Almost 40 years ago, in response to serious drought conditions at the time, Denver Water gave new life to a concept by coining the term “xeriscape.” It was the beginning of an initiative to implement the concept of xeriscaping / desert landscaping and the use of xeriscape plants throughout the landscaping industry.
If you’re wondering why 40 year old news matters, it’s because those drought conditions have not improved.
In fact, conditions are worse. A recent study asserts that the western United States has been in a “megadrought” since 2000. “Mega,” because there have not been drought conditions this severe in 1,200 years, and because of its potential to last a century long.
Arizona and Utah’s Lake Powell and the famed ‘bathtub ring’ that clearly shows how much the water level has dropped.
While recreating a true xeriscape identical to what xeriscape plants have in the wild is impossible, Denver Water has developed straightforward principles that, when followed, will get you pretty close. If you are so inclined, harvesting rainfall to water your xeriscape plants along with regular soil analyses and amendments will get you even closer.
The 7 Principles of Xeriscaping
The infographic above illustrates the 7 principles of xeriscaping put forth by Denver Water. They say to:
- Devise a base plan and a xeriscape planting plan
- Amend the soil. A manure-based compost will add moisture to the soil. Make your own with a good compost grinder.
- Keep water low to the ground if you water by hand. Hand watering often results in over-watering so convert to a drip system if possible.
- When planting, group xeriscape plants together by water and sunlight requirements.
- Topdress planting areas with mulch once plants are installed, at a 2” to 4” depth.
- Replace any high-water grass with low-water grass, or remove the grass entirely.
- Maintain the new xeriscape plants diligently to keep them in optimum condition.
Xeriscaping Ideas #s 1 – 5: Pre-Planting
1. Convert Existing Turf Areas
It’s the most impactful place to start: convert existing turf areas to xeriscape. After the grass is removed, re-do the area with various hardscape elements such as pavers, retaining walls, flagstone, various types of planters, pergolas, and more.
This newly renovated yard shows how to do a conversion to xeriscape while still keeping a very small section of turf for animal use. “Small Backyard” by Field Outdoor Spaces, licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Artificial turf could be an option. There are price points available that accommodate any budget.
2. Check For Areas With Standing Water
Standing water is wasteful, and unappealing to see or smell. It can also have an adverse effect on xeriscape plants and attract mosquitoes. The most common causes of standing water are lack of drainage due to soil issues and ground that is either not level or not graded to properly divert run-off.
If the issues are minor, an adjustment of watering time in the specific areas will address the problem. If that does not work, you will need to look into regrading and/or soil replacement.
3. Use a Drip Irrigation System
The most efficient way to water a landscape is a drip irrigation system. It is the use of the drip emitters and their low-volume output that make the system xeriscape-friendly.
In a drip irrigation system, all xeriscape plants get a dedicated emitter, which controls the gallons per hour output.
If you have an old system, it’s a good idea to have an audit performed.
4. Remove Exotics
Plants that are not native or acclimated can require substantially more water because of the energy they expend trying to grow in adverse conditions.
One or two may be fine but any additional should be removed.
The following two pictures show examples of xeriscapes with both indigenous and acclimated xeriscape plants.
Above and below are two examples of well-designed xeriscape plants. The example above uses a mix of both indigenous and non-indigenous but acclimated xeriscape plants, appropriately grouped. The example below illustrates what going full-indigenous looks like. Both also showcase prominent hardscape elements that combine for overall striking results.
5. Have a Smart and Organized Planting Plan Ready to Follow
Design the layout by using groupings of xeriscape plants that have similar or same water and sunlight requirements. Do not start planting without this; it will keep you organized.
Three Important Reminders + Hand Pruner Recommendation
Now you can pick out the specific plants you want, make sure they’re suitable for your zone, and then visit a nursery.
In almost two decades of being a commercial landscape contractor in Arizona, I’ve worked with countless species of plants. I have specific experience with every plant, tree and flower on this list and can personally attest to their drought tolerance.
There are three key things to remember:
- First, keep in mind that xeriscape plants grow into their drought tolerance via establishment.
- Second, resist the urge to over-water! It does not establish the xeriscape plants faster.
- Third, always do natural pruning by hand when possible. It is exponentially better for the xeriscape plants’ health.
