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.


Fall landscape chores


I’ve caught up on my pruning and done some weeding. One downside of having a native wildflower garden is that I have to weed it by hand. Sprays would kill the plants I am trying to keep. That garden tends to look more overgrown and natural, which I like. If I wanted it to look great for an event, I would clean it up and add some annuals and potted plants. Some day I’d like to add an archway or trellis.

One chore I had was to rebuild the basins around my cacti. The summer rains washed them away and then when I water the water won’t stay around the plant. Some of the newer cacti grew less because they didn’t have adequate basins.

Plant basins

Plant basins

A pair of cactus wrens built a nest in one of my cholla. First they practised in one cholla, making quite a mess of pine needles, dead grass, and stuff. I assume they’re new to this nest business. The second nest they made was quite pretty–round with a round entrance. I’ve tried to leave them alone so that if they lay eggs they will feel secure, although previous nest attempts in my cholla haven’t been successful. I think a predator was able to reach since the cholla aren’t very tall.

Cactus wren nest

Cactus wren nest

Killer cactus: my cholla is carniverous!

Killer cholla eats bird

Killer cholla eats bird

One morning in April I walked outside and saw a fledgling bird impaled on my cholla. I had never heard of this before, but I guess some birds that seek shelter from cholla can also get stuck by them during wind storms. This baby was probably from a nearby nest and just landed in an unfortunate location.

I’ve always thought of cholla as the sharks of the cactus world, but here is proof.

Flat Cacti: prickly pear and cholla


Prickly Pears! Awesome and easy to grow. A good filler plant.

Prickly pear cacti are some great cacti for beginning gardeners. First, they are cheap. Second, they are easy to propagate. Third, there are tons of varieties. They are low maintenance plants. They are frost tolerant, so I don’t have to cover them on cold nights. If there is a freeze in the spring after the pads are fat from rain, some may break off, but usually not enough to hurt the plant (just a little self pruning).

Did you know you can eat prickly pear? Bonus! Edible plants! (Recommend the Indian Fig variety for this. It has few spines.) You can eat the pads, called Nopalitos. They are high in calcium and fiber and very nutritious, and have a slight vinegary taste when cooked. You can also make the fruit into cactus jelly or a beverage. (Indian Fig and Englemann’s prickly pear fruit are good for jelly.)

If you haveĀ one prickly pear cactus, make sure you try making more. Prickly pear are very easy to do this with. A large prickly pear needs to be pruned once in awhile anyway to keep the overall shape nice and prevent it from getting overgrown. Or if it is growing too large, just water it less.

Prickly pear like to have a little water through the hot season while getting established. A drink every 2 weeks during the summer and once a month for the rest of the year should be plenty. You can tell when they are getting thirsty because the pads start to wilt. I have prickly pear in my yard that look great and are not on my drip irrigation system.

Santa Rita prickly pear

Santa Rita prickly pear

Opuntia violacea santa rita

Everyone loves Rita for her purple colored pads. In a desert garden where few plants bloom all season, this cactus is a great way to add some color to your landscape.

Englemann’s prickly pear

Opuntia engelmannii

This guy is a larger prickly pear, but very common in the wild and very hardy. I have some growing on the edge of my yard where they get north sun and are shaded by the fence all winter and they don’t mind. Even the weeds don’t grow there!

Indian fig prickly pear

Indian Fig prickly pear

Opuntia ficus-indica

The tallest prickly pear and the one with the least spines. Almost none. Some people like to grow these along fences, but I prefer a more natural landscape appearance. If you have a pet tortoise, it can eat the pads–and you can easily harvest them since this one isn’t so prickly.

Chollas! Cacti with teeth!

A lot of people don’t like chollas. But they deserve (demand) respect. They are easy to propagate. They are unusual. They don’t ever need extra water. Just don’t put it right next to your front door (or doggie door).

Teddy bear cholla

Teddy Bear cholla

Cylindropuntia bigelovii

This cute cactus is about as loveable as a shark. Still, it is an excellent landscape plant. The golden yellow color contrasts well with other shades of green in your design. When the afternoon sun hits it, this cactus glows.

Staghorn cholla

Staghorn cholla

Opuntia versicolor

This cholla looks great with other native Sonoran desert plants. Mix it up with other chollas, prickly pear, creosote, … you get the idea.