No doubt about it, our sleepy “Old Pueblo” has grown. Land, once more than ample, has become increasingly precious. And as land value has increased, home lot sizes have decreased. While the lots have shrunk, the houses themselves and parking spaces have grown larger, leaving less and less land for green spaces.

Homeowners (and landscape designers) are now facing a real challenge when trying to place plants that will provide shade and color in landscape the size of a postage stamp.

All is not bleak! There is a wide variety of plant materials available that are appropriate for small spaces. As you select what to plant, there are a few key factors to consider when selecting and planting the smaller landscape.

Plants grow

The tiny tree in the 15-gallon pot may reach 40 by 40 feet. This is too big for many yards, leading to a maintenance headache for the rest of your life. Sadly, the life of a plant continually pruned is generally short. Disease is often the result, leading to costly removal issues. Select all plants based on their mature size.

Plan for mature size

Don’t plant a shrub that grows to 10 by 10 a mere two feet from the walkway. You will have to continually prune it back, and then you will never get to see the pretty flowers you planted it for.

Desert trees

Genetically, most desert trees have a naturally short, often multi-trunked  form, with low branches shading their trunks. Know this and plan for this. Pruning desert trees into something out of a Dr. Seuss book ultimately harms the tree, and doesn’t provide you with the shade you desire.  (I do like Dr. Seuss’ art, but let’s leave it on the printed page.)

Remember roots

The roots of plants extend far beyond the area covered by their canopy. In fact, most desert plants are genetically programmed to grow roots three to four times the spread of their canopy. Plan for this especially as you site trees near hardscapes and buildings.

Plan for roots as you install the irrigation system. Set main lines well away from trees so they don’t crush the lines as they grow larger. Site drip emitters out at the canopy line of trees and shrubs. Make the micro-tubes long enough so the emitters can be moved as the plants grow larger.

Consider care

Many plants found in area landscapes are in reality high maintenance plants. They often produce a great deal of litter or need quarterly pruning to look their best.

Consider how much care you want to devote to your garden before you pick out your very first plant. If you want low care, it doesn’t mean succulents only. There are a vast number of low-care trees, shrubs and colorful perennials to select from. Most are desert natives and do well here. Since they are natives, the big box stores don’t carry them.  Local nurseries will carry them, however, and the folks there can help you make informed selections.


Many yards have trees and shrubs. Two layers. This can ultimately be boring. Add layers to your landscape, like bulbs or small mammalaria cacti under shrubs. Add perennials of various heights. Don’t forget groundcovers and vines for additional layers. This will also help your landscape look less artificial.


Mass together a number of the same species for a dramatic look. Lay them out in a curving arc. Curves slow one’s visual scan of the landscape and makes the yard seem bigger. Straight lines are too quickly traversed with the eye, and make the yard feel smaller.


Not the rock band. The acronym to remind you to “Keep It Simple…..” Use a limited number of species in your design. If you have one of each plant, basically a botanical collection, just looks like a mish-mash or a hodge-podge. Try to select only a few textures and colors for your design. Create interest with variations on your theme, rather than diversity.

As well as writing about plants, Jacqueline makes house calls to design a landscape just right for you. For a personal consultation about your landscape or plants, call 292-0504. Please leave a voice message.

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