DIY Landscape design

DIY xeriscape landscape design

Creating a landscape design isn’t as hard as it may seem. I did one for a friend last year and want to share the steps I used.

1. Map your yard

My friend owns an acre lot and wanted a landscape design for her front yard that included a circular drive. We used a tape measure to calculate the size of the exterior of her house, the fence line, and distance to the front of her lot. Then I printed out 10 square per inch graph paper and drew these features onto the paper. For her big yard, I glued a few pieces together to get a square big enough.

DIY Landscape design

Here’s the design I drew for my friend with a gravel circular drive.

2. Select theme plants

This is important. A well designed landscape sticks to a theme and uses repetitions of certain theme plants to create uniformity. Unplanned landscapes with one or two of a variety of plants don’t look great. I recommended to my friend to pick a favorite tree, three favorite bushes, and a couple favorite cacti to begin. For example, she already had two mesquite trees, so she chose mesquite for her theme tree.

My preference is obviously for a native desert theme, but you can create a landscape with any theme. The “theme” plants should all contribute to whichever look you’re trying to attain.

Sonoran desert theme plants

Sonoran desert theme plants

3. Add hills, hardscape, and walk ways

The circular drive was already a must. I added a river bed, walkway leading to her side gate, hills, and informal courtyard area around the main entrance.

Driveway idea

Driveway idea

4. Draw plants onto design

Add plants! I like to avoid planting trees in a line. Consider where you want shade, where you don’t want roots, and what looks natural. Cluster bushes in groups of at least three, odd numbers look good. Notice how landscapes that have been professionally designed use a variety of plants but always in multiples that repeat throughout the landscape. Feel free to copy planting ideas you’ve seen elsewhere! Use bushes to fill in and make a landscape lush. Aim for three times as many bushes as trees, if you have the space. Finally we added cacti. Since they are smaller, we filled them in where they could be seen from the front and along walkways.

5. Plan water system

Either you already have an irrigation system in place or you plan to build one from scratch. Either way, it is important to plan before you plant so you can consider water requirements and your irrigation system’s capabilities. For this yard, we planned the entire front yard on one zone (meaning all plants get watered on the same schedule). So all plants needed similar water requirements. We decided the back yard would have a zone for higher water plants, since they wanted to plant some non-native pine trees along the side of the house in back, and so we planned that one higher water line would come through a hole in the block fence and allow three citrus trees near the fence in the front yard.

6. Build from the bottom up

Irrigation lines first, then hills and hardscape like cement, fences, or crushed granite walkways. For hills of any significance, I’ve seen most yards need a small tractor or bobcat and some extra fill dirt. Plants come next and decorative rock last.

7. Buy plants and plant in stages

If you are doing a large yard yourself, you may want to plant a section at a time to allow yourself to see how the plants do. Especially since in my opinion, a nice landscape has A LOT of plants. You can plant your trees and a section of bushes, then see how they acclimate through the hot or cold season– they may take extra watering through the first summer. If you have a plant that doesn’t seem to do well in your yard, better to lose 3-5 than 10-15 plants due to stress. Cacti can also be finicky when getting established, as I’ve learned watching them sunburn or rot from over-watering.

Landscape in progress

Landscape in progress. (A landscape is always in progress.)


My friend’s yard with lots of new plants added. Making great progress!

8. Add rock and finishing touches

When your plants are in the ground and thriving, then you can add landscape rock, boulders, potted plants, furniture… watch wildlife…

Any beautiful landscape will require ongoing maintenance: checking water lines, some pruning, perhaps replacing or moving a plant. But I love native desert xeriscape because with little water and care the plants can create a lush Sonoran oasis.


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