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

freelandscaperock

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.

cactusforfree

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.

baby_palo_verde

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.

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Pruning: gumdrops and lollipops?

Seasons

Yesterday a landscaper knocked on my door and asked if I wanted my bushes pruned. Sorry, but I’m too picky about how they look.

Most landscaping companies prune bushes into little balls and cylinders that don’t look natural at all. They prune palo verdes into single stemmed, tortuously twisted trees that look terrible.

In my opinion, a native landscape should look somewhat native. So what pruning do I do?

Arizona xeriscape wildflower garden

Unpruned wildflower garden

Trees

I prune my trees when young to usually have a single trunk at the base and then branch into multiple trunks within the first 3 feet. Then I prune the branches to raise the canopy to whatever height I need for the space and allow me to see the branching trunks. Once the tree approaches the size I want for the main branches, I may let it grow or just prune the branches that fill in or grow downward. I don’t worry about my desert trees getting top heavy and blowing over in wind storms because I water them deeply and infrequently to encourage root growth. The limited water also limits the canopy growth and keeps the wood dense and strong.

pruned palo verde

pruned palo verde

Bushes

Some bushes don’t need to be trimmed. If they have a nice shape and are in a spot where they can grow to their mature size without crowding, then I let them go. Creosote and jojoba don’t need pruning. I do have texas sage which I prune twice per year in summer and fall. When some of them get large the┬ábranches fall over leaving a gap on top. Native wildflowers like brittlebrush and marigold can get chopped off when they go dormant or leave them for a natural (if brown) look.

If you have a native landscape and your plants are mature, you can adjust the water so they grow slowly never need pruning. Prickly pear are a great example of this: with lots of water they will grow lots of pads, and you may have to cut some off to maintain the shape or size you need. With less water, they will grow fewer pads and stay smaller.

Texas sage needs pruning

Texas sage needs pruning

Cacti

Cactus don’t need pruning. I do cut pads off prickly pear. I will cut out extra canes of ocotillo if I don’t like where they branch. I never prune desert spoon, agaves, or yuccas. (Large pruned agaves look like pineapples.)

The plants that need the most pruning for maintenance are the non-natives: rose bushes, fruit trees, etc. Native landscaping requires much less pruning.

Wild native plants never get pruned

Wild native plants never get pruned

Which cacti are cheap?

Plants

Quick answer: None.

Cacti grow slowly, making them more expensive to cultivate. Optimal growing conditions for a cactus are temperatures of 80 degrees (F) and adequate (but not too much) water. One nursery I visited has a giant swamp cooler for it’s green houses to maintain the temperature at optimum growing through the summer.

Cute baby prickly pear

Answer #2: Small ones.

If you buy small cacti, they are cheaper than large ones. Be smart–buy more small cacti and take good care of them and within a few years they will be as big as the larger ones for sale. I recently found some barrel cacti in four inch pots at a nursery for only $4.25! Anything under $10 is a good price.

Answer #3: Ones that propagate easily.

Prickly pear are cheaper than other cacti because it is easy to make new plants. Some agaves also make pups (baby plants) that grow out from the roots. Agaves that do this are cheaper than ones that don’t. You can probably get some pups from someone who has an agave in their yard, and voila! FREE landscaping!

I recommend getting getting lots of the free / cheap cacti and succulents to jump start your landscape, and then replacing them later on (or filling in some empty spots) with more expensive cacti.

Wrong answer: cacti from the desert.

It is illegal to move (steal) cacti from the desert. Since 1929 it has been illegal to damage native plants on, or remove native plants from, state land without a permit.

But I want some trees and ocotillos! Now what?

Some plants for your landscape don’t come in small sizes, but are foundational to your landscape design. Get the smallest healthy specimens you can find. Trees are worth spending a little more on because they take so long to get large, and are hard to replace.

Ocotillos are difficult. If you get the large, bare root specimens, you risk a low survival rate. I have bought 4 ocotillos so far and only 2 of them survived, even with immediate planting. Small ocotillos grow slowly, and over watering them changes their overall shape (more branching). So you can’t just water them extra to get them to grow faster.

Saguaros are another costly favorite. They are about $30 per foot. Specimens over 4-5 feet tall have a harder time rooting and acclimating to their new spot. I recommend getting a few 1-foot tall saguaros and watering them regularly (every 1-2 weeks). With this frequent water, they can grow 6-12 inches per year. If you are dying for bigger saguaros, buy them after you have put in the rest of your landscape. Spend your money on lots of plants first, then expensive plants last.

Agave pups near parent plant