The Special Nature of Arid Landscapes

Photo ©

Deserts are arid landscapes, characterized by low rainfall and high evaporation. Like the plants that have learned to put down roots here, nobody told the birds that life in the desert was too harsh for them.

Native Oasis

Landscaping challenges exist in arid landscapes, including any combination of poor soils, extreme daily temperature fluctuations, or highly seasonal precipitation, but such challenges shape dramatic native plant communities which rival any proper English garden. Nowhere else does such landscape drama exist; think big boulders, texture beyond your wildest dreams, and amazing backyard biodiversity. Where else can you find bats, hares, lizards, and tortoises in the same neighborhood? Birds not found elsewhere in the United States, like the Curve-billed Thrasher, the Elf Owl, or the Costa’s Hummingbird, make their homes among the sweet acacia, the agave, and the yucca. Does your garden stick out like a sunburned tourist, all manicured roses and lawn? Recent research has shown a connection between desert landscape designs and the presence of desert-dwelling birds in Phoenix 1, so ditch the lawn, pile some rocks, and welcome the quail to your yard.

Elf Owl

A saguaro cactus is a great nesting place for this Elf Owl.

Photo © Cameron Rognan

Succulent Southwestern Natives

What if it were harder to distinguish where your yard stops and the desert begins? Edward Abbey wrote in Desert Solitaire, “For myself, I hold no preference among flowers, so long as they are wild, free, spontaneous.” Flowers blooming in the desert seem to achieve spontaneity even when cultivated. You can have the place-based native garden you want along with year-round color and interest- you just have to be willing to surprise yourself! There are numerous plants that are well-adapted to dunes, mesas, and scrub which don’t need supplemental watering and soil conditioning. To attract hummingbirds, the diversity of which makes the Southwest famous among birders, try planting desert willow or desert honeysuckle. Desert Olive will attract Scaled Quail and songbirds with its crop of dark fruits. And you couldn’t go wrong with any of the species of prickly pear cactus that thrive in hot, dry places. To ramp up your color palette, you could add pottery, art pieces, or painted tiles for pops of color.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Those aren't rocks; they're the eggs of a Gambel's quail.

Photo © SearchNetMedia

In Your Hands

We all share the responsibility of ensuring there is enough water to go around. You can reduce your utility costs and conserve water and energy with these tips:

  • As much as 60% of home water consumption is used for water-guzzling yards. The major culprits? Lawns and all those non-native ornamentals.
  • Heating and cooling costs can be offset by having a white or green roof and solar panels, but they may require a large initial investment. Check to see if your municipality has an incentive program to make them more affordable. Additionally, a well-placed deciduous tree (15-20’ feet from the building), if tall enough to shade the roof, can lower the temperature inside by 8-10 degrees.
  • Not all drought-resistant plants are equally thrifty with water; some need more than others. Plants originally from riparian or streamside habitat will soak up more water than their neighbors in your backyard, so choose carefully and reserve these plants for small garden spaces.