Desert Gardening: Plants for Hot Climates
Success in a tough climate
Planning a landscape design in a hot desert climate can be very different from gardening in more temperate climates. The weather is different, the soil can be difficult, and the plants can often seem alien, especially if you aren't accustomed to working with them. Water usage is a constant concern in regions where it doesn't rain much. Geographically, hot deserts are primarily located in the southwestern United States and range from the Mohave desert in Southern California, the Sonoran in Arizona, and the Chihuahuan desert in New Mexico.
Which plants work in each desert depends on soil, altitude, and rainfall. North American hot deserts have long summers. In Phoenix, for example, the temperature hits 100 degrees by the end of April and remains in the triple digits until late September. Rain is typically light with the majority falling in the summer months when torrential downpours occur. Soils in river valleys may be extremely rich, but with the summer heat nothing but natives grow without abundant prayer and extra water.
Nevertheless, hot deserts are home to some striking plants and a fragile and beautiful ecosystem. The following are a few of the most popular:
- Agaves come in a variety of types, colors, and sizes. The larger plants are extremely beautiful and provide an architectural character. They like a well-drained soil and are suitable as a container plant. If planting in a landscape, plant in the transitional zone between desert and oasis. Most varieties do well where there is 3 or more inches of rain a year.
- Bird of paradise is a South African native that has striking flowers and attractive leathery, paddle-shaped leaves. Planted on an east side out of the hottest sun and wind, it should do well. It's also grown in containers for patios or porches.
- Mesquite is a fast growing tree which is both relatively undemanding and provides good shade on a minimal amount of water. Other than the fall litter of seed pods in the fall and invasive roots (avoid planting near water sources like plumbing lines) they are handsome and very characteristic of North American deserts.
- Rosemary is a Mediterranean native, but adapts well to hot, dry climates. It comes in both shrub and creeping forms, has tiny, light blue flowers, and as an herb, can be used in cooking. It has a pungent scent.
- Aloes are succulents that do well in a desert setting. They aren't natives, but they are durable, and come in many different varieties. Aloe vera provides a cool liquid that soothes the pain from minor burns, however some aloes are poisonous. They prefer a filtered light and often do well in pots on a protected patio or on the east side of buildings.
- Ocotillo is spiny plant with a vertical habit of tall canes. It has interesting bright red inflorescences at the end of each cane when it blooms from spring through early summer. It leafs out after rainstorms, but is otherwise leafless.
- Creosote bush may be grown from seed. It's a tough plant and especially well adapted to the hot desert. It's unprepossessing shape and form don't particularly endear it to many people, but it has a wonderful smell that is characteristic of the desert after a rainstorm. If you love the desert, you probably love the scent this plant emits.
- Desert willow is another native with an upright habit that grows quickly and has long, pointed, grey-green leaves and pretty lavender flowers, which resemble orchids that bloom almost all summer.
- Cacti come in many distinctive types and sizes from the little hedgehog to the saguaro. One way or another, cacti have spines and you probably won't pick them for a bouquet, when they bloom they have remarkable flowers that are very beautiful. There are so many different types of cacti that whole books are devoted them. Many homeowners cultivate cactus gardens.
- Desert spoon is a neat plant that has a wonderful shape. It has long, thin serrated leaves that spiral out from a tight center.
- Yuccas, like many desert plants, come in a variety of sizes and shapes including the Joshua trees of the Mohave. To discourage poaching, some yuccas and saguaro cactus require plant tags to prove that they were legally acquired. Yuccas are tolerant and easy to grow as long as they have good drainage.
There are thousands of interesting plants that are well adapted to arid, desert landscapes. Probably the single goofiest idea new residents have when moving to the desert is to attempt growing the plants they had back home. It's mostly an exercise in futility, requires constant vigilance, and ridiculous amounts of water. Avoid the frustration, plant what grows naturally, and enjoy the variety and beauty that is the North American desert.
The Desert Botanical Garden
in Phoenix, Arizona is a wonderful resource even if you have to travel some distance to enjoy it. It is spectacular during years when early spring rains have allowed desert ephemeral wildflowers to germinate and bloom. The surrounding areas are awash in the delicate and beautiful colors that are rare and transient. Once enjoyed, you'll never forget the sight.
Plants for Dry Climates: How to Select, Grow and Enjoy is the type of book Arizona residents give new neighbors from other climates. It has hundreds of plants to choose from and excellent "to the point" articles.
Gardening in the Desert: A Guide to Plant Selection & Care is a useful guide to desert plants and non-natives that are well suited to the Southwest desert.
Once the garden is in, NextStep Remodeling
may be able to help you with landscape maintenance services.