Ideas for a desert courtyard garden

I desired plants which didn't require too much water to pay homage to the fact that we were in a desert climate.

Desert garden cactus
What is a desert garden without a cactus?
Desert garden cactus
What is a desert garden without a cactus?

One of the projects on this visit to our home in Loreto, Baja California Sur is the continuation of a project we started on our last trip down in March: planting our courtyard garden. Our Casa del Lagarto Azul is a small home, hence there is only a tiny garden area. This suits me just fine since we wanted a low maintenance vacation home.

Having pulled out the vines and branches of overgrown plants on our previous visits, I wanted to design a garden that was slow growing and maintenance free during the many months we were not in Loreto. I also desired plants which didn’t require too much water to pay homage to the fact that we were in a desert climate. Finally, the garden must have its own unique character from the one I created in my Bay Area abode. All these factors led me to create a garden design that incorporated mainly succulent plants.

Our courtyard garden now includes a large cactus, two Agave plants, a desert rose and a black olive tree.

Courtyard garden. Low maintenance and also reflects the native plant scape of the region.

This visit I also picked up two new plants. However, in my excitement, I didn’t write down the plant varietals, so instead, here are the photos of them. If you know what they are, please drop me a line.

Striking purple.
This plant caught my eye because of its striking purple color. I thought it would add some nice contrast to the greens already in the garden. I also liked the sculptural quality of the leaves.
The other plant I procured on this trip is in the background of this photo. I like it because as it grows, it will give the garden some height and also a splash of intense magenta color.

Finally, I covered the soil in gravel and lava rocks to provide a more finished look to the garden and also deter invasive weeds from sprouting up.  Since my last visit, uninvited vegetation had taken root in my garden and required me spending a part of my first day back pulling out weeds. This rock coverage will hopefully provide an end to this.

I am pleased with the results. It will take some time before the garden will develop a settled-in, mature look. However, the foundation is set for a maintenance free, sculptural courtyard garden. I will know on my next visit if I’ve truly succeeded.

The next landscaping project in our little Loreto home will be the back garden area. Right now, it is just paved with flagstone. I’d like to remove most of the flagstone, add a colorful tile fountain on the end, and a tall tree and some plants along the walls. Since this is an area I’ll be walking through, the plants will need to have softer leaves, not the spines found on most cacti.

Back garden area. I look forward to transforming this space with some lush plants.
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  • I just wanted to give you some pointers on your garden, I’ve been gardening in BCS my whole life and have run the gamet on “good” and “bad” plants for the region.

    1. The “Black-olive tree” is completely a tropical plant, which will outgrow the area and needs to be watered for it to look good (Although it can survive not being watered for short periods), it also drops many leaves which some people find a hassle to pick up, it also has a mature height of 50ft with a branch spread of 35ft, which is why it is more suitable as a yard plant; you could always just prune it, but I feel it detracts from the tree’s natural beauty. Two other problems associated with this tree is that it releases lots of Tannic Acid which will stain the tiles underneath it, and the very aggresive root system which is know to lift up sidewalks and will invade the whole confined space it is in, effectively not allowing root space for your other plants to grow, not to mention limiting the sunlight they receive.

    2. “Bouganvillea” which is the magenta flowering bush is not a desert plant but a tropical, they do however do quite well in our climate although it must be watered atleast twice a week, keep it pruned to a size you can manage, and remeber to always prune after it blooms.

    3. “Purple Heart” is the one with the purple colored leaves, and it is a very good plant as a groundcover and really does take all kinds of abuse. The only problem with this plant is that once it is planted and established in an area it will take it all over and is very difficult to take out, you will have to be in a constant battle with it not taking over your planter and smothering the other plants.

    4. “Desert Rose” is a good option as it is a superb desert landscaping plant, make sure you don’t over water and check for scale and mealy bugs as pests and it should be fine!

    5. “Agaves” you have two different kinds of agaves in your planter and they are both suitable as low water usage plants, and are an excellent choice. You just have to be careful as to the size that your plants will grow because since they are planted near the edge of the planter the sharp spines can inflict some pain, also they will shoot up “pups” which are baby agaves throughout the planter, which I find as a benefit because I then plant them in other places. Be careful when trying to trim the Agave angustifolia (varigated one) because the sap from the plant is irritating to skin.

    6. Last but not least the tall “cactus” isn’t actually a cactus but an african succulent which looks very much like a cactus, I can’t remember the name of it! But if I do I will post it here for you, it’s a lovely plant slow growing, doesn’t need much water and will attain a sort of tree shape.

    Hope this all helps!!!! Good luck with the garden.

    • Thanks G Lenn for the gardening tips! What trees would you recommend for the courtyard? This by far was the most difficult decision. Also, any other plants you would recommend?

      • It will be difficult to maintain a Desert style garden in the courtyard if trees are involved, mainly because they will eventually fill the planter with roots and create shade, and desert plants really love full to partial sun. One plant that grows well and will gain considerable height although not  a tree is the Madagascar palm (Pachypodium Lamerei), here’s a photo:

        I have many of these and they are beautiful interesting plants, you can forget to water them, they never need fertilizer or trimming, they drop the leaves once a year during winter, but they are still interesting to look at with all their thorns and trunk shape. And they get beautiful plumeria style flowers.

        Other nice drought tolerant plants, that I would reccomend are:

        1. Crown of Thorns or Corona de Cristo in spanish, they come in all shapes and different colors of blooms, and they have blooms on them permanently, photo:

        2. The Pencil tree is also a great plant, they grow very well in ur climate, need almost no water and you can reproduce it by taking cuttings, just be careful not get sap on your skin as it is an irritant. Photo:

        3. Mexican bird of Paradise or Tabachín de la Sierra in spanish is one of my all time favorite plants, it is very drought resistant, blooms year round, attracts butterflies and hummingbirds, and you can keep it as a bush by clipping it back or train it to grow up as tree through proper pruning, it comes in two colors orange: and yellow:

        I could go on and on, but that is a good starting point, oh yes and that tall “cactus” in your planter is a kind of euphorbia.

        Glad to share my knowledge, and Iove your website!

        You can send me an email if you have any other questions later on: