A photo of a family walking through the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix

You can have a beautifully landscaped garden in Phoenix — it just takes a bit of know-how (Photo credit: Desert Botanical Garden)

If you’ve just moved to Phoenix and have a new home, landscaping can be daunting. This article has everything you need to know about learning how to landscape in Phoenix.

A photo of an outdoor space in Phoenix with a pergola and a fire pit

Woodside Homes has noticed the popularity of outdoor living spaces since the onset of COVID-19 (Photo credit: Woodside Homes)

Livabl spoke to Elizabeth Nguyen, a manager for the Arizona division of Woodside Homes, about what goes into landscaping for a new home, making the most out of outdoor space and water-efficient homes.

Tell us about Woodside Homes’ approach to landscaping — is it relatively the same for each home? If not, what are the considerations?

Spending time at home doesn’t have to mean spending time inside. When we design the landscaping for our model homes, we put great emphasis on creating an oasis for outdoor living. We work in tandem with our landscape designers to not only determine focal points based on the home’s configuration but also to create memorable moments that help future homeowners visualize their life in that community.

Whether you’re looking for a cozy spot to watch the sunset or the perfect patio for a family dinner, we’ve designed our model homes to showcase the possibilities.

A photo of a home in Phoenix with plants and grasses

Homeowners in Phoenix like landscaping with a wide variety of purposes (Photo credit: Woodside Homes)

What are some of the more popular plants? Do you choose them based on style, practicality or both?

both our model and production homes, we select hardy, drought-tolerant plants that are on the Arizona Department of Water Resources Low Water Use Plant List. By doing this, we’re staying conscious of which plants yield a low water demand and thrive in our desert climate. We also like to select flowering plants in our design process, which benefits the ecosystem by attracting pollinators.

What are some of the trends you’ve seen in landscaping in Arizona?

During the pandemic, we saw a rising interest in defined outdoor living spaces as people spent more and more time at home. Getting outside is essential to health and wellness, so it is important for us to design our model homes to highlight how a future family might create an everyday getaway through elements like outdoor kitchens and serene gathering areas.

What is WaterSense certification? Is this financially beneficial to the homeowner?

In a world of growing concern over energy consumption, we’ve sharpened our pencils to provide a home that’s harmonious for both the environment and your wallet. Several of our new communities have homes that are WaterSense certified through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indicating that the entire home is designed to use about 20% less water than those built to regular construction standards.

Part of the certification requirements includes designing our landscaping to be low-maintenance, water-efficient, and sensitive to rainfall through certified weather-based irrigation controllers.

A photo of an outdoor space in Phoenix with a dining table

Phoenix homeowners are looking for the easiest way to create drought-resistant landscaping (Photo credit: Woodside Homes)

Has Woodside Homes come across any unexpected issues (ground problems, invasive species, etc.) during landscaping? How were they solved?

By nature, becoming a homeowner means that you may encounter pest scenarios. Several of our new communities have homes that are certified in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, or LEED. A portion of this certification requires us to plant a minimum of 18 inches away from exterior walls to limit plant-to-home contact to help minimize pest problems. Additionally, LEED prohibits the use of invasive plants in our landscaping.

By taking a non-invasive approach to our plant material, we’re supporting the local ecosystem while providing a landscape that’s less susceptible to challenging environmental conditions. Plus, using desert plant material enhances the natural beauty of our Arizona scenery.

A photo of a BIPOC couple exploring the Phoenix landscaping at the Desert Botanical Garden

The Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden has a wealth of educational tools to help you learn about desert landscaping (Photo credit: Desert Botanical Garden)

But let’s say your new Phoenix home didn’t come with any landscaping. You’re at a loss for where to begin. Your best bet is to go explore the city’s Desert Botanical Garden. Not only is it a beautiful space with tons of different species to explore, but you can also check out their extensive accredited courses on desert landscaping and learn to do it all yourself.

Livabl spoke to Angelica Elliott, the Assistant Director of Public Horticulture at the Desert Botanical Garden, about learning how to take care of your plants, sustainable landscaping, water harvesting, and landscaping trends in Phoenix.

The Desert Landscaping Course describes landscaping as “a science.” Can you explain what that means?

