Sure, you live in the Mojave Desert, one of the driest places in the world. But that doesn’t mean you can’t turn your backyard or patio into a garden paradise.
Norm Shilling, president of Schilling Horticulture and co-host of KNPR’s Desert Bloom radio show, says creating a desert oasis is absolutely worth the effort. “Home is sanctuary,” Schilling says. “We spend a lot of our time and effort creating a beautiful home environment that’s just right for us. The landscape—your outdoor living space—is an extension of that.”
Schilling describes his own half-acre yard as a “botanical garden” that hosts approximately 400 species of plants, provides shade, nurtures wildlife (birds, lizards and butterflies) and always has something in bloom. “My garden pulls me into it,” Schilling says. “That’s what a garden should do. It should be a space that you want to be in.”
Don’t let an expert’s garden intimidate you, though. Even the pros have learned from hard experience: “If you were to come to my garden, you would look at it and you say, ‘Oh, my God, this is so beautiful.’ But what you wouldn’t see are all the plants that have already died,” Schilling says. “Failure is part of the gardening experience.” He advises celebrating success and learning from failures.
Like many desert transplants, Schilling didn’t always appreciate its stark beauty. He moved from Southern Ontario, Canada, to Southern Nevada at age 10 and hated it. “I got here and thought it was the ugliest place I could possibly imagine,” Schilling says. But by young adulthood, Schilling learned to love the geography of his adopted home. “It’s so harsh and at the same time it’s so delicate,” Schilling says. “At first glance it seems so barren, but it is just packed and full of life.”
Create your oasis
• Step 1: Brainstorm. Think about what you want from your space. A children’s playground? A shady place to relax? Home-grown vegetables? Fruit trees? Or just some pretty eye candy? Do research and make a budget. If you have the resources, enlist expert help. Or just go it alone. No matter the scope, you’ll be improving your space and having fun.
• Step 2: Lay it out. As with many things in life, a little advanced planning can save you time and money. Schilling recommends grouping your plants by their water needs. Thirsty plants (like fruit trees and lawns) go together, and arid plants go together. Place shade-loving plants where they will get shade and sun-loving plants in the sun. When considering where to plant, remember to leave space for plants to grow to their full size. Don’t lay them out for the size they are today. You’ll also want to plan out any irrigation or watering systems.
• Step 3: Start planting. Schilling recommends starting with young, small plants. They tend to establish themselves more quickly and make for the best investments.
What about grassy lawns?
If you plan to actually use a lawn—say you have children or pets who will physically play on it—then Schilling says that grass makes sense. On the other hand, if you just want to look at something pretty, decorating with desert plants is an easier, more environmentally friendly option.
• You’re on a tight budget.
Buy young, desert-loving plants and give them space to grow.
• You’re short on space.
If you only have an apartment patio, you can still grow a lovely garden using containers.
• You want to block out your neighbors.
Don’t plant a tree that’s going to grow so big it destroys the wall. Plant a bush or small tree that will only reach 10-15 feet of height/spread at maturity.
• You’ve got weeds.
Don’t ruin your day by trying to pick your weeds all at once. Schilling advises only weeding for five to 10 minutes at a time and focusing on pulling weeds before they flower and reproduce.
• You like flowers.
Plant cactus. Seriously. “The most beautiful flowers in my garden are the cactus blooms,” Schilling says. “The petals are translucent, so light flows through.” Schilling recommends a cactus with brilliant, multicolored flowers called the Flying Saucer (Latin name: Trichocereus hybrid). Schilling says the blooms are “so big that you can literally put your face in it and be a bee. And if it’s backlit, you are in this gorgeous, glowing universe.”
• You’re looking for big impact.
Go vertical. Add different levels to your garden, whether that means raising a garden bed by a foot or putting a container on a plant stand. Displaying plants at a variety of heights creates visual interest.
The benefits of desert plants
• Easy. They’re suited to our environment, which means they require little water and are generally low maintenance.
• Enduring. They tend to have a much longer blooming season, Schilling says, with some plants flowering in the middle of summer or winter.
• Beautiful. “They often have really rich colors of foliage—blues and golds and purples. They also have really amazing, bold textures, especially when you get into cacti and suc