Living in a desert region can be very challenging due to the higher aridity and extreme climates, but it offers you a very unique backdrop and terrain that you can use to create stunning desert landscaping ideas. Setting up a desert landscape in the backyard can be daunting, especially if you’re starting from square one. Also, backyard desert ideas can be overwhelming when you have a small budget and you need to scour the area for things to use. However, there is no need to fret as we’re going to go over 50 backyard desert ideas, and most of them are very budget-friendly while looking great.
Agaves are blue-leaved, fleshy succulents that can easily make a dramatic statement with the chunky leaves and the larger size. The silvery and pale blue coloring works well in a desert garden, and they’re a great backyard desert idea because they’re very drought and heat-tolerant.
ALoes can look very similar to some agaves, but they don’t grow in the same compact rosette pattern. Instead, aloes offer thick and strong leaves that grow straight up or out, and they are often spiky and have more volume than agaves. So, aloes are better suited to help fill in more space in your backyard desert idea. They work well in a planter, or in more compact areas.
3. Attract Wildlife
Few things can make your backyard desert idea feel more alive than the creatures that live in and around it. Many desert garden plants are huge draws for hummingbirds, and you can plant them en masse. Put out bat houses, bird feeders, and bird baths to draw the wildlife in, and provide water all year-round for your birds and toads to drink or bathe in.
4. Blown Glass Art
If you want to give your yard a more luxurious and unique feel, you can add blown glass art to the space. This is usually one of the last steps when you design your garden, and you can figure out which spaces need a splash of color. If you want to add texture and color to the space and you’ve chosen to add succulents, blown glass ornaments can make the perfect home for them.
5. Bushy or Shady Trees
Despite the fact that true desert plants are far and few between, they do manage to survive. Add bushy or shady trees to your yard to help break the heat on hotter days. Palo verde, desert willow, chitalpa, and more are all great additions to your backyard desert idea, and they’re all resistant to drought. In fact, since so few plants really thrive in this environment, adding a few that will thrive can make a huge visual impact on the whole space.
6. Cacti Field
Place your cacti haphazardly in your space and mix and match them. However, you do want to make sure that the smaller ones are in front of your design and the bigger ones are in the back. You can easily create size symmetry by putting the larger ones in the middle of your design and surround them with smaller cultivars.
7. Captivating Structures
An eye-catching structure put near the entrance of your home won’t only work to mask the more bland desert look, but it’ll also create a focal point. You can add a metal yard ornament or a sculpture that seems like it defies gravity to capture the attention of anyone who sees it.
8. Color Splashes
Color isn’t nearly as rampant in the desert as it is in a more traditional space, so use it to spruce up your backyard desert idea. Pick bold colors that can stand up to the bold plants in your yard. Yellow and orange are natural choices because they work to reflect the colors found in the nearby landscape or sunsets. However, greens and blues can help to visually cool down your space, but stick with a tighter color palette. Splash color onto your walls, furniture, or use blooming desert plants spaced in the yard.
9. Columnar Cactus
When it comes to bespoke landscaping, you can’t beat a columnar cactus. This type of cactus grows straight up into a cylinder shape, and this means it gives you a neat and perfectly sculpted landscape. There are a few cultivars out there, and some can get very tall. Some of them will also develop branches, but you can cut them off without hurting the plant if you need more control over the space.
10. Concrete Pots
Because of the often nutrient-poor and hard soil that you’ll find in desert planting zones, it might be necessary to incorporate concrete pots into your backyard desert idea. A concrete pot matches the surroundings nicely, and it gives you space to plant your colorful plants.
11. Desert Palettes
Desert gardens may not feature the lush green color you see in woodland gardens or in cottage gardens, but they have intriguing color palettes that are unique to this area. Desert light and sunrise will illuminate a garden soaked in stunning muted colors. The classic look features earthy colors ranging from sandy tones and warm terra cotta to cool grays, blues, purples, and greens that you can find in succulents, desert wildflowers, and cacti. You can easily incorporate bright touches of red or yellow to draw people in, and cobalt-blue glazed pots will provide welcome pops of color.
