20 Inexpensive Desert Landscaping Ideas


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Whether you live in the desert, or you’re just a big fan of southwest landscapes, there’s something to be said for a desert-inspired backyard. After all, cacti, succulents, rocks, and sand don’t require much upkeep. A desert-themed landscape is a breeze to care for, which makes it well worth the initial investment. If you’re looking to transform your backyard into a southwest-style oasis, but you don’t want to break the bank to do it, then check out these 20 inexpensive desert landscaping ideas to get those creative juices flowing. 

Large sand beds can be used to grow cacti, and southwest-style pots make an ideal display for succulents. Use hanging lights, large rocks, metal garden art, and statuary to decorate your inexpensive desert landscape. 

20 Inexpensive desert landscaping ideas for your backyard

If you’re the kind of person who would love to call the Mojave home, then turning your property into your own personal desert just makes sense. One of the major benefits of a desert-inspired landscape is that it doesn’t require much care. Plus, it can help you save big on your water bill in the long run. If you want to make your own southwest-themed paradise, but you’re on a tight budget, check out these 20 inexpensive desert landscaping ideas to get started. 

Create a sand bed for planting succulents and cacti

Where would your desert landscape be without a little sand? Use stones, bricks, or even upside-down glass bottles to create a border to make a bed, then fill it up with sand. Use a rake to spread the sand out evenly, just as you would if you were making a traditional Japanese-inspired zen garden. Once the bed is ready, plant a variety of your favorite cacti and succulents to add depth and texture. Grow non-flowering plants to create a modernistic feel, or spice things up with native wildflowers, which can help feed local pollinators

Large sand beds are the perfect place to showcase your favorite desert plants.

Purchase southwest-inspired pots

A sand bed for desert-native plants is a great start. But adding a few potted cacti and succulents to your patio or porch will add some interest to the space. Choose brightly colored pottery with fun designs and a shiny finish that catches the sun’s rays. Or, opt for pots with a natural texture and more subdued coloring for an understated feel. Geometric patterns and pots that feature petroglyph-like artwork are a perfect choice and an inexpensive desert landscaping idea that will fit right in with your theme. Just be sure to avoid using black pots, as these planters may absorb the heat and stress out your plants. 

Natural materials like terracotta fit right in with the desert landscape.

Make a footpath

You could design the most beautiful backyard desert landscape in the world, but it wouldn’t do you much good if you couldn’t explore it! Use gravel, large stones, or logs to create a meandering footpath through your private desert. Make a big horseshoe shape around a central cactus “flower bed”, or create a straight footpath that starts at your backdoor and leads to your patio, outdoor kitchen, or a simple sitting bench. Making a footpath through your garden allows you to admire the desert-like beauty from multiple angles. 

Install some wind chimes

The word “sonoran”, as in the Sonoran Desert, means “sonorous”, or “resounding”. It’s thought that the name was given to the desert due to the marble deposits in the rocks found there, which rang when struck with metal tools. Sound plays a subtle yet important role in a desert landscape, and one of the most persistent sounds in this generally quiet ecoregion is that of the wind. Install a few southwest-themed wind chimes to punctuate the silence of your desert landscape. Choose wooden wind chimes for a more natural sound, or opt for deep-tone wind chimes that mimic the thunder of a desert rainstorm. 

Sound plays an important role in a desert landscape, so install a few wind chimes.

Plant ornamental grasses

Cacti and succulents are the plants of choice for a southwest-inspired landscape, but ornamental grasses are an inexpensive desert landscaping option that deserves another look. Ornamental grasses like Mexican feather grass, deer grass, and little bluestem, are low-maintenance and can grow just fine on their own, even in arid desert conditions. Use large ornamental grasses to create a focal point in your sand beds, or use smaller varieties as a border for small succulent gardens

Surprisingly, grass does grow in the desert. Use ornamental grasses to accent your landscape.

Get creative with a painted mural

That wooden privacy fence the HOA insisted you install may not fit in very well with your southwest theme. But one inexpensive desert landscaping idea that will make that fence fit in is a mural. Whether you choose to paint a desert sunset, a herd of galloping wild horses, or some of your favorite desert animals is up to you. But using a privacy fence or even a wall of your home or shed as a canvas is a great way to add interest to your desert landscape without spending too much money. 

Pick a color scheme that pops

There isn’t that much to a desert landscape when you think about it. You’ve got sand, you’ve got cacti and succulents, you’ve got the sky, and that’s about it. Though there are only a handful of elements to use when creating your own desert landscape, they can come in many different shades. Picking a color scheme is an inexpensive desert landscaping idea that will make decorating your backyard much easier. Whether you choose vibrant shades of blue, orange, and green, or subtle pink, orange, and teal hues, creating a color palette for your southwest-style space will make shopping for plants and decorations much easier. 

