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How to Create a Desert Landscape

Ask This Old House landscape designer Jenn Nawada heads to Phoenix to recreate the desert in a homeowner’s front yard


  1. Dig out the outline of a walkway about 3’ wide and 3-4” deep. Give the outline a slight curve to add visual interest to the walkway.
  2. To mimic the hills of the desert, shovel piles of soil onto the landscape into seemingly random mounds.
  3. Determine a few locations to place boulders in the landscape. Dig holes in those locations about 4” deep and roughly the width of the boulder being placed.
  4. Carefully load each boulder onto a hand truck, wheel it into position, and roll the boulder into its final place. Backfill around the hole to make it look like it really belongs there.
  5. Stage the variety of desert plants across the landscape. Things aren’t really clumped together in the desert, so keep the plants spread out. Be mindful of when plants bloom, if ever, to have an even spread of color across the landscape.
  6. Once each plant is in its desired position, plant them all with the shovel. Dig down just about as deep as the root ball and twice as wide.
  7. To plant cacti, wrap a piece of cardboard around the needles and move the cactus only by holding onto the cardboard.
  8. Give everything a good watering.
  9. Put down a layer of ¼” stone on the outlined walkway and level it.
  10. Compact the walkway with a compacter.
  11. Lay down the pavers over the walkway base in a running bond pattern.

In any landscape design, Jenn recommends looking for natural cues in the surrounding area to recreate in a controlled way in your yard. In this case, she identified an abundance of small stones coating the ground, plants spread far apart from each other, and undulating hills. Those cues informed the design in the homeowner’s front yard.

Jenn installed boulders, red yucca, lantana, bougainvillea, a few variety of cacti, and a Chilean mesquite tree. These can be found at nurseries, particularly in the Southwest region of the US and in zones 9 and 10.

Expert assistance for this segment was provided by Rod Pappas and Xeriscapes Unlimited, Inc., A-1 Materials Phoenix, All Season Nursery, and Horizon Irrigation.