What Is Southwest Landscaping?

Adobe house with wooden door, Russian sage growing from rock wall by entrance and pot of red geraniums.
The warm brick color of this adobe house in Santa Fe is a rich backdrop to the Russian sage and other perennials growing from the stone edged beds by the entrance. A terra cotta pot of geraniums surrounded by ivy lends nearly effortless color and interest.

Jeff Berger / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Southwest United States has a unique climate and culture that distinguishes its landscaping and gardening styles. Since much of the region is an arid desert climate, this has a big impact on landscaping considerations, in particular the types of plants that can be grown. The region also has a fascinating culture as a result of settlement patterns and events, and this had helped defined the look of its landscaping also.

Prior to the region's designation as part of the United States, it was inhabited by the indigenous people referred to as the "Pueblo Indians" who lived in northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. Their cultural and artistic influence is still felt and seen throughout the region, though many of them lost their native dwellings when the American government took possession of their land.

The first "American" settlers of the Southwest were those who came to the area for mining, and who later helped build the railroads: that is to say, immigrants from countries as far afield as Italy, Ireland, Mexico and Scandinavia. This meant that housing styles sometimes reflected cultural idiosyncrasies of these immigrant populations, as well as use of local materials and design elements necessary for the extreme climate. Adobe (Spanish for "mudbrick") was a common building material for houses in the 18th and 19th centuries, and though many of these houses have been razed or destroyed, in some cities there are still neighborhoods whose historic districts preserve these homes.

Adobe gate and wall in garden with succulents
This old adobe gate and wall in a garden in Las Cruces, New Mexico preserves an old world look and feel.  Steve Swayne / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Elements of Southwest Landscaping

A desert color palette is perhaps the most recognizable feature of Southwest landscaping: that contrast of earth tones found in sand and adobe with the cool greens of cacti and other succulents is striking and memorable.

There is often a spare, minimal look and feel to this landscaping, which emphasizes the "feast or famine" changeability of desert climates: one day it's arid and bare, the next, after a rainstorm, flowers may be blooming everywhere.

Solutions for creating shade for comfort in the hot sun are seen throughout the Southwest, including pergolas and arbors, patio umbrellas, and shade screens.

Finally, scale is important. The desert connotes vastness and distance, and desert sunsets and sunrises have a limitless feel to them. Including tall palm trees or large shrubs, or even large pieces of sculpture, can lend drama and gravitas to a desert design.

Stone paver steps surrounded by large succulents and palm tree
This garden in Arizona features large boulders, large succulents, and large palm trees, creating a dramatic sense of scale.  Erin Bailess / Flickr / CC By 2.0
Garden with wooden beams around raised beds and xeriscaped plants., plus dog sculpture
This Santa Fe garden features gravel paths, barn beams around terraced beds, terra cotta pots, drought-tolerant annuals, and a cute dog sculpture. Terence Faircloth / Flickr /  CC By 2.0
Backyard patio with pergola and metal table and chairs
This backyard patio in New Mexico has a rustic wooden pergola that offers extra shade. jeffcojeremy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Southwest Paving Styles

Garden weeds in the Southwest are a different problem than they are in areas with more humidity. They don't tend to grow as rapidly or as vigorously. For this reason, paving can be fairly simple as it doesn't always need to function as a weed barrier. One often sees paths can be made of gravel (a very Southwest look, and good drainage for those sudden, soaking rainstorms the desert is known for). Many Southwest gardeners use mulch from pine or cedar chips. Bricks or pavers of natural stone or cement are also a good option. Old red bricks will lend their warm colors to adobe or terra cotta elements found in Southwest landscapes.

flagstone and gravel paths with colorful cactus plants
This botanical garden in Tempe, Arizona uses large natural flagstones and coarse gravel for paths among these colorful cacti.  Tess & Karen Tanenbaum / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Plants to Include

A desert landscape calls for xeriscaping: a landscaping principle based on water conservation and drought-friendly plantings. Fortunately there are many beautiful and creative options. Succulents are an obvious choice, both for their drought tolerance and their association with desert landscapes. From sedums to cacti, you can create a kaleidoscopic variety of designs using only succulents. There are also native grasses and evergreen shrubs such as drought-tolerant junipers that are suitable for this climate, and give you flexibility with size and placement. There are a number of heat-tolerant perennials and annuals that can be used also, to add variety and color. Shade is a desirable and useful feature in the sunny hot Southwest, so consider getting creative with vines grown on arbors or pergolas. Small trees and large shrub plantings can also add shade and cooling.

Pergola with vines amid flower gardens
The beautiful gardens at the mission in San Luis Obispo, California make use of small trees and pergolas to create shady walkways for respite from the midday sun.  Catherine Chanel / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Assorted cacti and yucca plants
This assortment of succulents include yucca and cacti, lending cool green hues to this garden in Phoenix, Arizona.  Adam Reeder / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0
Cacti and yucca beneath trees in woodland setting
This woodland setting in Arizona shows how succulents work well in a woodland setting,as long as they have sandy soil and plenty of sun.  Gene Spesard / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Water Features

It's not really practical to have large or elaborate water features such as ponds or waterfalls in a Southwest garden. Water would be lost rapidly through evaporation into hot dry air, and chemicals would be needed to keep algae growth at bay, and sustainability is an issue in drought-prone areas. A small fountain that recirculates water is a better option, or perhaps a rain garden with a dry creek bed that will use any extra rainfall to benefit plant growth. Permaculture gardening techniques are found in some parts of the Southwest, as these methods can help sustain sensitive drought-prone gardens.

Outdoor seating area in enclosed adobe walled area with plants and fountain
The European style fountain is a central feature of this adobe courtyard garden design in Taos, New Mexico.  Donnie King / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Rocks

Rocks make an authentic sculptural of decorative accent in Southwest gardens, because they're such a ubiquitous part of the desert landscape. Plenty of xeriscape-friendly plants work well for scrambling among rocks or pavers for an attractive rock garden design.

Cacti and rocks in a desert landscape
This arrangement of cacti and rocks in a Phoenix botanical garden looks naturally-occurring in the landscape.  Julie & Steve in Arizona / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Garden Decor

Southwest garden design has a rich history and as such the style of garden decor is diverse. While some gardeners might enjoy employing Native American symbols such as cacti, lizards, turtles, or the Anasazi god Kokopelli, others might choose something more personal or idiosyncratic. Because of the more spare look of Southwest landscapes, decor can be a dramatic addition to a garden.

Round river rocks in a colorful desert garden with tall obsidian sculpture
This rain garden in San Diego features river rocks, boulders and a large natural glass sculpture for a subdued but striking look.  Ron Parks / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Angel sculpture in a large cacti garden in front of a rock cave entrance
This angel sculpture in a desert garden in Utah has a completely different look than it would have in, say, a New England garden: set among rocks, the angel seems an ancient part of the landscape.  Norbert Stoop / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Garden with sand, cement walkways and sculptures
This simple, space garden in Palm Springs features statues and pottery as accents. James May / Flickr / CC BY 2.0