The desert is a colorful place. Repeating those colors will make your landscape feel more authentic.

Make a mini desert

If your ecoregion gets too much rainfall to grow desert-native plants like succulents and cacti, don’t give up hope just yet. You may not be able to convert your entire backyard into your own personal desert oasis, but you can still create a desert, just on a miniature scale. Fill a large planter, flower box, or tray with sand or hydroton clay pebbles, and dress it up with your favorite small succulents and cacti. Fill your tiny desert with miniature southwest-inspired decorations to give it a more authentic feel. Leave your mini desert in a bright, sunny location outside, and simply bring it up onto your porch or patio when it rains so the plants don’t get too much water. 

“Grow” a rock garden 

Sand obviously plays a major role in a desert-inspired landscape, but rocks are important, too. Large rocks can be used to accent sand beds, or they can be stacked in a corner to create a display for potted plants. Choose sedimentary rocks that have a grainy, sandy texture. These are a natural fit for your inexpensive desert landscaping. Or fill a corner rock garden with gravel and found rocks that you’ve collected on all of your travels. Consider adding a few arrowheads to the display, too, for added interest.

Sedimentary rocks are a natural fit for a desert landscape.

Create a gravel sitting area

Inset large stones in a bed of gravel to make a patio sitting area. Use large planters to grow cacti along the perimeter to separate the space from the rest of your backyard and create a sense of privacy. Furnish the space with a bench, a few chairs, or a table set equipped with an umbrella so you can enjoy a tasty beverage in the shade on a hot summer afternoon.

Make a dry creek bed

There are creeks in the desert, you know. It’s just that most of the time, they run dry. But using gravel or sand to make a winding creek bed will encourage visitors to explore the space and enjoy all of the great touches you’ve added to your landscape. Line your dry creek bed with rocks and petrified wood to define the path, or use succulents to create a living border.

Dry creek beds are an excellent landscaping solution for uneven terrain.

Build a fire pit

It gets hot in the desert. Running your stove every day heats up your house, raising your electric bill. It’s not uncommon to find outdoor kitchens in the American Southwest. Use cinder blocks or rectangular stones to construct a fire pit to make your landscape feel more authentic. This inexpensive desert landscaping idea is the perfect choice for anyone who plans on entertaining in their effortlessly beautiful desert backyard. 

A fire pit is a worthy investment if you love cooking outdoors.

Install a pergola

A pergola is an inexpensive desert landscaping idea that makes for a fun weekend project. Use treated lumber to create a traditional pergola for your backyard space, or find some rough-cut wood to construct a more natural-looking structure. Whether you situate your new pergola at the end of your gravel footpath or set it over your patio, a pergola will help direct the eyes upward. It will also provide you with a structure to hang things on, like potted plants, wind chimes, and hummingbird feeders. Speaking of which…

Choose vibrantly colored hummingbird feeders

When non-desert-dwellers hear the words “desert animals”, we tend to think of coyotes, jackrabbits, rattlesnakes, and Gila monsters. But hummingbirds can be found in the desert, too. In the United States, desert ecosystems can be found in Nevada, California, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Texas, with smaller deserts located in Oregon, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Since roughly 30% of the continental U.S. is desert, it only makes sense that hummingbirds can be found there, even if they’re only passing through. Choose vibrantly colored hummingbird feeders to attract these skilled flyers. This inexpensive desert landscaping idea will have a tremendous visual impact on your backyard space, and it won’t break the bank.

Install an array of colorful hummingbird feeders to attract these magnificent flyers to your space.

Build an owl box 

Another bird that we tend to forget resides in the desert is the owl. The United States is the home of 19 different owl species, about a handful of which are known to live in the desert. Barn owls, burrowing owls, western screech owls, and pygmy owls are tough enough to survive the inhospitable environment of these dry, arid regions. So consider hanging up an owl box to attract these desert dwellers. Not only will you enjoy watching them in your yard at night, but they can also help keep insect levels down around your home, making them effective all-natural pest control. 

Owls play an important role in a desert ecosystem. Install an owl box to attract them to your backyard.

Hang up some string lights

The desert is just as beautiful at night as it is during the daytime. Hang some string lights up along your fence, porch, or pergola so you can enjoy the space even when the sun goes down. Simple string lights are a subtle touch and will fade into the background, while still illuminating your desert landscape. But adorable novelty string lights shaped like cacti, horses, or cowboy hats will make your garden more retro and fun. 