12. Desert Pool
Many TV shows and movies have set up the fantasy of having an oasis out in the desert. But, with this backyard desert idea, you can create your own oasis with a pool surrounded by shrubbery and plants of your choice. Mixed in with the more harsh desert climate, having a pool sunk into the ground will give you a small slice of paradise.
13. Dramatic Yet Simple Shapes
Nothing says drama quite like a desert garden. The unusual shapes you get with your succulents and cacti, the angels and colors of the light, and the presence of sand and stone, all make fabulous design elements. You can create a more simple design with two or three plants in varying textures and shapes surrounded by a soothing blend of smooth river rock and small boulders that create a stunning statement in your yard.
14. Drought Tolerant Plants
There is no landscaping element that fits desert yards better than plants that are tolerant to drought. Some more prickly landscaping elements will take time, but the outcome is worth it. You can start with small succulents and cacti and tend them through the years to create a stunning desert arrangement, or you can buy bigger ones from the get-go.
15. Dry Stream Beds
Dry stream beds form not only a very attractive feature in your yard, but they can help prevent more runoff while conserving water. You can dig one of these stream beds into the landscape, but they also work well for naturally occurring gullies or slopes.
16. Fire Features
A fire dish or fire pit is nice to have when the temperatures start to dip in the cool evening hours in the desert. A firepit is a decent amount of work and acts like a more permanent structure, but there are many options for portable fire pits or fire dishes on the market. Some use wood while others require propane to run, and some people prefer to have a cleaner heat source.
17. Freestanding Walls
If you have free-standing structures on the lawn, you can repaint them a bright color to make them really stand out. However, we advise that you stay away from flamboyant and flashy hues and go for “charred” colors like dark orange or rusty red instead of sandy yellow or light brown as a background color. You can use these walls like a background for your garden beds, or they work as a barrier to display plants on a living wall.
18. Garden Fountain
To create this backyard desert idea, you’ll need to get a mixture of vibrant and dry water-wise plants like cool blue, radiance, delta fuschia, Juliet, and beyond blue. Plant them in a circle and leave a space in the middle to set your fountain. You can buy a fountain that is already put together, or you can create one using a boulder. If you want to go for a wild look, get a boulder, position it, split it down the middle, and put a pump under it to create your fountain.
19. Gravel and Stone
Using stone or gravel for a walking surface in place of traditional mulch beds makes sense with backyard desert ideas. Stone and gravel will let rainwater absorb into the soil instead of creating a runoff. Bigger stones make for an attractive look when it’s next to spiky or pointed succulents. Rounded river rock will give you a very attractive textural contrast too.
20. Hot Springs
You can create a hot spring using a few rock formations, and it’s relatively easy to take apart later. This is a very DIY-friendly backyard desert idea, and you can call in a contractor to build the frame or use cement to create it on your own. To get the flowing water hot, all you have to do is connect a pump and a boiler, and you have an artificial hot spring right in your yard.
21. Large Desert Beds
Putting a large desert bed into your backyard is a great way to create a stunning centerpiece. With a great cacti arrangement and flowering plants clustered around them, large desert beds are a powerful addition that can serve as a focal point for your whole yard.
22. Leafy Plants
Adding leafy plants that are desert-friendly in pots to your front yard or by your walkways will boost how pretty any other plants are near them. Most of the desert-friendly leafy plants you find are great butterfly plants, and they’d be a fantastic addition if you want to create a butterfly garden.
23. Mediterranean Flowers
In desert gardens, having a mix of cool and warm colors works surprisingly well as they have such a dramatic light at dusk and dawn each day. They can seem monochromatic for any gardener who is used to the more colorful temperature zone setups. Mediterranean plants generally do well in desert gardens, and they come in a huge range of colors.
24. Mulch or Not
Even though using stone or gravel is a very common replacement for more traditional mulch with backyard desert ideas, natural mulch can be the better choice. This is true if you’ve planted small trees in your garden that have root systems that would benefit from the insulating qualities natural mulch offers. Mulch also works to preserve the moisture in your soil for your plants, and it can be a less expensive option than stone.
