Planting Design for Dry Gardens

Design ideas

Book Review: Planting Design for Dry Gardens by Olivier Filippi

With summer slowing down I have been gazing longingly at my yard. When I saw this book at the library, I grabbed it and have enjoyed browsing through it.


Image from Amazon

This book has amazing photos. I love being able to see what he describes. Mr Filippi has a fascinating introduction that talks about how lawns came to be so incredibly popular and why it is time to explore some landscaping alternatives. He then describes a variety of groundcover options that encompass everything from lawns and meadows to gravelled areas and shrubs. I love how he states the advantages and disadvantages of each landscape. Here are his categories:

  • Lawns with warm-season groundcovers
  • Green carpets: plants you can walk on
  • Flowering carpets: a mixture of groundcover plants
  • Mixed grassland “lawns”: the art of cultivating weeds
  • Flowering steppes
  • Gravel gardens
  • Terraces, paths, and steps: the greening of stone surfaces
  • Perennial and shrub groundcovers for large areas
  • Pioneer plants for slopes and wild gardens
  • Flowering meadows in dry climates

The best part about this book is the step-by-step instructions for executing the design. The second section of the books describes how to prepare and plant each type of groundcover. I didn’t know that heavy clay soil has to be “decompacted” in order for most plants to establish well. You must break up the clay so that roots can spread throughout the soil. He recommends digging to a depth of 30 cm, but I don’t think I am strong enough to dig Arizona soil that far. :/  I also learned that a gravel mulch 6 cm deep is thick enough to suppress germination of most weeds. The hands-on landscaping expertise makes this book a valuable resource.

I like how Mr Filippi encourages us to embrace plants in all seasons and plan for summer dormancy in dry areas. A summer dormant landscape in Arizona conserves water and requires less care when it is least comfortable to be outside.


Demonstration garden in spring


Same demonstration garden in summer. Images from

This book has a disadvantage of using plants for European landscapes. While some of the plants may be available here, the goal of xeriscaping ideally uses plants from the same region that are most ideally situated for the climate. The concepts in this book can easily be transferred to a palette of southwestern plants.


If you like reading landscaping books, I definitely recommend this one.


Free xeriscape plants — or how to landscape as cheaply as possible

Design ideas

Xeriscape doesn’t have to be expensive. A xeriscape landscape can be cheaper to build and maintain than a regular landscape. Do you want to change your landscape but have no money? Well, you may be surprised at how much you can do for free. Try these ideas.

Check craigslist


typical photo for free landscape rock

Craigslist has a free section where you can find landscape rock regularly. If one ad doesn’t provide enough for your project, you can collect a few types and try mixing them before spreading. Be aware that if you mix multiple types you will never be able to buy more that will match. That might not be a big deal as landscape rock tends to sink into the dirt over the years and you can add rock on top that is similar in color with no problem.


Prickly pear, cholla, and agave — all easy to take starts from for a free cactus

You can also get free plants on craigslist. Prickly pear can be propagated easily. One free prickly pear plant on craigslist can provide enough starts for your yard. If you make prickly pear the major theme plant of your landscape, you may complete your entire landscape for free.

I don’t recommend trying to move a mature tree or saguaro cactus. Mature trees are too large to move without construction equipment. You will only be killing it and providing free tree removal. Moving saguaro requires permits, so even a “free” saguaro isn’t really free because you need to hire a saguaro moving company to get it to your yard.

Be creative

Do friends or neighbors have a mature landscape? Chances are they have volunteer plants they could give to you.


this baby palo verde is about three years old and still only about three feet high

Many agaves make pups that can be dug and replanted. Texas sage bushes sometimes have small seedling bushes growing around their roots. Grasses can be divided into smaller clumps. Baby creosote bushes can be transplanted if you are careful to not disturb their roots.

I have also transplanted seedling palo verdes and mesquites. If you truly have no money and want trees, these will work. But in my opinion they are not worth the effort because they take so long to reach mature size.

Keep it simple

Xeriscape allows you to leave a large percentage of your yard empty while still achieving a landscaped look. If you can’t afford to buy a large variety of plants, do something interesting with a mass planting of one kind of plant that is easy to get for free.

Creosote and cholla can be grown without an irrigation system. Consider going ultra-low water and designing a landscape that doesn’t need an irrigation system. For a mass planting, grasses especially look modern. Try a row of grasses with a few clumps of prickly pear.

Mexican feather grass planted in a row for a modern look.

Landscape a peaceful spot

Design ideas

My landscape is always a work in progress. I joke that I don’t need patio furniture until that future day when I have some time to sit down. But lately I’ve been thinking more about creating spaces that draw me and make me want to sit and enjoy the peaceful feeling nature brings.

All of us need daily meditation for our spiritual well-being. It can be really hard to remain somewhere for more than 15 minutes, but I feel like nature is a perfect place for self evaluation, fresh air, and spirituality. My ideal peaceful spot has lush plants, a comfortable seat, sun and shade, and wildlife to watch. This year, I plan to spend more time in my spot and find ways to improve it.

A peaceful spot begs to be a little more private and secluded than the rest of the yard. I liked these ideas for adding privacy to any yard from Listotic.

I updated their post with pictures I found.

