Creating a Lush Desert Oasis in the Urban Landscape

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Photo by Asset Landscaping

With more than 200 options of desert-adapted plants to choose from, urban landscapes in the Sonoran Desert should be anything but lackluster. From groundcovers and shrubs to trees and cacti, homeowners have a myriad of choices to create an inviting and lush desert landscape.

Many people mistake the term “xeriscape” (Xeri is the Greek word for dry) with the concept of “zeroscape.”  Xeriscapes utilize desert-adapted plants that can withstand drought and are tolerant to the soils and climate of the desert southwest. Xeriscapes do not have to look barren and dry.  “Zeroscapes” are those hot-looking landscapes with nothing but rock and cacti, and no tree in sight.

It starts with the trees

To create an oasis using desert-adapted plants, first consider tree selection and placement. A well-placed tree or two can make a significant impact on the air conditioning bill in the summer.  Providing the south-facing portion of the house with shade is critical. In addition, the western section of the house is important to shade from the long afternoon summer sun. So, consider planting trees in the landscape near the southwest and southeast corners of the house. Be sure to leave ample room for the tree’s growth at maturity.

Add shrubs

After you have considered your tree placement, move to the next visual layer—shrubs. Shrubs in the desert can be anywhere from one to six feet tall. Consider how much biomass you want to produce in your yard, because with adequate irrigation, some shrubs will grow quickly. Water is a great growth regulator; if you want to slow the growth of your desert-adapted plants, scale back your watering routine. A little water stress on desert-adapted plants often encourages terrific flower blooms.

Round it out with groundcover, cacti, and succulents

Groundcovers fill in the blanks. Groundcovers can provide that final layer that rounds out the landscape with a trailing rosemary, a tufted evening primrose, or a striking ice plant. Cacti and succulents are also great for filling in open areas in the landscape and providing wildlife habitat.

Also, do not hesitate to plant densely. In the riparian areas of Arizona, mesquites, cottonwoods, shrubs, and groundcovers all grow together and create a wonderful cooling effect with the evapotranspiration process.

And finally, consider color—the desert is full of it. Different desert-adapted plants produce colorful blooms at different times of the year. Get more information on plant options for your landscape at local nurseries, municipal water providers, and your Cooperative Extension office.

  • To get inspired and start planning a lush desert landscape, check out
  • For a list of 200 low-water-use plants for the Arizona desert, water requirements, and size at maturity, visit:
  • To hire a landscape professional with specific training in water-wise landscaping techniques, go to

Got a gardening question? Contact the Maricopa County Master Gardener hotline at (602) 827-8200 x301.

Haley Paul is an Assistant in Extension in Urban Agriculture at the University of Arizona

Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County, a unit within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Find your local Cooperative Extension office at Contact Haley at  or follow on Twitter @haleyepaul.


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