What we try to facilitate in our courses are the fundamentals and foundation of living in the desert — understanding what a desert is, how plants adapt and survive in our desert conditions and how to apply that horticulturally

When you think about horticulture, you think about watering, fertilizing, pruning, and managing insects. I’m going to use pruning as an example. We are pruning all the time in the garden, but we need to understand what is actually happening biologically to the plant each time we prune, and why understanding the proper pruning technique is going to keep your plants healthy.

You sometimes see a lot of improper pruning in the Phoenix area, particularly on trees and shrubs, and that really shortens the lifespan of the plant. When things are not properly pruned, it shows that the landscaper doesn’t understand the biology of what’s happening to that tree. It could have long-term damage, health damage, and safety issues, either from falling or making it more prone to passive diseases.

We teach the basics of understanding how biology and horticulture hand in hand. When you’re applying that horticultural science, you’re learning how to care for your plants properly.

A photo of cacti in a desert landscape

It’s critical to learn how to take care of your new desert landscaping to keep it healthy and pest-free (Photo credit: Desert Botanical Garden)

What goes into creating a sustainable desert landscape?

One of the things that when we look at our sustainable desert landscape is understanding your environment and appreciating it. If you bring in a plant from the Pacific Northwest to the desert, they’re beautiful plants, but they’re not going to survive and adapt to our conditions.

Plants native to that region are going to be able to survive and adapt in that region that you because they’re naturally found there. So that’s going to require using less effort. You’re not going to have to water as much because they’re adapted for it in desert conditions.

You’re going to have a lot of our native plants don’t require fertilizer, or they don’t require pesticides or insecticides, because they’ve adapted to these environmental conditions.

You can use other plants from other parts of the world that have similar environments, to where you’ve come from. But there is a caveat. If I brought a plant that was native to the Mediterranean region, we know the environment is similar: Hot and dry. But then that plant becomes a weed and overtakes the local plants. That can be very detrimental to the ecosystem.

You have to be really careful about using plants from other parts of the world. It has happened here in Arizona with a lot of grasses. They were used either for cattle ranching or ornamental purposes. They get into the wild and have caused problems here in our desert.

A diagram of a laundry to landscape system

Laundry-to-landscape system. Image credit: CleanWaterComponents

Can you explain water harvesting?

There are several principles about how to capture water, including rainwater. But in Arizona, it is legal to harvest your laundry water. You can also harvest your bath water. You can’t harvest water from the toilet because it’s considered to be black water.

Most people are more familiar with active harvesting when rain barrels or some types of misters are used to capture the water. But there’s also passive water harvesting when you’re not storing the water. You’re capturing that water as it’s falling on the ground or even when it’s coming out in your laundry.

Homeowners will create berms, depressions in the land, or swales or try to direct the flow of that water to a certain area. In Phoenix, there are a lot of swales that direct water. It might be coming off some high point in the yard and directing that water to say a fruit tree.

Then they create a berm around the edge of the water as it moves through the landscaping The water travels from high to a low point and then it stays around fruit trees.

How would a Phoenix homeowner get the water out of their house to use for passive water harvesting?

One of the easiest ways is to use a water harvesting kit. you could connect to your laundry through the hoses — from your laundry hose to your garden hose. It’s called “laundry to landscape.” You can do the same with the bath water. There’s a valve for when you want to use the water. if you don’t want to use the water for whatever reason, you shut it off and it goes back down into the sewer system.

A photo of cacti and succulents in Phoenix landscaping

Cacti and succulents have become popular in Phoenix landscaping (Photo credit: Desert Botanical Garden)

What are some of the trends you’ve seen in Phoenix landscaping?

Succulents are becoming very popular — I see a lot of them being used for new homes, and remodeled homes that are receiving updated landscaping. Here in the Phoenix area, you’re seeing a lot simpler and more modern designs. I think the reason why they’re using a lot of cacti and succulents is that they offer very bold shapes. They’re simpler and have a cleaner look.

Succulents have also been very trendy on Instagram and a lot of other social media sites. In the Phoenix area, a lot of homes being built have a mid-century modern design, and a lot of homeowners are using succulents in the landscape to kind of create that simpler look.

Would the cacti and succulents be best suited to someone who’s more interested in creating a low-maintenance landscape?

Yes, definitely, especially if they’re native to our region. They’re very low maintenance, don’t require a lot of water and they’re more sustainable.

