Natural Desert Landscaping

Natural Desert Landscaping

The Desert Botanical Garden’s herbarium database is continually being updated. This is a particularly useful tool if you are unable to utilize our herbarium on-site. Wholesale grower Mountain States Wholesale Nursery has information about hundreds of plants suitable for desert gardening, how to choose the perfect plant for conditions in your yard, and/or find retail nurseries that carry their plants. The University of Arizona, Maricopa County Cooperative Extension Service offers a wealth of information for desert gardeners. A variety of demonstration gardens are offered at the main office. Desert USA provides a variety of information ranging from plants to wildlife and geology, as well as associated updates and activities.

Natural Desert Landscaping

Desert natives such as the ones used in this project—saguaro cactus, Fouquieria splendens (ocotillo), and Encelia farinosa (brittlebush)—create an ecosystem where fat lizards do push-ups on rocks, cactus wrens nest within spiny pillars, and bobcats drink from water features. That sense of connection with the rhythms of the desert immeasurably enriches his clients’ lives. As Martino says, “I never make apologies for the desert. The plants are so unique here, and it should be celebrated as a special place.”

Natural Desert Landscaping

If you are one of the people who think of the term “desert garden” as an oxymoron, it’s time to reconsider and push the images of barren sand dunes out of your mind. Beautiful gardens can exist in the desert, and many desert gardens are incredibly vibrant and full of plant life.

Natural Desert Landscaping

This guide will help you select paving materials, native plants, irrigation systems, outdoor furniture, and other amenities ideal for a desert garden. Armed with the right desert garden design ideas and tips for choosing plants that thrive in an arid environment, creating a lush desert garden will be easier than you think.

Natural Desert Landscaping

When Steve Martino began his career some 35 years ago, people thought of the desert as a blank canvas on which they could paint their own version of paradise, often a lush oasis that bore little resemblance to the natural surroundings. “When the power of water is shut off, your garden should not die,” notes Martino whose desert landscapes showcase indigenous plants and natural scenery.

Natural Desert Landscaping

“It’s been ingrained in us that desert is a wasteland,” says Martino. Yet it’s his love for the desert—the interplay of light and shadow, the colors, plants, and wildlife—which inspires his work. “I want my gardens to say something about the site and its history,” he says. Inherent in that philosophy is not only a respect for, but a celebration of the natural elements that belong here. “Native plants connect the landscape to the region and give your garden soul.” Though it’s become common practice for designers to emphasize indigenous plants, Martino was a groundbreaker in elevating natives from “weeds” to an integral part of the landscape about 30 years ago.

Natural Desert Landscaping

Of course, plants are only one part of what makes Martino’s designs stand out. Boldly colored stucco walls frame compelling views of the desert and sky, expanding the outdoor living area while solving common site problems such as lack of privacy or shade. “I love ruins; gardens should make wonderful ruins, and I think they should stand on their own as a space even without plants, he says. In fact, notes Martino, “Gardens are made up of two worlds: the man-made and the natural world. I try to juxtapose these two. I’ve described my garden design style as ‘Weeds and Walls—Nature and Man.’” The lighthearted use of unexpected shapes, materials, and colors is one of the most striking elements of Martino’s landscapes. And his enthusiasm for trying new things has led to some interesting discoveries. Years back, when he visited a local manufacturer of race-car parts and realized they could build custom structures from translucent fiberglass in vivid hues, he came alive with ideas for colorful arbors, outdoor showers, and internally lit benches. “When I try something new, sometimes I don’t know right away whether it’s the neatest thing I’ve ever done, or the dumbest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. But his inventiveness means that the walls, shade structures, and accents can be perfectly tailored to the personalities, interior design, and site characteristics in each project, as well as the desert setting beyond the garden fence.

Natural Desert Landscaping

The Arizona Herb Association is a nonprofit organization, established as an educational forum so that its members and the public can easily obtain, share and utilize information about the uses, culture, history and lore of herbs. Members maintain interests in culinary, cosmetic, medicinal, ornamental, dye and ethnic herbs. All other interests in herbs are encouraged and welcomed. The Arizona Native Plant Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to the appreciation and protection of Arizona’s native plants. Monthly meetings (link to details page in Events & Exhibitions) of the Phoenix chapter, open to all plant enthusiasts, are held at the Desert Botanical Garden, and a variety of activities are offered to members state-wide. The Central Arizona Cactus and Succulent Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to sharing information about, and encouraging conservation of, cacti and other succulents. Monthly meetings(link to details page in Events & Exhibitions), open to the public, are held at the Desert Botanical Garden, and a variety of activities are offered to members.

Colors are used to evoke emotion, and for this Palm Springs project (pictured above), Martino chose upbeat colors that enhance the desert setting, such as ochre, coppery orange, and fiery red. This sets the stage for an outdoor living area that is cohesive with its surroundings, while creating an inviting and energizing scene to draw people outside. He also used the power of iconic objects or plants. “If you have a white room and you put a Chinese chair in it, suddenly it’s a Chinese room,” he says. “You can do that with plants. If you have an empty courtyard and you put a cactus against the wall, suddenly it’s a courtyard in the desert.”

Use this design sheet to help you create the perfect Southwestern landscape. You’ll get ideas for color, décor, materials, plants and fabric. It is a great starting point for any desert landscaping project.

The keys to successful desert landscaping are knowledge and planning. In order to have a lively, functional garden that also has low water and maintenance requirements, you will need to make educated plant and hardscape choices.

Even the illusion of water can have a calm, soothing effect in a landscape design. The designer of this dry creek bed used the natural desert washes of Arizona’s mountains as inspiration. Dry creek beds can also be efficient ways to manage stormwater runoff To get the look, create a subtle grade change in your backyard with mounds of soil and low-lying areas to mimic a natural stream.
Natural Desert Landscaping

Design tip: Consider using artifical grass. Not only will you save water, but you’ll also save on lawn maintenance, which can be tough in a desert climate where turf grass is anything but natural.

Though Martino is known for his creative use of walls and structures, a reverence for the local habitat is what allows his inventive style to blend so seamlessly with the surroundings. “I started to use native plants to make the transition from the building to the adjacent natural desert. If you have 100 acres next to you, by bringing native plants right up to the building, you visually take ownership of all of that,” he explains. “It seems like a no-brainer as a technique to visually claim the adjacent land as part of your project. Instead of designing within a small space, it makes the landscape the biggest room in the house.”

“My approach to garden design is pretty straightforward. I look at it as problem-solving with style,” says Martino. Preferring to use permanent elements rather than trees for screening, Martino discovered a loophole in the city’s rules. “My secret weapon is ‘sheds.’ Here, you can build a 200-square-foot, 15-foot-high shed without a permit, yet a wall can only be 6 feet tall. I’ve built sheds which act as garden walls to provide privacy and define the space.” With the addition of a multilevel shed, the backyard became a flexible entertaining and seating area, with a crushed-rock floor. An elevated viewing deck allows a glimpse into the natural areas nearby. A black concrete reflecting pool, next to Hesperaloe parviflora ‘Perpa’ Brakelights®, mirrors the passing clouds. In the heat of the day, guests can take shelter under the shade screen, which is made of perforated steel punched with differently sized and shaped holes. By overlapping these sheets in varying ways, psychedelic patterns and shadows are cast as the sun moves across the sky. Two Fouquieria splendens (ocotillo) flank either side of the shed entry, and a Carnegiea gigantea (saguaro) and Baileya multiradiata (desert marigold) adorn the front of the stairs. One Opuntia ficus-indica (prickly pear or Indian fig) sits next to the butterfly chairs; another is to the left of the paving.