Not Every Drought-Tolerant Plant Has Spines or Prickles

Even in an arid climate you can create a comfortable and welcoming garden space.

arid backyard landscaping

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Gardening in arid areas can bring many challenges. But gardening in low-water areas, or even in desert landscapes, does not necessarily mean that you have to grow cacti and other prickly plants. 

Eco-conscious gardeners living in arid areas often understand that giving up their irrigated lawn is the best idea. But some, especially those with young children, are reluctant to fully embrace "xeriscaping" because they believe it involves a garden filled with sharp spikes and prickly thorns. 

What Is Xeriscaping?

Xeriscaping is a style of landscape design requiring little or no irrigation or other maintenance, used in arid regions. (New Oxford American Dictionary)

As a garden designer, one of my jobs is to help people see how they can create a garden that works for them, as well as one that works naturally and organically in the environment in which they live. 

So, today, I thought I would write about how you can create a sustainable, water-wise arid climate garden without having to embrace plants that might not be ideal with young children running around.

Designing a Spine-Free, Drought-Tolerant Garden

Drought-tolerant gardens can take a range of different forms and include many different plants. The best strategies to employ and the best species to choose will, of course, depend on where you live and on the specifics of your property. But here are a few tips to help you make the right choices for a child-friendly, water-wise garden.

1. Consider Earthworks and Other Design Features 

Even in a desert environment, clever design can allow you to create an oasis in your garden and dramatically increase the number of plants that you are able to grow. Planting basins, waffle gardens, swales, rain gardens, and other landscaping features can help you create spaces that require far less irrigation and will direct whatever rain does fall.

2. Consult Lists of Native Plants

A native garden for some areas may conjure up images of thorny bushes, cacti, and sharp-leafed succulents. But no matter where you live, there will be native plants to consider which would be more practical for a garden where young kids play.

Even if you don't exclusively use native plants, they are typically a good place to begin, since they often use less water and are best adapted to the natural growing conditions that you can provide.

3. Consider Forest Gardening

You can fill the space available to you with plenty of drought-tolerant native trees, shrubs, and perennials that create a beautiful and low maintenance scheme without depleting water reserves. 

Creating shade helps conserve water and lower temperatures in an arid environment. So, forest gardening is a strategy well worth considering as long as you choose the right trees and other plants for your area and think carefully about managing water in your garden before you begin. 

You certainly don't need a flat mowed lawn and lots of hard paving to create a drought-tolerant and child-friendly space. A forest garden can be designed for an arid landscape, and will not only provide abundant yields but also be a great place for kids and pets to play.

4. Consider a Drought-Tolerant Meadow Scheme

desert grasses

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You might wish for a more open and less shaded area, in which case a drought-tolerant meadow design with wildflowers and native grasses may be another possible solution.

Let's take a Southern Californian garden as an example. In place of an irrigated grass lawn, you could potentially create a native meadow scheme, with deergrasses, wild ryes, prairie junegrass, purple threeawn, and mosquito grass, along with native wildflower species. This would create a lovely child-friendly space that also boosts biodiversity and helps wildlife in the area.

5. Consider Succulent and Drought-Tolerant Ground Cover Plants

While you may wish to avoid cacti and succulents with sharp leaves, there are plenty of other succulents to consider in an arid climate garden.

Ground-hugging salvias, sedums (stonecrops), and purslanes are among the ground cover options to consider if you prefer not to opt for a grassy scheme. There is likely to be a range of different ground cover options to suit your particular needs and the specifics of your garden. Turning to those lists of native plants is, again, likely to provide you with potential solutions.

Remember that the strategies and plants for a drought-tolerant garden will depend on the specific site. But the suggestions above might help you to move closer to creating a holistic, water-wise design that is suited to your specific needs and your specific space.