We use a lot of aloe in our garden and there’s very little that you have to do to them in order to use them in the landscaping. They’re not susceptible to pests so you’re not out there, spraying them because they’re being inundated with insects on them. And they definitely don’t take a lot of water.

A sunset photo of desert landscaping in Phoenix

When it comes to landscaping in Phoenix, learn about the plants around you because they’ve adapted to the environment (Photo credit: Desert Botanical Garden)

What are people most surprised to learn when it comes to gardening and landscaping in Phoenix?

They’re surprised by how much they have to learn. I’ve talked to a lot of people that moved here, and when they take our classes, they have to throw out what they learned in the past. Everything they’ve learned when they learned to garden where they used to live, they have to forget and start all over.

But once they start learning new techniques or different ways, they start to really appreciate their new desert environments. It gives them a new understanding of the plants here because they’re so different. It’s all fresh to them. They get really excited about having to learn a different way or technique, and sometimes they struggle or get frustrated. But they come here to the garden to learn via different classes or they use our website to take an online course.

Once they begin to put the pieces together, they feel a sense of renewal, and maybe a bit of relief to discover that it’s not so difficult to garden here. They could just have a beautiful, lush garden, whether they came from California or Oregon or New York or wherever they were prior to moving to Phoenix. It’s just learning to use the plants that are native to here or adapted to here, but it can be done. In the garden, we have some beautiful landscapes. And all of our plants are desert-adapted or natives.

Are newcomers surprised by the variety of plants they can use?

I think they are surprised by the diversity of plants that we have. We have a lot of growers all over the country who like to work with cacti and succulents. It’s a big trend.

But people who are new to the area are really surprised by the diversity and variety. It’s fun because they can play with all these different textures or colors, and have such unique forms, especially when you look at the cacti and succulents.

I think that’s exciting, but I think what really helps is that we have a lot of growers starting to grow many of these desert native plants. That helps to ensure that there’s a lot more availability on the market.

Landscaping in Phoenix requires a lot of consideration. The good news is there is a wealth of information at your fingertips right in the city, via in-person and online courses. You can learn first-hand about the local plant ecology and water techniques to create the perfect landscaping environment for your new home. Best of all, there are plenty of lo-fi hacks and plants to include to save you time and energy, while still giving you the peaceful outdoor space you’ve always wanted.

If you’re wondering where to begin, here’s a list of five of the most popular cacti to include in your landscaping.

A close-up photo of a sand dollar cactus

Astrophytum asterias (Photo credit: Dr. David Midgley)

The Astrophyrum asterias or sand dollar cactus is a low-growing groundcover breed of cacti. It grows to a height of eight inches and is symmetrical and spineless. This cactus will grow yellow flowers during the spring.

A photo of two Saguaro cacti

Saguaro cacti (Photo credit: W. Clarke)

When you think of the Sonoran desert, you’re likely picturing the Saguaro cacti. These popular plants are intended for centerpieces in landscaping and require significant room. While the Saguaro grows slowly, it will reach a height of about 60 feet at maturity. The Saguaro will not branch off until it has reached a height of 3 feet. It blooms beautiful white flowers and lives for many years if kept healthy.

A photo of a flowering Bishop's Head cactus

Astrophytum myriostigma (Photo credit: Plant Care Today)

Astrophytum myriostigma, or bishop’s cap, is an unusual type of cacti that gets its nickname from its resemblance to a bishop’s mitre. It’s another low-growing groundcover cactus that will reach about 10 inches tall. It has yellow flowers but may take up to six years to begin blooming. This cactus is perfectly symmetrical and does not grow any spines.

Cephalocereus senilis (Photo credit: Raul654)

Cephalocerus senilis goes by the amusing nickname of “old man” or hairy old man”. This cactus will grow to six feet tall and will seasonally bloom with purple-red flowers. This is a non-branching cactus that features an unusual covering of furry needles.

A photo of a Emory's barrel cactus

Ferocactus emoryi (Photo credit: T. Knight)

If you’re looking for a medium-sized cactus with some color, try the Ferocactus emoryi, also known as Emory’s barrel. It can grow up to eight feet tall and 40 inches in diameter. The flowers are barrel-shaped and come in varieties of red and yellow.

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