Creative Combos for Your Landscape

A landscape should be more than some plants plunked down around the yard. As a comparison, think about eating a meal. Choking down an overcooked burger on a dry bun is like a landscape without a design. Wouldn’t you rather savor a rich and flavorful meal? Likewise, your yard should be designed to be a bounty of color, fragrance and delight for all of your senses all year long.

mexican evening primrose blooms
Colorful perennials like this Mexican evening primrose add much to the landscape.

The truly fine “meal” includes a tree as the backbone, shrubs as the side dishes, plus perennials and groundcovers to add color, fragrance and texture — the spices that make the meal interesting and savory. An accent is needed to bring a focal point to the landscape composition. Think of it as the sauce that makes the meal memorable.

Since there are more than 10,000 plants that grow in the Southwest, it can hard for a homeowner to pick the right ones. Over the years I have collected some landscape “recipes” from landscape designer “chefs” around the Southwest.

A number of native species of penstemon are low-water plants.

This meal is a thrifty one! The designers focused on low-water use plants –- most of them natives to our region. These plants (after they have had time to become established in the landscape) will survive with our average rainfall.

These recipes are divided into “cold” for areas that often get below 20 degrees every winter; “midrange” for areas that rarely get below 20 degrees; and “hot” for areas that rarely get below freezing.

Chamisa is found in the cooler areas of the Southwest.

Cold Combo 1. Backbone: oak (Quercus species). Framework: chamisa (Chrysothamnus nauseosus), banana yucca (Yucca baccata), squaw bush (Rhus trilobata). Color: tufted evening primrose (Oenothera caespitosa), globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), penstemon (Penstemon). Tied together with: blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis).

Cold Combo 2. Backbone: pine tree choice (Pinus species). Framework: Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa), banana yucca (Yucca baccata), Parry’s agave (Agave parryi), and prickly pear (choice). Color: prairie zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora), gaura (Gaura lindheimeri), chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata), penstemon (Penstemon). Tied together with: side oats grama grass (Bouteloua curtipendula).

apache plume plumes
The white flowers of Apache plume are followed by colorful, long lasting tufts of plumed seeds.

Cold Combo 3. Backbone: desert willow (Chilopsis liniaris). Framework: flame honeysuckle (Anisacanthus quadrifidis var. wrightii), grass tree (Nolina texana), turpentine bush (Ericameria laricifolia). Color: damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana), verbena (Verbena species). Tied together with: creeping germander (Teucrium chamaedrys prostratum) Accent: narrow leaf agave (Agave angustifolia).

prickly pear flower atop pad
Prickly pear come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and flower colors.

Midrange Combo 1. Desert Museum hybrid palo verde (Parkinsonia ‘Desert Museum’) Framework: Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica), Santa Rita prickly pear (Opuntia santa-rita), candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphilitica), desert milkweed (Asclepias subulata). Color: desert marigold (Bailyea multiradiata), desert zinnia (Zinnia acerosa). Tied together with: creeping dalea (Dalea greggii). Accent: American agave (Agave americana).

Midrange Combo 2. Backbone: mesquite choice (Prosopis species). Framework: Cimarron ranger (Leucophyllum zygophyllum ‘Cimarron’), damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana). Color: autumn sage (Salvia greggii), golden dalea (Dalea capitata), gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida), red emu bush (Eremophila maculata). Accent: ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens).

emu bush bloom
There are many species of emu bush, most from Australia and blooming in our winter months.

Midrange Combo 3. Backbone: desert willow (Chilopsis liniaris). Framework: giant hesperaloe (Hesperaloe funifera), bear grass (Nolina microcarpa), brittlebush (Encelia farinosa). Color: angelita daisy (Hymenoxys aculis), paperflower (Psilostrophe cooperi & P. tagetina), globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua). Accent: Mexican fence post cactus (Pachycereus marginatus).

palo brea trunk and sky
Palo brea thrives in hot Southwest regions.

Hot Combo 1. Backbone: palo brea (Cercidium praecox). Framework: chuperosa (Justicia californica), lady slipper plant (Pedilanthus macrocarpus). Color: desert ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis), angelita daisy (Hymenoxys aculis), desert zinnia (Zinnia acerosa). Accent: desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri) or giant hesperaloe (Hesperaloe funifera).

Hot Combo 2. Backbone: velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina). Framework: beargrass (Nolina microcarpa), Mormon tea (Ephedra trifurca), red emu bush (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’). Color: golden eye (Viguiera deltoidea), desert zinnia (Zinnia acerosa). Tied together with: yellow dot (Wedelia trilobata). Accent: Mexican grass tree (Dasylirion longissimum).

Hot Combo 3. Backbone: silk floss tree (Chorisia speciosa) Framework: Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica), little leaf cordia (Cordia boissieri), desert milkweed (Asclepias subulata), black dalea (Dalea fructescens). Color: desert marigold (Bailyea multiradiata), prairie zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora), flattop buckwheat (Eriogonium fasciculatum). Tied together with: creeping dalea (Dalea greggii). Accent: Parry’s agave (Agave parryi).

Parry's agave leaves
Bold leaves with teeth mean that Parry’s agave needs to be planted well away from any paths.

If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my lectures. Look for me at your local Pima County Library branch, Steam Pump Ranch, Tubac Presidio, Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including the latest, “Month-by-Month Garden Guide for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico” (Cool Springs Press, $26).
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  • Sarah

    Perfect timing!! Planning some new gardens, and these are some of my favorites! Evening Primrose + Chamisa + Apache Plume!!! And Penstemons.

    Thanks for all your inspiration!

    • Jacqueline Soule

      Thanks Sarah – so glad you found the timing good! The post tried to work out combos for year-round interest in the garden, and sounds like we did. We would love to see some photos of your garden when it blooms – share them on our facebook page.

  • Jeri

    Thank you for giving some cold-range combos! We live in the high desert (Verde Valley) and are just getting ready to landscape parts of our property so this was perfect timing.

    • Jacqueline Soule

      You are welcome! We are trying to make sure folks in all areas of the Southwest can use our information, and we appreciate your feedback.