Drought-resistant landscaping in Phoenix saves you time, money, and is anything but drab. We’ll discuss how you can turn your lawn into a colorful, low-water Sonoran paradise.
Some advantages of drought-resistant landscaping are:
- Reduces your water bill
- Saves money on landscaping maintenance
- Be a more water-wise homeowner
- Provides food and shelter for local wildlife
- 1. Install native plants
- 2. Handy hardscaping
- 3. Xeriscape your space
- 4. Collect your own rainwater
- 5. Alternative ground cover
- FAQ about drought-resistant landscaping
- Why we need drought-resistant landscaping in Phoenix
1. Install native plants
Native plants are the old guard of your local plant ecosystem. They’ve lived in the area for hundreds or thousands of years and thrive with little care, water, or outside intervention. Native plants are often hospitable as well, providing food, shelter, and nesting sites for local wildlife.
Using native plants is one way to “work with nature, not against it.” And don’t worry — you’re not restricted to cacti and rocks, either. Phoenix’s native plants add eye-catching color and texture to dry, brown home landscapes.
Advantages of native plants:
- Low water use
- Low maintenance
- Prized by local wildlife
- Require very little, if any, pest control
The native plants below require very little or no supplemental water once established.
- Ironwood (Olneya tesota)
- This evergreen tree puts out pinkish-purple flowers in the spring.
- Kidneywood (Eysenhardtia orthocarpa)
- This plant can serve as a small tree or a large shrub.
- Foothills palo verde (Parkinsonia microphylla)
- Puts out a flush of muted yellow flowers in the spring.
- Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)
- This evergreen shrub displays bright yellow flowers in spring and winter.
- Wolfberry (Lycium fremontii)
- If you want to attract wildlife to your yard, birds love to take cover in this deciduous bush and eat its small fruits. Wolfberry also puts out purple flowers for you to enjoy.
- Little-leaf cordia (Cordia parvifolia)
- Little-leaf cordia will provide your landscape with white flowers throughout spring and fall.
- Blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum)
- This native perennial ground cover will thrive in partial or full sun and must have well-drained soil. Enjoy its white, daisy-like flowers throughout most of the year.
- Desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata)
- A self-seeder, desert marigold puts out bright yellow foliage throughout most of the year.
- Globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)
- If you enjoy a variety of flower colors in your lawn, globe mallow comes in white, pink, orange, and lavender varieties. After the spring flowers start to die, collect the seed pods and share this water-wise native with friends.
Native cacti and succulents
Cacti and succulents are a natural addition to your home desert landscaping. Even if you can’t afford a tall, stately saguaro, there are plenty of other cacti and succulent options that will add color, height, and texture to your Arizona desert landscape.
- Buckhorn cholla (Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa)
- If you’re looking to add a security system to your home, plant buckhorn cholla. This cacti puts out spiked, tendril-like stems with brightly colored flowers at the tips.
- Parry’s agave (Agave parryi)
- This succulent grows in the form of a rosette and only blooms once in its lifetime.
- Beavertail prickly pear (Opuntia basilaris)
- This cactus provides stunning pink blooms each spring.
- Mexican fencepost (Marginatocereus marginatus)
- This cactus can be planted in the ground or in containers. It puts out pink blooms in the spring.
- Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)
- No stranger to desert yards, red yucca is hardy to 10 degrees Fahrenheit and is prized for its flowering, red spikes that bloom in spring and summer.
Follow Phoenix’s watering guidelines for new desert plants:
|Time since planting||If planted |
|If planted |
|Weeks 1-2||Water every |
|Water every |
|Weeks 3-4||Water every |
|Water every |
|Weeks 5-6||Water every |
fall through spring
|Water every |
|Weeks 7-8||Water every |
fall through spring
|Water every |
|Weeks 8 |
|Extend the watering |
time little by little
until you reach
the ideal watering
|Extend the watering |
time little by little
until you reach the
Pro Tip: Sandy soils require more frequent, lighter waterings. Clay soils require less frequent, deeper waterings. Loam falls in the middle.
Cost: If you want to leave your native plant installation to the pros, you’ll pay from $3.50-$15.50 per square foot, labor and plants included.
