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Desert Gardening: Signature Design Ideas

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Need design ideas for your desert garden? Here are some signature tips from Lowe's desert region gardening expert Scott Calhoun.

Golden barrel cactus with boulders and penstemon light up a Tucson garden.
A wrought iron gate provides a view into a courtyard garden.

In every garden I create I use a few design strategies over and over. I'd like to share some of them here.

Tip 1: It is an oft-repeated maxim, but it works: Use odd numbers of plants in naturalistic gardens. This is just another way of saying "Don't make symmetrical planting patterns in a space you want to look wild." Clustering three of the same species plants, like the golden barrels, or grouping even larger numbers - such as five or seven plants - is a great way to go. If you use only one plant, it needs to be powerful-looking and capable of standing on its own.

Rock left over from the building site fills this double-layer expanded metal fence.

Tip 2: In desert areas wood does not hold up when exposed to the elements. Whenever possible I prefer to use iron or masonry, both of which can stand up to the full brunt of the sun. Garden elements can have a traditional Spanish flair, like the gate, or a more modern character, like the steel-and-rock-filled fence pictured.

This Goodding verbena looks great growing near totem pole cactus.

Tip 3: A crucial key to success in extreme desert climates is to use plants well-adapted to your local conditions. One proven way to do this is to use native plants. In the Southwest I typically specify that 70 to 80 percent of the plants in any design I draw be native to the Sonoran, Chihuahuan and Mojave deserts. Some of these plants can be wildflowers, which help fill the gaps between succulents.

A native mesquite tree (Prosopis velutina) has enough room to achieve its mature size.

Tip 4: My last tip is really important: Place your trees first and make sure you know how wide they may get. People tend to plant trees too close together or too close to buildings because they don't understand - or choose to ignore - the plants' mature size. I do a lot of design work that involves removing poorly placed trees. My advice on this one is to draw some circles to scale to represent the full-grown size of the trees you intend to plant. This will save you time and money.

What are your secrets to success in your desert garden?

See more Desert Gardening Articles.