Hand pruning is easily accomplished with a good pair of 1” bypass pruners. My recommendation is to use Corona as they are the industry standard, comfortable to hold, and cut through most anything with ease. They are my personal favorite brand of hand pruner, and this is the model I use.
And now, on to the plants!
Xeriscape Ideas #s 6-36: List of Xeriscape Plants
Agave and cacti are succulents and are right at home in xeriscapes of any theme. They are xeriscape all-stars for very good reason and as long as they are hardy in your zone, you cannot go wrong with either type of plant. With almost 300 different species of agave, and thousands of species of cacti, any look from small, compact space-filler to huge, focal-point showstopper can be achieved. Look for “variegated” plants that offer even more visual appeal.
If you’re new to gardening, cacti and succulents make great first-time plants.
7. All Other Succulents (e.g. Echeveria, Sempervivum)
Succulents have enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years and are used prolifically in container gardening. But don’t be afraid to put them in the ground; they will flourish.
There are so many different plants in this category, there’s truly something for every type of weather, every taste, every style of landscape theme, and every skill level in the garden. New to succulents and not sure where to start? Check these beautiful specimens out:
- Spiral Aloe (Aloe polyphylla) – “Aloe polyphylla (I think) inflower” by brewbooks, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
- Elephant’s Food (Portulacaria afra)
- Purple Aeonium (Aeonium arboreum ‘Atropurpureum’) – “Purple Aeonium” by Troy McKaskle, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
- Painted Echeveria (Echeveria nodulosa) – “Echeveria Nodulosa_5680” by Rosa Say, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Cluster of blooms on a Lantana camara v. Luscious Citrus Blend.
There are well over 100 different plants in the Lantana genus. Most nursery specimens derive from either the camara or montevidensis species, with the fast-growing camara being the most popular and most diverse in color options. In the dead of summer, these quintessential xeriscape plants will give you bright, showy blooms.
They respond exceptionally well to spring cutbacks and they will quickly come back as good as new. Gold Mound, Dallas Red, Irene, and Purple Trailing are beautifully colored favorites that look great in any style of landscape.
9. Red Yucca ‘Brakelights’
Brakelights are a drought tolerant cultivar of the standard Red Yucca plant, which is much bigger, thorny, and more coral in color. Brakelights, compact but still tough, are known for the bright, vivid red blooms they put forth throughout the summer. These xeriscape plants would be a great addition to a desert rock garden style of xeriscape, adding a vibrant splash of red to create added interest.
10. Nandina aka Heavenly Bamboo
Nandina are hardy, drought tolerant plants with beautiful dark green foliage. Some cultivars show new growth in bright red. Mature specimens display purple and red hues in the fall and winter. Non-dwarf cultivars provide height that make a nice backdrop to a multi-dimensional layout. They are also widely used as hedges. If your xeriscape theme is more lush, oriental, cottage, or formal, they’re a great plant to add.
11. Natal Plum ‘Boxwood Beauty’
The drought tolerant Boxwood is a dwarf cultivar of Natal Plum and is most commonly used in tropical landscapes and xeriscapes. They have waxy dark green foliage and brightly contrasting white flowers. It is common to see these almost-thornless plants boxed or squared off into low hedges, and they serve this purpose well. But it’s a shame, because their natural structure is so much prettier.
Bougainvillea are hands-down my favorite plant and in my opinion one of the best species you could add to any style of garden, in any location. The adaptability of the Bougainvillea is unmatched. Put them in the ground, hang them in a basket, add to a planter bed, pot in a container, use them as a formal, manicured hedge, espalier or trellis them, or let them free-grow into whatever they want to be – they do it all, and they do it beautifully.
They are considered tropical plants as they’re native to tropical Brazil. From there they have spread everywhere and, although I will forever associate them with southern California, they have become true citizens of the world.
A colorful display of the Bougainvillea’s sunshine-loving leaf-like bracts.
Interesting Biology: Did you know?
The gorgeous color you see on Bougainvillea are not the blooms. Those are bracts, which are leaves biologically, though they aren’t green because they don’t photosynthesize like “normal” leaves do. Their functions are to protect the actual blooms (which are the tiny little white flowers inside the bracts) and attract pollinators, hence the colors.
