Artemisia tridentata
  • Atriplex lentiformis
  • Cercocarpus montanus
  • Cupressus arizonica
  • Cylindropuntia imbricata
  • Dasylirion wheeleri
  • Echinocereus coccineus
  • Ericameria laricifolia
  • Ephedra nevadensis
  • Eriogonum wrightii
  • Eriogonum fasciculatum v. poliofolium
  • Fallugia paradoxa
  • Ferocactus hamatacanthus
  • Larrea tridentata
  • Lycium andersonii
  • Nolina bigelovii
  • Oenothera caespitosa
  • Penstemon barbatus
  • Penstemon palmeri
  • Prosopis glandulosa
  • Rhus microphylla
  • Quercus emoryi
  • Ribes aureum
  • Robinia neomexicana
  • Sphaeralcea munroana
  • Tetranueris acaulis
  • Thelocactus bicolor
  • Yucca elata
  • Yucca baccata
  • Vaquelina californica

Chihuahuan Desert Landscape Resources

Here are links to more information from Chihuahuan organizations.

You are welcome to get some New Mexico and West Texas desert landscaping ideas from this desert flower slideshow.

Xeriscape Landscaping

Xeriscaping is not just a desert landscaping term, it can be applied to just about any landscape. It basically means minimizing maintenance and irrigation by selecting plants that are from or adapted to your climate. It also means designing the layout of your landscape so that it takes advantage of the resources that are given for free. By living in concert with our environment, we become resource contributors, rather than resource depleters. When we give back to our support system, it rewards us abundantly.

For instance, rather than burning your fallen tree leaves in the fall, allowing them to decompose to mulch and then nutrient rich soil, will reduce or eliminate your need to fertilize in the spring. The mulch will slow soil evaporation, reducing your irrigation needs. When the plants absorb the nutrients, they they'll be much stronger and better defend against pests, reducing your pesticide needs.

Here's a slideshow showing xeriscape landscaping ideas from around the country. Enjoy.

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