Use string lights to light up your desert landscape at night.

Make good use of garden decorations and statuary

Desert landscapes are low-maintenance, which is a major perk, especially if you’re a homeowner who doesn’t have much time on their hands. But the fact is most desert-tolerant plants don’t flower often. If you want a backyard that’s easy to care for, but that’s just as colorful as a butterfly garden, then fill the space with desert-themed art and statuary. Ceramic lizards, painted metal suns, terracotta tortoise planters, and patterned donkey statues are just a few ideas to help you get started. Look for garden wall art and statues that will fit in with the theme of your garden and construct an outdoor gallery for all of your favorite pieces. 

Add southwest-inspired art to rock gardens and cactus beds.

Upcycle old items

If you’re on a tight budget and looking for some seriously inexpensive desert landscaping ideas, take a look at some of the things you already have on hand, and start thinking outside the box. Use old tires to make planters for a cactus. Arrange potted aloe vera and agave inside a wooden crate or tray. Turn a wheelbarrow into a planter for trailing succulents like string of pearls or burro’s tail. Spray paint a few coffee cans and tie them together to make a vertical planter. Upcycling old materials is one of the best ways to save money. With a little imagination, the possibilities are endless. 

Upcycle tires, coffee cans, buckets, and baskets to make planters for succulents.

Construct a bottle tree

Much of the vegetation you choose for your backyard desert will be low-growing. It can take larger cacti decades (if not centuries) to gain significant height. And yet, height is needed to make your desert landscape more interesting. Cue the bottle tree. Believed to have originated in Central Africa, bottle trees are a traditional form of outdoor folk art in the United States. Simply install a “tree” made of rebar or pipe, and situate colorful bottles along the “branches”. The bottles will glint and glitter in the sun, drawing hummingbirds, moths, and butterflies to your garden.

Use colorful bottles for your bottle tree to create a beautiful display of light in your desert oasis.

Install a water feature to attract wildlife

Another great way to attract wildlife to your desert-inspired space is to install a water feature. Even though water is hard to find in a desert, it plays a critical role for the animals and insects who live there. Birdbaths and fountains are an inexpensive desert landscaping idea that will encourage the local fauna to pay you a visit. Choose vessels made of wood, metal, terracotta, and other natural-looking materials, in keeping with your desert theme.

Don’t forget to add a water feature to your desert landscape to keep local wildlife hydrated.

Tips for making your desert landscape feel more authentic

By now, you’ve discovered that there are plenty of inexpensive desert landscaping ideas to choose from. With a little creativity, you can transform your backyard into the desert paradise of your dreams. But here are a few additional tips to help you create a southwest-inspired space that feels ultra-authentic. 

Plan your layout 

When planning a garden, it always pays to lay things out ahead of time. If you build your desert garden as you go, you may get ahead of yourself and end up with too many cacti and not enough rocks, or too much wall art and not enough flowering plants. So before you start construction, measure your space and decide where you want things to go. 

Decide where you want everything to go before breaking ground on your desert garden.

Choose desert native plants

Petunias, hydrangeas, and gladiolus are certainly pretty. But they don’t really fit in with the desert vibe. Choose plants that grow naturally in arid climes, like agave, kalanchoe, aloe vera, yucca, echeveria, pencil plant, and even palm trees. These plants will give your space a decidedly southwest feel. Be sure to include flowers that can survive long periods without water, like lavender, blackfoot daisy, and desert willow, to add a touch of color. 

Remember: less is more

Think about what a real desert looks like. You won’t find lush greenery and fields of flowers here. These are sparse landscapes featuring huge expanses of sand, with just a few plants scattered here and there. So to give your desert-inspired backyard a more authentic feel, keep large stones, cacti, succulents, and other focal points to a minimum. This accurately mimics the reality of a true desert, plus, it’s a lot easier on your wallet!  

Use rocks, cacti, and other elements sparingly to create an authentic desert vibe.

Bringing your desert landscape to life on a budget

These 20 inexpensive desert landscaping ideas are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creating your outdoor oasis. Fortunately, desert landscapes are minimalistic in nature, which makes them a cost-effective choice from the start. And because they’re low-maintenance and have low water needs, a desert-inspired backyard can save you both time and money over the years. All it takes is a little ingenuity, and you can get the perfect landscape without spending a ton of your hard-earned money. 

About The Author
Michelle Sanders is an outdoor enthusiast who is passionate about teaching others how to observe and support their local wildlife. She enjoys gardening, birdwatching, and trying (in vain) to get butterflies to land on her.

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