2. Handy hardscaping
Hardscaping is a handy complement to your Sonoran Desert landscape. Even better: It’s the only thing on our list that is 100% drought-tolerant. Hardscaping is any non-living element in your lawn. Decks, walkways, patios, and driveways are common hardscaping elements in home yards.
If you’re afraid this may be outside your budget, worry not. Most hardscaping can be done by any determined DIYer, especially if you have a few friends to help. You can do something as simple as a gravel walkway or small paver patio if you’re a novice. If you’re more advanced, build a small deck to enjoy with family and friends.
Cost: If you hire a landscaping crew to build a pathway in your yard, expect to pay between $7-$24 per square foot. If you’re interested in somewhere you can sit awhile, a professionally installed patio costs an average of $3,595 but can range from $576 to $8,800, depending on the size and materials you choose.
3. Xeriscape your space
“Xeri” comes from the Greek word “xeros,” which means dry. So, xeriscaping is simply “dry landscaping.” The term was coined in Colorado in the early 1980s. Local landscaping and water organizations wanted to develop a style of low-water-use landscaping that would help conserve water and help homeowners maintain a beautiful lawn.
There are seven principles to xeriscaping:
- Success starts with a drought-resistant landscape design plan.
- Reduce your turf to smaller areas that are manageable.
- Install water-wise plants. Group plants according to their water needs (called hydrozoning).
- Use quality soil amendments — #1 or #2 composts work best.
- Organic and inorganic mulches regulate soil temps and reduce water evaporation.
- Water effectively.
- Maintain your xeriscaping.
According to Xeriscape Colorado, over half of the drinkable water in the western U.S. goes into our landscapes. The good news? If you apply xeriscaping principles in your lawn, you can reduce this water use by over 60%.
Here are a few key details that help xeriscapes succeed:
- Use turf wisely: You don’t have to remove all turf from your lawn. Reduce the amount of turf to a size that is manageable and has a specific function (pet use, play area, etc.).
- Hydrozoning: Group plants together that have similar water needs. Whether you hand-water or turn on drip irrigation by zone, each group of plants will get the right amount of water.
- Drought-resistant plants: Not all plants have to be native to thrive in desert areas. Here are a few low-water-use plants that are not native to Phoenix:
- Cape aloe (Aloe ferox)
- Chihuahuan sage (Leucophyllum laevigatum)
- Shoestring acacia (Acacia stenophylla)
- Totem pole (Lophocereus schottii f. monstrosus)
- #1 and #2 composts: These amendments have lower levels of mineral salts, so there’s less chance for excess salt buildup in your soil.
Cost: Most homeowners expect to pay a landscape designer an average of $3,298 to develop a design for their lawn. In a desert environment, especially if you have a small lawn, your price may be much less. Or, consider having them do just the front yard if you want to cut costs. If you work with a designer who also has a crew to do the work, they may provide a cost estimate along with the design.
Want to remove some turf? You’ll pay an average of $1.50 per square foot to remove and dispose of the grass.
4. Collect your own rainwater
As your plants are getting established, you’ll need to provide watering periodically. To save money, use the water you’ve harvested yourself in a rain barrel.
Install a rain barrel in 4 easy steps
- Prefabricated rain barrel
- Hack saw
- Cinder blocks (2)
- Rain barrel diverter
- Remove debris and level the ground underneath or to the side of your gutter downspout. (Use a level to ensure the ground is flat. You don’t want a barrel full of water to sit at an angle!) Lay the cinder blocks on the newly leveled ground. These will be the platform for your barrel.
- Place your empty barrel on the cinder blocks. Place your watering can underneath the spigot to ensure the cinder blocks are tall enough for the watering can to fit.
- Hold the diverter on the gutter and use a pencil to mark where it will go. The hose should be a few inches higher than the barrel so the water will drain down to the barrel.
- Cut the gutter with a hack saw, and attach the diverter with screws. Attach the hose to the diverter and run it through the hole on top of the rain barrel. Save the cap that goes to the side of the diverter. You’ll need this to winterize the unit.
If you want to build a rain barrel from scratch, you’ll need a few more pieces of equipment. The instructions below are for a barrel that will receive water from the gutter spout, not from a diverter.