25. Native Wildflowers
There are several native wildflowers that will happily grow in the desert, and you can purchase them and add them to your garden. The coral plant or fountainbush offers lacy red sprays of flowers for weeks at a time. Other bright flowers include desert mallow, Mexican gold poppy, and desert lupine. All of these plants grow from seeds that are available from vendors who specialize in native plants or heirloom varieties.
26. Natural Carpet
We may have touched on turf and grass here before, but with elements added in. Having a natural carpet for your backyard desert idea just means that you’re making the entire space green with a tall tree in the middle and a few stone features.
27. Natural Landscape Use
If your landscape has sloping hills or large boulders, you can use them in your backyard desert idea. The most dynamic garden designs in this space come from the land, and they’re usually directly inspired by the immediate surroundings. Use objects like desert driftwood and rocks for edging or as a sculptural accent piece.
28. Open Spaces
If you’re looking for a very quick backyard desert idea, this open space design is the perfect thing. To set this up, all you have to do is sparsely plant cactus balls and short trees or shrubs at the edges while using rocks and gravel to make the bed pretty. It allows you to fully enjoy the desert sunset and sunrise as you’ll have very little or no blockage.
It’s difficult to create a green, lush garden with your backyard desert ideas, but you can use this to your advantage and create unique ideas. Having plants that are easy for you to control allows you to create fun patterns. You can create straight lines or you can go for something more extravagant. Instead of randomly scattering your plants around, put them in a structured design.
30. Paved Pathways
Using paving stones allows you to create defined walkways that are very aesthetically pleasing. It’s one of the best backyard desert ideas if you want to be able to stroll around your garden without hurting your plants. They work well with a patio, and you’ll have a huge range of designs. This walkway type looks very nice with colored stones and lined with plants.
A pergola is a very attractive way to add some shade to your yard. Most pergolas get built out of lumber, but they can also be made out of bamboo, metal, driftwood, or deadfall wood. A pergola gives you a pleasant outdoor seating area, and it lends structure to an open space or patio. For desert climates, you’ll want to pick out drought-tolerant vines like Carolina jessamine, crossvine, Lady Banks’ nose, or pink trumpet vine.
32. Plant Closely to Save Water
Desert gardens should be designed with water conservation in mind since the heat will make water evaporate quicker, and the sandy desert soil won’t hang onto water well. Pick native plants if you can as these tend to thrive with low or no water. Another good trick to employ is to cluster your plants together so that they create shade for each other and help prevent the moisture from evaporating from the soil.
33. Potted Plants
Water will easily and quickly evaporate from the soil since it’s very sandy and loose. As a result, it can be very hard to start a yard if you live in the Southwest. However, you can create a stunning visual by getting larger pots and filling them with colorful native plants. The added bonus of using pots is that you can get height in your design and you don’t have to stick to strictly ground pots. A roof or wall can work as a great place to add interest or height to your backyard desert idea.
To pull off this idea, you’ll get minimal plants that have a burned look to them, like butterfly milkweed or wild quinine as they have little color and are light. Use white pebbles or large rocks to create a design instead of scattering them about. Now, to make it more dramatic, there are many props you can use, like a horse skull, cartwheel, tumbleweed, or a few broken logs. The last point about this design is that you can decide to add a small amount of color later, and all you have to do is add planters to the sides to keep the rough look.
35. Red Pancake (Paddle Plant)
Succulent plants or shrubs are fantastic for backyard desert ideas, but the paddle plant is one of the most beautiful. For those people who want color, you may have realized that red plants are hard to come by. The red pancake is the perfect choice to help break up your green and stone landscape and catch the eye of anyone who walks by it.
36. Reflective Lighting
Backyards are usually meant for morning sunbathing or afternoon get-togethers. However, you can take advantage of the cooler nighttime temperatures by using reflective lighting and a few water features. The light will highlight the water features, and you can relax in the cooler temperatures and warm glow of your lights.
37. Retaining Walls
Having two layers of retaining walls can help make a taller wall look more appealing while creating extra space to grow your desert plants. You can plant something like trailing rosemary on the topmost layer and allow it to spill down over the lower layers. Having other brightly colored plants will add nice contrast.
