good combinations of xeriscape plants

How to make good combinations of xeriscape plants

It’s fun to add different drought-tolerant plant combinations to our landscape. Their unique characteristics help complement and enhance each other.

Good combinations of xeriscape plants add value

In addition, good combinations of xeriscape plants make our outdoor living areas more pleasant, and might even make our properties more valuable.

I’ve found that having a drought-tolerant landscape, or a xeriscape, gives us lots of opportunities to combine plants into different groupings of shape, size, and color. The common denominator, though, is that xeriscape plants can survive with moderate amounts of water or even no supplemental water.

In many parts of the world, water is a scarce commodity. That’s especially true here in the southwestern United States where I live. However, just because I live in the desert doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy interesting and beautiful plants around my house.

Xeriscapes don’t have to be expensive

Buy small plants and use found objects

My xeriscape is a modest one. Because I’m a frugal person (not cheap!), I buy inexpensive smaller plants, and use objects like rocks, hills, and washes that are already in my landscape.

variegated century plant, rock in landscape
I placed my variegated century plant
next to a large rock I already had in the xeriscape
— I placed both close to a larger white cloud sage

photo by Doug Martin

dwarf cactus next to rock and silver leaf cassia
Branches from a silver leaf cassia
drape over a large rock, which backs up
an interesting dwarf cactus

photo by Doug Martin

With a little extra water, many drought-tolerant plants will grow quickly. In fact, I’ve found that smaller, less expensive xeriscape plants will get as big as their more expensive and larger counterparts in only a few years.

Small organ pipe cactus grew fast

For instance, in 2014 I bought an organ pipe cactus that was only 8 inches tall. Today, only 5 years later, that same cactus is now over 4 feet tall, and is developing an arm. Drought-tolerant plants can really grow fast when given a little supplemental water and fertilizer.

Based on its growth rate this spring, I’m expecting my inexpensive organ pipe cactus to reach 5 feet or more by this fall.

Use basic design principles

If you’re not a designer, how can you design your own drought-tolerant landscape? Well, any amateur gardener can use basic design principles to choose the right plants for your specific situation.

The design principles I’m talking about are the Gestalt principles of visual perception. The word Gestalt is used in psychology to study how we visually perceive our surroundings. Subconsciously, we all organize the elements we see in the rooms in our houses and in our landscapes into groups.

The Gestalt principles of visual perception can be used in all types of design, including interior design, landscape design, as well as graphic design.

If you’d like to learn more about design, I recommend you read The Non-Designer’s Design Book. While the book was written specifically for graphic designers, you can apply the same design principles as you design your landscape.

A few of the Gestalt principles of design we can use in our landscapes include:

1. Proximity

— Unified groups

By placing different plants close to each other, we create unified groups of plants just as they might appear in nature. Many times in nature, we see identical plants in close proximity to each other.

Other times, we see a tall saguaro growing next to a moderate-sized creosote bush. When the saguaro was much smaller, the creosote bush acted as a nursing plant and provided valuable shade along with nitrogen to help the cactus grow big.

Subconsciously, those groupings just feel right to us, and their sight pleases us.


Important considerations for grouping plants


When choosing which plants to group in close proximity, include only plants with the same water needs, the same sun requirements, and the same soil drainage and pH requisites.

For instance, many agaves and cactus plants will rot if they receive too much water. They might not work well when placed next to a flowering plant that requires more water in the hot summer months.

— Odd numbers look best

Another important consideration when grouping plants is to work with odd numbers. For some reason, our human psyche sees odd numbers in a group as being more natural.

So, when you combine plants into a grouping, consider using 3 plants, or even 5 plants, inside the same proximity.

2. Repetition

Repetition, especially in close proximity, looks very natural to us. In nature, we see repetition no matter where in the world we might be.

Plants reproduce with seeds, and many times the seeds fall nearby where they sprout. In no time at all, we might have many identical plants growing in close proximity.