13 Attractive Ways To Create Privacy In Your Yard

1. Tiered Hanging Pots or Vines

Using plants to create walls serves both functions: gardening and privacy.


trailing vines create privacy. Source pinterest.


Creeping fig ivy

2. Outdoor Privacy Screens

A screen helps define a space and can create the structure of the garden.


Wattle fencing from apartment therapy

3. Outdoor Privacy Curtains

I loved this DIY idea for beautifying an outdoor room.


source centsational girl

4. Bamboo Screening

This option probably isn’t good for Arizona.


source bamboo garden

5. Make A Garden Wall or Wall Garden

A vertical garden is more labor intensive but serves the same dual function of plants and privacy in one space.


source dirt simple

6. Lattice Panels

These help define a space while allowing some light through. Vines can also be grown across the lattice.



7. Walls Of Plants

More vertical gardening ideas. For a space to feel secluded you may want to keep it small and balance light and shade.



8. Tall Garden Pots

If your porch is your peaceful spot, potted plants make a great barrier. Consider giant hesperaloe or Spanish dagger to create a look like this.


source HGTV

9. Hedge Walls

I’ve seen hedge walls of Italian cypress grown close together. The trees can be topped when the desired height is reached.


source flickr

10. Repurposed Doors

This idea gives a more shabby chic look.


source Desire to Inspire

11. Add Height To Fences

These bottles were made into a separate fence, but I like the idea of adding some art atop a fence to add height. You could also line potted cacti along a fence.



12. Faux Ivy

This may be an option if you don’t want to worry about watering, trimming, or maintaining an area.


faux ivy for covering wrought iron fencing

13. Sound Barrier

If you live near a busy street, your peaceful spot may need some white noise to help create the right mood. A water feature could serve this function.


source pinterest

Acre landscape design for front yard

Design ideas

Enjoy this free design for a large front yard

DIY Landscape design

Landscape design for large front yard

This Christmas, one of your gifts could be an update to your landscape!

I’m sharing this sketch I made for a friend with a one acre lot. Her and her husband wanted to landscape around the existing plants in the yard, and include a large circular gravel drive.

The focal point of the yard is the home’s entrance, so the plants should lead your eye toward the front door. A visitor approaches the home from the bottom left, so the drive leaves a nice opening to look through. Low bushes around the front porch area outline a space that can be personalized with favorite plants. Perhaps a woman would like some roses or the shade from the house may work well for a succulent garden.

To the left of the entry, a graveled path leads to a gate in the block wall. Next to the path is a grouping of three citrus trees. Their location by the wall allow irrigation lines from the back to send a spur through the wall to the citrus. This way the citrus can be watered on a more frequent schedule than the rest of the xeriscape. (My friends want to plant non-native pine trees in their back yard to shade the house. These would need to be watered on the same schedule with the citrus.)

The rest of the trees in the front yard are Mesquite. This provides a cohesive theme to unify the rest of the landscape. One Joshua tree provides a focal point near the driveway’s entrance, but it will be quite a few years before it is large enough for that role.

The island created by the driveway features prickly pear and barrel cacti, clusters of xeriscape bushes, and a few grasses. A dry riverbed winds through the island and reappears across the drive for interest.

Off to the right of the pictured area, a straight drive leads through a gate in the block wall to access the garage.

This landscape design could easily be adapted to a similar yard. Or you could use the principles I did to create your own.

DIY Landscape design

8 Steps to DIY xeriscape landscape design

Design ideas

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

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.

Design idea: update your small front yard landscape

Design ideas

Quick front yard redo (small yard)

Thinking about changing your landscape? Summer is a great time to plan a new landscape design. Let’s say you want to redo your front yard landscape by adding a bunch of plants without changing your current drip irrigation system.

Here’s my hypothetical small front yard with one mesquite tree and three Texas sage. I drew my idea on 1/4 inch graph paper. 1/4″ equals 1 foot. The yard area is 30 x 15 feet.

Small Yard original design

First, map existing emitters and a rough idea of where your drip line runs.

Next, add plants. I had three goals in this design: increase color, add plants without adding emitters, and pick plants that are commonly available.

Here are the plants I picked: 4 red fairy duster bushes, 3 Santa Rita prickly pear, 3 green desert spoon, 7 golden torch cacti, 4 fire barrel cacti, and 2 bunny ears prickly pear. The desert spoon are functioning like a grass in the design, but you could substitute Mormon tea or ocotillo.

Here’s the new design, colored so you can imagine the end result.

Small Yard new landscape design

Small Yard new landscape design

Notice I didn’t just space everything evenly around the yard. I also NEVER use just one of a plant, use multiples. Even though space in this yard is very limited, I used small and large plants. A bigger yard would allow more variety and more empty areas or plant groupings. You could also add some hardscape features such as boulders.

The best part of this design is you might not have to add any emitters to your current drip system. If the mesquite has a basin around it that fills up when it is watered, the fairy dusters can share. The golden torch, barrel cacti, and desert spoon should do fine if they are hand watered every 1-2 weeks their first year in the ground. The prickly pears may have to get added to the drip system, depending on how they do. Hand watering them every two weeks in the summer would make it possible to leave them off.