Variegated species like the ‘Raspberry Ice’ and architectural off-shoots like the ‘Torchglow’ add even more interest and depth to the species.
All the work Bougies do is done with very little need for water. They may look delicate and high maintenance,but they’re not. They are tough and can survive ages without watering.
Close up of the protective Bougainvillea bracts surrounding the small white blooms.
13. Lady Banks Rose
Rosa banksiae as a drought tolerant option is debatable; opinions are split on that. My experience with it has shown me that it most certainly is, if you give it what it wants.
This beautiful and sturdy xeriscape plant wants morning sun, afternoon shade, well drained soil allowed to dry out between waterings, and an occasional drink of SUPERthrive.
They also want something to climb. To start, train their tendrils sideways and once they’ve attached just let them go. They perform brilliantly on fences, trellises, support beams, arbors, and make for breathtaking pergolas.
There are somewhere around 250 species of Verbena, with a wide range of colors, look, growing habits, and water preferences.
I’ve used quite a bit of Verbena rigida (Sandpaper Verbena) and Verbena gooddingii (Goodding’s Verbena) in my designs, both of which are beautiful ground cover plants that thrive in high heat and low water with well-drained soil. They put forth a dense carpet of bright green with pops of vibrant purple or hot pink flowers.
These species, along with the Desert Sand shown above and several others, are very adaptable and are colorful additions to any style of xeriscape. They look particularly nice spreading in and out of chunky rock like rip-rip or boulders.
Native to North America and incredibly adaptable, these plants have become widespread throughout the western US. There are almost 300 different species of these delicate looking beauties, making them the 3rd most prolific flowering plant in the west, with Utah home to the most.
They are much tougher than they look and once established are surprisingly tolerant of receiving very little water.
The Penstemon’s beauty is particularly eye-catching when juxtaposed with less attractive, barren surroundings; it enhances the appearance of even the most bleak environment.
16. Oleander ‘Petite Pink’
The ‘Petite Pink’ Oleander cultivar is a nice, contained option if the mass of the standard Oleander feels overwhelming. They’re still tough and thrive in hot weather and little water.
They will pop beautiful pale pink flowers all summer long and make great informal hedges if left in their natural state. Though not their preference, they can also stand up under shearing and aggressive manicuring to form formal hedges.
17. Tecoma stans
This genus and species are outstanding xeriscape plants due to their ability to grow exceptionally fast in high heat, reflective heat, and low water.
This member of the trumpet vine family can get up to about 10’, and are often trained into small ornamental trees. If you need the height, they look great planted along property walls or fences, and they make colorful privacy screens. New colors like Apricot Sunrise, Bells of Fire, Crimson Flare, and Mayan Gold add nice variety.
18. Mediterranean Fan Palm
The Mediterranean Fan Palm (Chamaerops humilis) is the only Palm Tree native to Europe.
Hardier than most other Palms, it has acclimated exceptionally well to warm U.S. climates.
While it does enjoy an occasional deep soaking and to dry out fully in-between, a deeply established root system allows “Meds” to handle drought conditions without issue.
Meds are a natural focal point for a tropical or mediterranean themed xeriscape.
Self-seeding Gazania are remarkably heat and drought-tolerant. They start in low-profile clusters that quickly grow together to create a blanket effect. Once they get going, they are fast growing and require little maintenance, apart from some deadheading to encourage new pops of color. Foliage can be either silver or dark green, and many of the leaf colors and patterns are stunning.
20. Angelita Daisy
Another self-seeder is the low-water and low-maintenance Angelita Daisy. Delicate looking yellow flowers on long stems rest atop a cluster of skinny leaf blades that look like a little mound of grass. They instantly add a softer effect to rock gardens and heavily hardscaped areas, and are a delightful little puff of color in an arid desertscape.
21. Mexican Evening Primrose
Mexican Evening Primrose are yet another xeriscape plant that, based on their appearance alone, are surprisingly drought tolerant. They are native to parts of North America and Mexico and are a fast and low growing groundcover. The flowers on these plants are pretty, pale pink, and almost iridescent-looking. They can even tolerate infertile soil.
