Planning & Design
Whether you’re developing a new landscape, renovating an existing one or just looking for ways to conserve water in an urban environment, proper planning and design are essential to creating a landscape that is water-wise. But the design process can also be a daunting task, and that’s why we want to give you simple steps to get you there. Your first assignment is to list what you want from your landscape and outdoor space – your wish list! Treat your outdoor space as an extension of your home. Once you have those ideas organized, it’s easier to start getting those ideas on paper. Before you know it, you’ll have a plan! This is the best tool to help you approach your installation in stages – especially if your budget necessitates it – but will keep you on track as you get the process completed.
Check The Rules
Many subdivisions have covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs) or written rules regarding landscaping. They may include specialty plant lists or other limitations that will typically impact your front yard only. Be sure to start here first to make sure it will not impact your final design.
Do You Want Space to Play?
Are you into backyard barbeques or do you need a small amount of lawn for your dog or kids to play? Will your yard include a swimming pool? Outdoor kitchens, patios, seatwalls and other hardscaping help define your outdoor spaces, but just remember that installation can get expensive.
Commune with Nature
You may wish for you yard to be a retreat. Maybe you would like a quiet sitting area to relax. Would you like to attract birds, butterflies, and other pollinators? Perhaps you need a spot for your adopted desert tortoise. Trees for cooling shade and plants for year-round color will help.
This is the time to consider the location of a vegetable garden, a compost bin, or even a clothesline. Do you need to plan a location for your trash receptacles? Don’t forget locations for your air, heating, or pool equipment. These necessary areas may or may not need to be screened.
Add a new dimension to your landscape
Grading your yard creates a more natural look with more dimension. Aesthetic Tip: Don’t make mounds greater than one foot in height over grade, and mounds should be sloped and irregular in shape, not perfectly symmetrical. You can also create swales (low spots) to capture and direct water to your plants – not the street.
Boulders and Granite
Boulders: The rock-solid accent
Boulders make excellent landscaping accents. A grade of boulders called “surface boulders” look more natural, and the color usually matches the natural-colored granites. Aesthetic Tip: Bury approximately one-third of the boulders and place plants nearby to soften the overall look.
Granite: Your yard’s most beautiful flooring
Use one-quarter or one-half inch minus granite (not screened granite) of natural color – such as desert gold or beige. These colors provide a more natural desert look and the size is easier to walk on.
Views, Hardscaping and Energy Conservation
Views: Consider every angle
Use your trees and plants to enhance and frame scenic views, such as mountains, or use them to block undesirable views, like the truck your neighbor parks on the street. Strategically place your plants where they’ll provide optimal beauty from any window of your home.
Hardscape: Extend your living area
Hardscape is the inclusion of non-plant features into the landscape, such as patios, benches, flagstone walkways, sculptures, boulders, bird features, etc. These accents can provide visually appealing sitting areas, barbecue space and places for entertaining, and will extend your living space to the outdoors. Aesthetic Tip: It’s usually best to plan and install these areas before plant installation.
Energy Conservation: Let the sun shine in
Use deciduous trees to block the southern and western exposures of your home from the summer sun – and to take advantage of the sun’s warmth in the winter.
Common Themes and Grouping Plants
Don’t plant one of every plant you like in a small landscape – it will tend to look like a botanical garden. Use the same plant in different locations of the yard to unify the look. It’s also best if you don’t space plants evenly around the yard. Instead, place them in natural groupings as you would see in the desert. Cluster plants in groups of odd numbers, leaving open space for eye appeal.
Flowers and Native Plants
Flowers: The best way to accesorize your garden
Plant wildflowers that will reseed themselves. They’ll provide seasonal color and year-round charm to your landscape. Some suggested varieties include penstemons, desert marigold, golden dyssodia, tufted evening primrose, poppies, and lupines.
Native Plants: Stay close to home
Use plants that are native to the Sonoran, Mohave or Chihuahuan deserts for best performance. These deserts are all found in the Southwestern United States and in Mexico. Plants from deserts of other continents (i.e., Africa or Australia) will usually perform well, but the look may not always fit (i.e. large Eucalyptus trees). For more examples of native plants, check out our themed lists on our Define Your Landscape Style.
Map it Out:
Identify Permanent Features
On a piece of graph paper, draw to approximate scale any permanent features of your property, including the location of:
- Your house
- Other buildings
- Large rocks
- Existing trees or vegetation you plan to keep
Tape tracing paper over your base plan and sketch different qualities and characteristics of your property, including:
- Sun exposure
- Existing shade
- Direction of summer breezes
- Street noise
- Soil types and any drainage problems that need to be corrected or considered
- Rainwater that can be harvested, including where it falls or flows from your roof to the ground
Identify Use Areas
Tape on another piece of tracing paper and identify use areas. You’ll want to identify three different areas:
- Public – Highly visible areas that receive the most care and water.
- Private – Where the family plays the most (usually the backyard). It should be functional in design and receive less water than public areas.
- Service – The least visible areas, requiring the least care and watering (sides of the house, garage, driveways).
Now get that wish list we talked about in Step 1. Tape on another piece of tracing paper and identify areas you’d like to add:
- Play areas
- Entertainment areas
- Wildlife areas
- Pool/spa areas
Consider these factors:
Hire a Pro. Keep in mind that landscape designers or architects are skilled professionals offering talents and ideas you may not think about. Find Know Your Pro for details on how to select a professional on this Smartscape site.
Define Your Landscape Style
They say that your landscape preferences are often influenced by your natural surroundings as a child. You may want your landscape to have a more formal look or perhaps more naturalistic. Learn more and get plant selection ideas on our page, Define Your Landscape Style.
Shade is Very Cool
Shade cast by trees or structures can cool the landscape by as much as 20 degrees, reducing heat buildup and water evaporation from the soil. Shade also reduces heat buildup from hard surfaces, such as driveways, walks, and walls. Plan to shade these areas with trees and large shrubs, whenever possible. Trellises, arbors, walls or fences also can provide shade or scatter light.
Right Plant, Right Place
Draw each plant as an individual circle with a diameter the same size as the mature plant. That way ensures that you have selected the right sized plant into the space allotted.
DIYers. The booklet, Xeriscape: Landscape with Style in the Arizona Desert, provides many more details and is an excellent resource. It is available at most local nurseries, from your water provider, or online.