38. Shade Screens
The sand gets scorched very badly but the sun’s relentless rays. To avoid the hotter weather, create a nicely shaded area in your backyard using a shade sail. You can build a pergola or use panels of material to help shield part of the yard where you can relax during the day. You can build a woody arbor out of sun-weathered planks or lumber for your doorway to get shade too.
Choose a good color combination based on your landscape to help enhance your space. Earthy sandstone tones, sun-bleached timbers, as well as the grayish hues of the native herbs can also be part of your softscape. Adding color to your backyard desert idea to match the desert sundown is a great concept. Also, add local plants to take full advantage of spring flowers, exotic penstemon types, and bushy desert sunflowers.
40. Standing Flower Beds
Planting your flower bed on the ground is a very old design. So, we suggest that you do something unique with your backyard desert idea and create a standing flower bed. Depending on your yard’s size, you can create several flower beds. However, you do want to make sure that you have enough space to walk between them without running into anything.
41. Stone Slabs
One very simple landscaping idea is to use large stone rocks or slabs. Using bigger pavers is a very easy way to create a patio or walkway. They are easier to maintain than stones, and they don’t have the same skill level required to put in a paved pathway. When you use large pavers, you can just flatten the ground and lay them down for something that looks very sleek, especially when you use smaller stones to surround it in a border.
42. Stone Trails
Stone trails are a great solution if you have a smaller yard, but they can work very well with any garden type. This backyard desert idea allows you to get contrasting stone colors and create short pathways around your yard that are very eye-catching. If you have time, you can even lay them down in designs.
Stucco is a very popular choice for siding in desert regions of the United States, and it works as a fantastic base for a host of vibrant colors. Stucco helps to emphasize other details you use in your landscape design to make it very unique.
44. Vertical Planters
This is a great backyard desert idea if you don’t have a huge amount of space to work with. It can make the entire space look alive and lush, and it can be an expensive project if you can recycle materials to hang for planters. You can repurpose an old picture frame to create a succulent garden to hang on the wall, use a tall planter with taller trees or plants, or you can wash out old paint cans, fill them with soil, and hang them to grow plants.
As you may have guessed from the name of this backyard desert idea, you will need to have water features in your design. Putting something in your design that this area lacks naturally is not only refreshing, but it also draws the eye and allows you to flow from one point to the next. You can go unique or earthy, but a water feature is a default landscaping element in desert regions.
Just because you’re in a desert landscape, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get very colorful flowers. A backyard design that incorporates some of these flowers can add hits of purple, red, and yellow. There are dozens of small plants that can handle the scorching sun and lack of water, and you have a broad selection of native plants. You can choose Californian or Mexican poppies, fairy duster, desert marigold, brittlebush, or lupine for starters.
47. Yard Boulders
One very effective and easy way to landscape a desert area is to put in a rock garden. You can use them to break up the landscape while adding some differing heights. As desert plants will rarely sprawl due to how hot the sand gets, having some boulders in place can help to fill the space to stop it from looking sparse. They’re great for those people who want more of a hardscape with fewer plants.
Even though they will only flower every few years, yucca offers pretty foliage that comes in a host of colors and sizes, and this makes them a great backyard desert idea. You can get variegated varieties like Color Guard’s gold and green foliage to add pops of color to your landscape.
Xeriscaping refers to the landscaping art that uses stones and pebbles as the base element. You arrange them in a pattern or scatter them in clusters throughout your backyard to give it a mix of Mexican and Midwestern vibes. You can dot pots with plants in it, but you want to end with an open, wide space.
50. Zen Temple
The final backyard desert idea on the list is a zen temple, and you can get it by defining and lining a pathway with small greens that have dense foliage. The center of attention in this design can be a cactus. In another section, put another type of foliage and add round succulent plants into the mix or put another species of cactus in the middle. For the entrance to this space, instead of a traditional flower archway, you can pick a temple design like a halfway door.
Backyard desert ideas are not only meant for homes in desert areas, but you can replicate most of them in areas that don’t get a lot of rainfall. Try out as many as you like or pick a theme and go with it to get a stunning view all year-round.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.