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What Materials Work Best for Desert Landscapes?

April 25, 2022

A stunning landscape can completely transform your property and add up to 20% to your home’s value. An eye-catching design can also improve curb appeal, support local animal populations, aid in habitat restoration, and even boost your sense of well-being. 


In a desert landscape, however, your efforts – and the final product – might look quite different from lush, green environments. Instead, you’ll have to lean into your creative side and think outside the box to create a beautiful landscape. Ultimately, your success lies in incorporating the right materials.

Below, you’ll find a few that are both popular and ideal for hot climates where rainfall is rare and the sun beats down daily.

1. Sand

If sand has yet to make its way onto your property, it likely will during the next windstorm. Homes in close proximity to sand dunes and dust bowls, including Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park and Imperial Sand Dunes, are especially prone to blowing and drifting sands. Instead of fighting this natural phenomenon, embrace it by adding even more sand to your property.

The material will blend in seamlessly with the surrounding landscape. Plus, it’s relatively cheap, requires little maintenance, and can accommodate a wide variety of native plants. Because sand provides superior drainage, you won’t have to worry about overwatering foliage, either. If you wish to grow species that prefer more moisture, simply add organic material like peat or compost.

2. Rocks and Boulders

3. Concrete or Travertine

Perhaps you like the appearance of rocks and boulders but prefer a material that stays cool in the desert heat. In this case, concrete or travertine should be your top picks. These materials have a high thermal mass and absorb the coolness of the earth below rather than the hot sun overhead. Travertine is slightly more efficient at maintaining lower temperatures. However, both are easy on bare feet and require little maintenance.

Concrete and travertine are highly versatile, as well. Use them to make steps, patios, pathways, and even garden edging. While the southwestern desert is hot, nighttime temperatures can dip into the 20s in the winter. Therefore, you might consider using concrete or travertine pavers to build a firepit, too. Enjoy evenings outdoors, even during the chillier seasons with a simple design that’s both non-flammable and aesthetically pleasing.

4. Soft Greenery

Add variety and texture to your yard with some soft greenery. Arizona cottontop, pink muhly, fluff grass, and other delicate-looking varieties add both contrast and color. Plus, they’re safe for kids and pets to touch and sniff. Flowering plants like calliandra and leucophyllum perform well in hot climates, too. They require full sun and good drainage and you can easily prune them to maintain shape.

You can also use greenery to soften your home’s appearance. For instance, if the exterior design features sharp lines and edges, barrel cactus, prickly pair, and even saguaro can add contrasting soft curves. While they aren’t physically soft, their shape can contribute round dimensions to your property so it’s more visually inviting.

5. Sharp Vegetation

Of course, if your home has soft edges or takes a more cylindrical or spherical form, sharp vegetation can provide some visual contrast. Cholla cacti, yucca, and even Joshua trees are excellent choices for adobe homes and desert properties.

However, plants like the boxwood beauty also do well in the Arizona heat and can be cut into shapes, much like an English boxwood. Plant them along pathways or place them in a row to add visual interest and define your space.

Spiny or thorny vegetation works well in desert landscapes, too. All of the options above can survive blistering heat and high winds. Plus, they can act as built-in home security and ward off unwanted visitors. Plant spikey ocotillo around the perimeter or prickly pear cactus beneath windows to deter thieves or plant them around your garden to keep out hungry animals.

6. Native Plants

Fake grass, or artificial turf, is becoming increasingly popular in desert environments like Arizona. Depending on where you source this material, it can look just as vivid and natural as living grass. Plus, it doesn’t require any mowing, fertilizing, weeding, or watering, making it incredibly low-maintenance and much more affordable.

Because artificial turf is made of synthetic materials, it can become rather hot under the Arizona sun. If you do decide that this material is right for you, plant hardy desert trees to provide shade and keep the grass cool or simply wear shoes when you head outside. It’s a small price to pay for bright green hues and massive cost savings in terms of maintenance.

7. Brightly Colored Flora

Desert sunsets burn bright and can paint the sky brilliant shades of pink, purple, orange, yellow, and red. The same colors would look just as beautiful in your yard. Create a complementary foreground for those stunning Arizona sunsets with bright flowers and shrubs.

Bird of paradise – which comes in yellow, orange, and fiery red – provides vibrant color for long periods of time. Meanwhile, dalea flowers provide bright pink blossoms in the winter and early spring. 

Flowering trees like palo verde also show their colors during the spring and thrive in high temperatures. However, you must strategically introduce these plants, as the surrounding landscape is likely full of neutral shades of beige and gray. Use the bright colors as guideposts along a path or to accentuate the exterior design of your home and create focal points throughout your property.

8. Water

Contrary to popular belief, you can incorporate water features into a desert landscape without breaking the bank. You simply need adequate water pressure from a windmill or an elevated water tank. These systems don’t require electricity and actually conserve resources so long as you choose one that recycles water.

Of course, you may have to refill the basin as water evaporates in the desert heat. However, it should only need a top off once or twice a week, especially if you place the water feature in a shady spot like under a tree or awning. Wherever it flows, it’ll create an oasis for birds, insects, and other wildlife, which is especially important in urban areas where natural water sources are scarce.

9. Artificial Turf

Rocks and boulders are a common landscaping choice among desert dwellers, too. These materials already litter the landscape, so adding some to your property can easily make your yard look more natural. Place a few around your yard to match the surrounding environment or group them together to mark property boundaries, define a patio, or even create private areas like a value-adding fire pit or a backyard garden.

 While these materials are certainly low-maintenance, they can reflect both light and heat, so using too many could actually increase the ambient temperature. Plus, placing them haphazardly could pose a tripping hazard or make your backyard look like a terrarium. Avoid both scenarios by strategically placing boulders and rocks and pairing them with plants and other materials when possible.

10. Adobe Clay

There’s a big demand for accent walls in desert areas like Arizona because they create shade and can add a pop of color to practically any landscape. While simple brick might be your first choice for building material, it tends to hold heat and can even crack in extreme heat. Meanwhile, materials like adobe clay offer durability and even feature cooling properties thanks to a high thermal mass.

Use adobe to build garden walls or to create a short perimeter around your property. Mix your own clay with just a few simple ingredients and allow your finished product to dry in the sun. The longer it bakes, the harder and more durable it will become.

Examples of Desert Materials in a Phoenix Yard

Work with your local Arizona environment by picking some of these landscaping materials for your next yard upgrade. They work best for desert landscapes because they don’t rely on water or shade. Contact a professional landscaping company to create a stunning design that takes your regional weather into account.


Author: Holly Banghart

Holly, our senior designer and sales manager since 2010, brings expertise in design, industry certifications, and Master Gardener qualification. She crafts functional outdoor spaces tailored to clients' needs with manageable maintenance. Holly excels in conquering design challenges, turning yards into captivating landscapes. If you seek to enhance your outdoor space, Holly stands ready to transform your vision into reality.

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