How to build a rain barrel from scratch
- 55-gallon food-grade barrel
- Rain barrel spigot
- Bulkhead assembly/washer
- Hole saw drill attachment
- Thread sealing tape
- Paddle drill bit
- Hack saw
- Cinder blocks (at least two)
1. Purchase a 55-gallon, food-grade barrel. (Repurposed barrels from food manufacturers sell for as little as $5.)
2. Next, you’ll need to make a hole large enough so you can install the washer assembly from the inside. Draw a hole that is at least 5-inches on the top of the barrel. Use a paddle drill bit to get the hole started. Then use a jigsaw to finish cutting out the hole.
3. Finally, using a hole saw that is the same size or slightly smaller than your spigot, drill a hole in the side of the barrel a few inches from the bottom.
4. Insert the washer assembly from the inside of the barrel using the 5-inch or larger hole you made in Step #2. (A yardstick wrapped with sticky-side-out duct tape helps to push the assembly in the hole if your lid doesn’t come off.)
5. Screw on the washer on the outside. Thread the spigot with thread sealing tape and screw it onto the assembly.
6. Attach insect netting over the hole on the lid with clear caulk or screws.
Level the ground and place your new rain barrel on the cinder blocks.
Here’s a quick video tutorial from Texas A&M/Central Texas Gardener.
- If you have a valley in your roof where water naturally flows, you can set a rain barrel underneath to catch that rainfall.
- If you prefer not to use a diverter, cut off the bottom part of your gutter and install a flexible elbow over the rain barrel. The water will drain directly onto the top of the barrel. If you do this, you’ll need to install an overflow system.
Cost for a DIY rain barrel: Varies widely depending on how thrifty you want to be.
|Equipment Needed||Average Cost|
|Thread sealing tape||$1-$4.50|
|Cinder blocks (2)||$4|
|Rain barrel spigot/hose bibb||$8-$20|
|Insect netting||Starts at $8|
|Bulkhead assembly and washer||$15|
|Rain barrel diverter kit (optional)||$20-$50|
|Power tools|| Assuming you have these or |
can borrow from a friend
|TOTAL:||$61 – $301.50|
5. Alternative ground cover
Many Phoenix homeowners choose to nix their turf and install lower-maintenance ground cover. Crushed granite or rock is a popular grass alternative and works well in a desert landscape. If you’d like to add a little more color beneath your feet, here are other ground cover alternatives to consider.
Note: Not all of these ground covers are native, but all are very low or low-water-use.
Low-water ground covers:
- Tufted evening primrose (Oenothera caespitosa)
- Red spike ice plant (Cephalophyllum x ‘Red Spike’)
- Damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana)
- Blue euphorbia (Euphorbia rigida)
Cost: If you have someone else install groundcover for you, you’ll pay $3.50-$15.50 per square foot for materials and labor.
FAQ about drought-resistant landscaping
✓ Plant fewer annuals.
Annuals only last one growing season, so you don’t get as much bang for your watering buck as you do with perennials. Low-water perennials may not need any water after their establishment period, so you get a lot of use from your initial watering investment.
✓ If you want more wildlife in your lawn, make a plan!
Many native species create desirable habitats for desert wildlife. If you want to attract more hummingbirds, butterflies, or bees, work with a designer or do your own research to select plants that will attract the wildlife you want to host in your yard.
Use a piece of flat cardboard and wrap it around the cactus while you put it in place. Check out this video from This Old House to see this handy tip.
Yes, you can buy drip irrigation kits for rain barrel (non-pressurized) systems. If you’re using an auto-timed drip system, set it to run one to three hours before the sun comes up.
Why we need drought-resistant landscaping in Phoenix
The city of Phoenix averages 8 inches of rain each year, which presents significant challenges for a city with 1.7 million people. For more than 100 years, the city of Phoenix has been planning, building infrastructure, and harnessing technologies that provide clean water for its residents. They’ve also helped foster a culture of water conservation. The results are impressive: Phoenix has seen a 30% per capita decline in water usage since 2001 despite adding 400,000 new residents.
If you’d like a local expert to assist you in making your lawn more drought-resistant, contact one of our local landscaping experts. They’ll help you join the ranks of your water-wise Phoenix neighbors and implement water- and cost-saving measures in your lawn.
Main Photo Credit: Renee Grayson | Flickr | CC BY 2.0