In my xeriscape, agaves produce lots of pups. After a few seasons, those pups grow and produce their own pups. Together, they create a dynamic repetition of striking geometry in my drought-tolerant landscape.

3. Contrast

Contrast in our nature can stimulate interest. You can achieve contrast in your landscape by grouping plants with different sizes, textures, or colors in close proximity.

In my landscape, I love combining a spiny cactus or agave together with a delicate-looking flowering shrub. In the photo below, I used a grouping of the agave horrida, a trailing lantana, and a unique woolly butterfly bush.

woolly butterfly bush and agave
The menacing-looking agave horrida
has a softer look when balanced
with a woolly butterfly bush and a
trailing lantana

photo by Doug Martin



For more contrast, I grouped a brittlebush together with a large century plant. The brittlebush has bright, daisy-like yellow flowers that spill over against the agave’s long spines to add interesting contrast.

brittlebush and century agave
The daisy-like brittlebush, commonly found
in the Sonoran Desert, looks good
combined with a century plant

photo by Doug Martin

Of course, too many contrasting elements in close proximity can look confusing and make the viewer feel uncomfortable. The trick is to combine contrast along with repetition for a natural and pleasing look.

4. Balance

Everything in nature, including the buildings we live in, along with the landscapes in our community, has balance. When we design our landscape, we can use balance to convey messages of adventure, drama, security, or peacefulness.

Spanish lavender contrasts with agave
A flowering Spanish lavender adds
contrast and a bit of asymmetrical balance
to the gruff and ruff-looking agave horrida
in the background

photo by Doug Martin

Symmetrical balance

For instance, a symmetrical or formal type of balance can create a sense of peace. A formal balance includes elements that are the same on the left and right. Usually, the human face and body has a symmetrical or formal balance.

Repetition is a good way to achieve symmetry in our own landscapes. We might use the same plants to encircle an outdoor living area. The formal balance would subliminally create a sense of relaxation and peace.

Asymmetrical balance

On the other hand, an asymmetrical or informal sense of balance in our landscape can arouse more adventurous or dynamic feelings.

By using contrasting sizes of plants, textures, and colors in close proximity, we can create that asymmetrical sense of adventurous balance in our outdoor living areas.

In my case, I’ve used an asymmetrical form of balance throughout my xeriscape. I wanted to recreate the wild feel of an actual desert, but without the snakes and other nasty stuff.

san pedro cactus and century plant
In one of the driest corners of my xeriscape,
I added two San Pedro cactus plants
along with a large century plant

photo by Doug Martin

yucca, various cacti, organ pipe cactus
In the foreground, a fast-growing yucca
is grouped with various cacti
while the background has an
organ pipe cactus and desert lavender

photo by Doug Martin

aloe vera with large agave
The exotic flowers of the aloe vera
add contrast to the large agave
with its bulky, twisted, but interesting leaves

photo by Doug Martin

Good plant groupings will get better each year

At first, my small groupings of drought-tolerant plants didn’t look very dynamic. I was kind of disappointed. However, after the second year, they started to grow and fill in.

My columnar cacti still have much grander heights to reach. With each year, they will continue to add more contrast to their smaller flowering shrub partners.

More roots mean more drought tolerance

As the years pass, each plant will continue to develop their root systems. As a result, they will become more and more drought-tolerant.

When the rains come, their complex network of roots will soak up the rain and reward me with many flowers and new growth.

Spanish lavender and opuntia cactus
My Spanish lavender clumps will get bigger
each year with even more flowers
— the flowers contrast nicely with a spiny cactus

photo by Doug Martin

Dividends from your xeriscape will increase every year

It’s almost like my small xeriscape landscape will pay me more and more dividends with each passing year. My modest xeriscape makes me optimistic for the future and I can hardly wait to see what develops and unfolds before my eyes.

By Doug Martin, Opportunity Muse.

Photos, graphics, and writing are copyright © protected
by Doug Martin and Opportunity Muse.
All rights reserved.




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