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Create a Southwest garden with stone, succulents, color

Diana C. Kirby, Special to the American-Statesman
Allowing space between plants is a feature of Southwest garden style. Mexican feathergrass is complemented by stones and yuccas. [Diana C. Kirby]

Landscape style is as personal as the clothes you wear or the furniture in your home. A successful landscape should reflect your taste — from color and texture to function and comfort.

Whether you’re enamored with the latest indoor trends and gravitate toward popular farmhouse décor or prefer contemporary abstract art and sleek sculpture, how you approach your landscape outside should be reflective of how you live life inside your home. Colors and shapes that appeal to you in your living room are sure to make you happy in the garden as well. Composition plays as important a role outside as inside.

From formal to tropical to cottage, landscapes come in every shape and size. Landscape styles vary as much as interior decorating looks, allowing us to customize our surroundings down to the last detail.

Southwest style landscapes reflect the open-sky, vast makeup of the American desert. This style is defined by dramatic contrasts. Lean expanses of space punctuated by sculptural elements combine to deliver design drama.

Emulating the wide-open spaces of the desert, these landscapes allow plants the freedom to shine unencumbered by overgrown neighboring plants. Less is definitely more in the Southwest garden aesthetic.

Guided primarily by the environment, these landscapes reflect the hot, dry conditions in which most plants must toil to grow. The most successful plants have been endowed by Mother Nature with a variety of water-saving characteristics.

Succulents like agaves, aloes and cacti traditionally sport thick, waxy skin. They’re plump with stored moisture for survival through long dry spells. Succulents are generally very low maintenance. They have low water needs (not no water), but they are prone to rot if overwatered, so don’t water them on the same schedule as thirstier plants.

They also do well when slightly raised in the landscape to allow for increased drainage.

Many shrubs and trees in such climates can thrive thanks to other special characteristics like small, very fine leaves, which reduce moisture loss during transpiration. There is less evaporative surface on a small leaf than a large leaf. Conversely, large-leaved plants thrive in the tropics, where water is as abundant as a desert is dry.

Governed by the arid climate and water scarcity, many plants in such drought-tolerant gardens have less blooming color. They fashion their design statement in a different way. Oversized agaves with bold, sculptural leaves provide dramatic focal points. Their thick, juicy stems add interesting structure, texture and variety to a landscape.

Just like interior decorating, everything in outdoor design is relative. Mixing textures in landscape design makes a garden more interesting. Some of my favorite design combinations include large, sculptural agaves combined with soft, flowering plants like Mexican bush sage, salvias or grasses.

Many successful Central Texas landscape plants grow unaided in the rocky outcroppings of the Hill Country. Blackfoot daisy, winecup and damianita dot the expansive rolling hills around Austin, where poor, rocky soil, heat and periodic drought are the order of the day. Drifts of grasses or yuccas bring movement into the space and provide textural contrast to striking specimen plants.

Stone also plays a prominent role in the Southwest garden, from focal point boulders to gravel or river rock.

Dry creeks channel desert rainstorm water. They can be designed to serve the same purpose in our gardens here in Central Texas’ Flash Flood Alley. A dry creek bed can be created with or without a French drain underneath it to help direct the flow of water in the landscape. River rock, pea gravel or other rock material is used to line a swale along the draining area, with larger rock framing the outside edges of the bed to hold the remaining rock in place.

Achieve a natural look by burying medium- and large-sized rock 1/3 into the soil and allow the smaller, ricer rock to scatter a little along the edges just as you’d imagine a mountain stream evolving over time.

Creative boulder placement throughout the landscape also highlights planting spaces and adds focal points. Just as certain plants or mulch serve as anchors to bed edges or pathways, rock clusters provide definition.

Native American and Spanish architectural elements and color are often used to contribute to the overall mood. Commonly used in arid landscapes, accent walls stand out in complementary sunset hues of red, rust, umber or yellow.

Selections of brilliant blues set off the gray and green agaves and sages of the desert. They are used to provide a colorful, year-round backdrop to a more subtly hued plant collection.

Terracotta tiles and natural stone on floors and patios offer a vibrant base in areas where turf grass is impractical or can’t survive.

Self-sufficient plants mean a low maintenance landscape. Accustomed to taking care of themselves, xeric plants don’t require babying. Mother Nature sometimes laughs at us, though, when we try to outwit her. After one of the hottest and driest summers on record, I feverishly added grasses, agaves and yuccas to my garden. I was determined to have a successful, thriving landscape. Unfortunately, that was followed by one of the wettest winters on record. You can guess what happened.

With an extensive native and adapted palette of heat and drought-tolerant plants, a Southwest-style landscape can thrive in Central Texas. Add in the right architectural, stone or décor design elements, and you’ll have a low-maintenance garden that to enjoy for years to come.

Landscape designer and garden coach Diana Kirby provides landscaping tips on Facebook at Diana’s Designs and writes a gardening blog at Her gardens have been featured on KLRU’s Central Texas Gardener.