Tips on how to design a fabulous, drought-tolerant garden with a desert theme.

Desert design by Gates & Croft Horticultural DesignCredit: Photo by Jane Gates

Whether you are gardening in the desert or you just like the look of a desert theme, a desert landscape design can offer eco-friendly, practical and eye-catching beauty. Many plants that have evolved in hot, dry conditions have interesting shapes and forms and some have remarkably showy flowers. Often plants have adapted to heat and low rainfall by developing soft, fuzzy leaves, woody stems or the water storage capabilities of cacti and succulents. Some cacti boast huge flowers. But a desert garden does not have to include a single succulent plant.

If you want a desert garden that offers natural shade, there are trees with billowy foliage like the mesquite or fascinating green bark like the Mexican Palo Verde. There are shrubs that are smothered with colorful flowers like some of the Salvias (Salvia clevelandii or Salvia chamaedryoides) or the Desert Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia gilliesii). And there are even ground-hugging plants like the yellow-flowered Dymondia that can replace lawns with a flat green carpet that never needs mowing.

If you like the look of a cactus garden there are ways to design a cactus-succulent landscape that is just plain beautiful. Mix succulents that grow like thick grasses topped with colorful flowers – like aloes or agaves, add sculptural columnar cactus plants for focal points, or plant waves of brilliantly flowering succulents like one of the many varieties of Ice Plant to pour over rocks or the retaining wall edges.

Get creative with your space. You can mix all kinds of effects including structures like patios, bridges and even recycled ponds to make a desert landscape into a paradise. You can do heavy planting, light plantings or mix different sizes, shapes and forms of planter areas. Go formal with geometric lines and shapes or let things flow naturally.

There are thousands of drought-tolerant plants for the desert garden that have colorful leaves and flowers, fascinating textures and ornamental growth habits. Add in décor like seating, patios, trellises and archways and you can carve your own world out of your garden space. Fill it with areas of cast cement or permeable paving like flagstone, clinkers, pavers or gravel that will need no watering at all. Design this non-living material into meandering paths, informal patios or ground-paintings to add creativity mixed with practicality.

Being water-wise is not only an opportunity to design a landscape that is eco-friendly and practical, but it is a chance to create a spectacular garden that will make all your friends and neighbors envious. And if that isn't enough to convince you how much fun desert landscape design can be, remember this will also be an extremely low maintenace kind of garden. Low water, low labor and lots of beauty: now there's a formula for a successfully designed garden.