22. Mexican Bird of Paradise
Desert Birds are staples in Arizona xeriscapes thanks to their easy tolerance of full sun, extreme heat, and very little water. Even in these conditions, these hardworking plants pop huge, beautiful blooms in bright red and cheery yellow. They can be trimmed and trained into a small tree or left as a large shrub…really large. If you have a healthy one, don’t be too surprised if it gets 10’ tall and just as wide if not wider.
23. Tropical Bird of Paradise
Strelitzia reginae’s presence on this list may surprise you. They are admittedly not as easy as some others to get going; I give them recurring SUPERthrive treatments at and after install, at least until established. Once these birds are full grown they are virtually indestructible.
They are native to South Africa and have acclimated exceptionally well in the western U.S., including here in the desert. In California especially, they have been known to survive shocking lengths of time without watering.
They are the star of the show in any landscape and add instant “wow!” wherever they ‘re planted. Plant them in areas with other drought tolerant plants in a tropical or mediterranean themed xeriscape.
They will require deadheading, as spent blooms are large and unsightly. An easy snip with the bypass pruners does the job, and encourages new growth.
24. Texas Rangers
A Green Cloud Texas Ranger growing over and shedding some spent blooms onto Barrel Cacti.
Leucophyllum frutescens is a northern Mexico/New Mexico/Texas native that goes by many different names. They are ideal xeriscape plants due to being extremely drought tolerant. They also love full sun. It is common to see Rangers squared off with hedge-trimmers into little boxes or with others as a hedge.
25. Ice Plant
Ice Plant is a sprawler that will completely swallow up the ground, leaving a lush blanket full of green with red, pink, purple, yellow, or white flowers. If you’re looking for a xeriscape plant that can cover a lot of ground with greenery, this is your plant. While moist soil will kill them, they will thrive in poor soil conditions, full sun, with very little care, and in salty conditions as well.
Delosperma v. ‘Red Mountain Flame’ is a stunningly beautiful variety of Ice Plant that is cold-hardier than most other varieties, and is most at home with a rock mulch ground cover.
26. Star Jasmine
Star Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) functions either as a shrub or vine. It is beloved first and foremost for its fragrance, and people love to plant them near walkways, entry ways, and entertaining areas so that the fragrance can be enjoyed. The foliage is dark and waxy and large, bright white star-shaped flowers make for a lovely contrast. It is deer resistant and, once established, highly drought tolerant and impervious to heat.
A close-up of Star Jasmine’s lovely, dark foliage and stark white flowers.
27. Pink Muhly
If you’re a fan of pink Pampas Grass, try the Muhlenbergia capillaris v. ‘Regal Mist’ aka “Pink Muhly”. It is arguably the most beautiful species of all the grasses. The foliage is nice enough, but when it blooms the entire canopy of the plant explodes into a gauzy cloud of pale pink.
Pink Muhlys are very low maintenance plants, heat and full sun tolerant, drought tolerant once established, and deer resistant.
28. Mexican Petunia (Ruellia brittoniana)
Ruellia (brittoniana) is a must-have xeriscape plant due to being very heat and drought tolerant. It’s also hardy and can grow in a mix of challenging conditions. This variety, also known as Ruellia simplex, Mexican Bluebells, or Mexican Petunia in other states, is great for filling in narrow spaces where height is also needed. The foliage is dotted with deep purple flowers, making them not only utilitarian but also quite pretty.
This plant has never let me down; it’s one of my oft-recommended favorites.
29. Desert Milkweed
This Arizona/California/Baja native provides architectural interest in a garden with it’s long stems and upward structure. It doesn’t bat an eye at the summer temperatures and prefers the full sunshine.
They make great additions to butterfly gardens, as Monarchs are drawn to the blooms and like
to lay their eggs on the Milkweed. Once established it needs hardly any supplemental water.
30. Desert Willow Tree
Desert Willow trees (Chilopsis linearis) are a drought tolerant native of the desert southwest, known for their silvery bark, multiple trunks, and bright, showy flowers in gradient pinks. They are a small to medium-sized tree and make a lovely addition to any xeriscape as they can easily assimilate into any theme.
