A desert style garden can be summed up in three words: dry, simple and architectural. They are usually defined by restrained design, high sunshine hours and limited rainfall. Desert gardens are a global thing so It does not matter whether your desert influences originate in Middle Eastern rustic, Palm Springs chi-chi, or South of the Border chic. Revamping your outdoor spaces into a desert style oasis will be a guaranteed showstopper in any neighbourhood.
In New Zealand, a desert garden is particularly well suited to drought prone and north facing coastal areas. But even if your place does not rise up through the heat waves like a mirage on the horizon, a desert look is still achievable. Thoughtful low maintenance design that incorporates natural relief and a broad range of drought resistant plants, will not only transform your backyard, you will never have to reach for the hose again.
Stone paths, concrete and rock walls not only provide the requisite foundation materials to carry off an arid aesthetic, they can also create passive heat necessary for the health of desert plants. Earth toned walls in tans, light browns and grays will reflect light, a darker colour like rosewood will absorb heat, this could be used to advantage in winter.
Do not be afraid to create symmetrical or geometric shapes in your hardscape. Add abstract garden sculptures, lava stone water features, stone plinth or wall fountains. Use decorative rocks and boulders to accent concrete and gravel pathways. Try curving flagstone paths and walls to mimic nature.
True ‘xeriscape’ plants like cactus usually require maximum exposure to the sun, and good soil drainage. Young plants need extra protection from gusty winds to get established. Ideally position these kinds of plants in a west and /or north-facing aspect of your garden. Soils can be ‘lightened’ with coarse sand or crushed gravel ‘mulch.’ This will help with surface water run off. For real desert-like earth try breaking up heavy soils with a mix of 2 parts coarse sand to 1 part organic matter or soil.
There are sub-tropical epiphytic cacti that attach themselves to trees and stone, that obtain their nutrients from air and rain. The most common are, Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera), which flower brightly at December and Easter Cactus (Hatoria), which blossoms in Easter. They prefer shady conditions, and to avoid scorching, should not be exposed to direct sunlight.
In desert locations where lawns needlessly usurp scarce water supplies grass is definitely a no-no. But in New Zealand areas of lawn can be used to great effect to provide texture, colour and spatial contrast. A path of broad concrete pavers inset in grass and framed by a low raised bed of clustered succulents like aloe and agave, snake plants (Sansevieria) -sometimes known as mother-in-laws tongue- or wonderfully coloured sedums can make for a great entrance passage. For texture and drama add xantheria, clusters of euphorbia, feathery pygmy date palm and baby barrel cactus paired with pale thimble cactus in low pots.
Think of a desert garden as an above ground coral reef, beautiful and sometimes surreal. By nature, they are usually pared back, but by incorporating plants like begonia, autumn sage, yellow columbine, Texas red yucca, red-hot pokers and bunny ears cactus, they can be colourful too. For depth include NZ tussock grass Carex testacea, sculptural towering agave (Agave Americana) or smaller, potted agaves (Agave ‘Blue Glow.’)
Container planting will add dimension and interest to your desert garden. A range of urns and pots in different colours, shapes and sizes can be used to stagger plant heights. Position these among plant beds, along borders or on pedestals and fill them with more jewels of colour like the blues, pinks and whites of Agastache, the purples and lilacs of 'Bee's Bliss' salvia, purple Malva arborea (Tree mallow) or bougainvillea.
While a desert bakes by day at night temperatures plummet. Make a space for an outdoor fireplace or a fire pit. Feature walls of adobe or stone with inbuilt bench seats will finish a fireplace, provide a firewall or can be used as a windbreak or roofed in for a cozy outside room. Add a curving concrete pizza oven to reference the arches of Morocco or Spain. Picking up on those Moorish design cues, create a series of hidden gathering spaces, connected by walkways, enclosed with decorative rock and exposed beams. With a nod to the classic gardens of Palm Springs, a well-placed breezeblock wall can provide privacy and visual relief without shutting out light or airflow. In smaller areas raised platforms will give different vantage points and the illusion of entering another place.
When it comes to dressing up your backyard desert zones think Southwestern furnishings, hides, harem rugs, vintage treasure or even the Arabian Knights. Outdoor furniture might include wicker, wood, or steel. Find a place for a hanging ‘egg’ chair or a double Mexican hammock and divide your zones with chunky wood doors, rusted steel, or aged timber screens. And for a hint of true parched ambience a steer skull, wagon wheel or a trunk of bleached driftwood in your garden, will never go a miss.
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*All information is believed to be true at time of publishing and is subject to change.
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