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 Pueblo Indigenous people 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Southwest garden design has a rich history and as such the style of garden decor is diverse. While some gardeners might enjoy employing Indigenous 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.