31. Sweet Acacia Tree
Sweet Acacia will survive a full on drought, no water at all, but drop all their leaves in the process. This is to conserve energy to survive, any many trees do this in varying degrees. When they receive water again, new foliage is grown generally without issue.
Their blooms are deep, vivid yellow and look like fuzzy little balls. Their best part? They smell AMAZING; it’s sweet and tantalizing, like Jolly Rancher candy. Sweet Acacia are so beloved for their scent, their large and sharp thorns are often overlooked.
32. Palo Verde Tree ‘Desert Museum’
The thornless ‘Desert Museum’ is the resulting hybrid of a 3-way cross between the Blue, Foothills (Arizona natives), and Mexican Palo Verde trees. It is the perfect embodiment of xeriscape planting: fast growing, loves the full sun, loves the heat, and does not like much water. In some cases it needs none at all. The beautiful yellow blooms last longer than they do on its three parent species.
33. Mesquite Tree
Mesquites, members of the Prosopis genus, are known for their heat, sun, and low-water tolerance. They also grow amazingly fast and have an expansive, complex root system. There are about 40 different species worldwide, three of which are native to Arizona.
Most have a very appealing architecture – twisted, turning trunks underneath a wide canopy that hangs almost like a willow. Their extreme drought tolerance gives them a noteable ability to survive where many others can’t.
Prosopis pallida, found in Hawaii. It is native to South America and likes the specific dichotomy of dry, coastal areas. “starr-160517-0307-Prosopis_pallida-habit-Wailea_Coastal_alk-Maui” by Forest and Kim Starr is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
34. Ironwood Tree
In man-made xeriscapes where they are pruned and maintained, the drought-tolerant Ironwoods are the star of the show. They are multi-trunked with silver bark, and in the spring small, light-pink and pale purple flowers engulf the canopy in an intense poof of lavender color. From the right distance it looks almost like gossamer, the color seemingly hovering in the air around it.
If you enjoy lights on your trees during the holidays, the slow-growing Ironwood is a fun break from tradition.
35. Pygmy Date Palm
The Phoenix roebellini is a crowd-pleaser because it looks like a miniature Palm tree and adds a tropic flare wherever it’s planted. They look right at home and compliment even the most austere of xeriscapes, regardless of theme.
They come in both single and multi-trunk, and my preference is multi. They look more structurally harmonious and use their space in a more appealing way. In my opinion, single trunks are best left to the taller Palms (e.g. Dactylifera, California and Mexican Fans), where they look regal with their long, skinny bodies.
Pygmy Dates do need water and maintenance while establishing. Once established that changes completely. From then on they require little to no maintenance and are impressively drought resistant.
36. Drought-resistant Herb Spiral
I love to cook, and cooking with fresh herbs you pick right from your own garden makes the food feel extra fulfilling.
Rosemary, Sage, and Thyme are three of the most drought tolerant herbs. If for whatever reason you find you’re unable to water your herb garden, they are the three that will keep on going long after the others have died of thirst. They all also compliment each other and grow well together.
Oregano is easy to grow and virtually maintenance free once it gets going, requiring only some light watering during very dry spells. There are several different kinds of Oregano with Italian Oregano being a favorite.
Herb spirals are a visually interesting way to ensure maximum watering efficiency and adherence to the xeriscape philosophy. Added bonuses: easy to make, no tools required, and you can probably use materials you already have.
And last but not least…so simple yet crucial to xeriscape plant success…
Xeriscaping Idea #37: Add mulch!
Mulch refers to the top and final layer of material applied after planting, e.g. bark, wood chips, pea gravel, decomposed granite, etc.. It’s generally the final step in landscape projects and it’s going to help keep your plants alive while they establish.
This recent front yard conversion to xeriscape has been thoroughly top-dressed with bark mulch so that the ground is covered right up to the plants’ root balls. “Front lawn. Paving, mulch, rocks, plants.” by Shannon Prickett is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
With benefits like moisture retention, temperature-regulating insulation,and protection from weeds and the sun, my opinion is that mulching is absolutely necessary. Best part? You can make your own!
Enjoy Your Beautiful Creation!
As you can see, xeriscape does not have to mean brown and boring. Any combination of the xeriscape plants on this list, and the countless others not listed, can come together to create beautiful, colorful palettes that can be both lush and low-water.