When designing a personal outdoor oasis, there are many reasons to opt for plants native to the desert.
“Native landscaping evokes a sense of place and allows you to identify with the region,” says Kirk Anderson, curator of gardens at The Living Desert in Palm Desert.
Plus, planting flora that’s adapted to the local climate improves air quality and conserves energy and water — by about 75 percent.
The term “native” is broad, Anderson explains, and in this sense refers to an array of species (about 16,000) in the Southwest. “This gives you more options than what’s native to only the Coachella Valley, and plants from similar climates do just as well here,” he says.
Natural desert landscapes, while less colorful than your traditional manicured variety, are admired for their quirky shapes and forms as well as for the diverse wildlife they attract, Botanical Garden Registrar Jennifer Hudson adds. “You can create your own biological theater by incorporating plants that shelter and feed the creatures you want to attract,” she says.
The red flowering chuparosa, for instance, appeals to hummingbirds. Seeds and insects of the brittlebush fuel such birds as the goldfinch and sparrow. Smoke trees sustain the existence of bees. Monarch butterflies flitter among the desert milkweed.
“You’ll see the monarchs lay eggs, turn into caterpillars, and [become] butterflies; it’s such a neat, magnificent thing,” Hudson says. Indigo, desert lavender, and desert willows are among many other native species you can add to your sanctuary.
When planning your landscape, it’s important to know your plants so you can place them in the appropriate location for their size, shape, and ideal sun exposure.
“Plants are cute in the little cans when you buy them,” says Anderson, “but agave, for example, get really big; if they’re planted near a walking path, they’ll be a problem.”
The same goes for the twisty desert spoon, whose razorlike leaves make it better suited for the back of the garden. Knowing the size of your plants will also help you avoid overcrowding an empty palette. Large rocks, buried partially and angled just right, are a solution for filling space and creating a balanced setting.
Since many native plants feature muted hues, especially during drier summer months, decomposed granite — also called DG — is a great way to add a punch of color to your garden.
“Our native soil is sort of a blah shade of gray-brown; DG comes in an assortment of colors (natural coral, gold, and brown, to name a few) and is a perfect way to enhance pathways and other areas where you want some color,” Anderson says.
Such water features as fountains and birdbaths also attract more wildlife and enhance a stunning outdoor aesthetic.
The Living Desert offers courses on native landscaping; call 760-346-5694 or visit www.livingdesert.org for more information.
Inset photo by Millicent Harvey.