What Planet Have I Landed On?
That was my first thought when I came out to Arizona as a young bride over 26 years ago. Brown mountains, strangely shaped cactus and words like ‘javelina’, ‘dust devil’, ‘haboob’ and ‘gila monster’ that meant nothing to me were soon to become part of my new world.
There were trees, but not as many as I was used to. Areas of grass were limited and the ground was covered by small rocks, (gravel), that came in different kinds of colors. And I found out that people placed large boulders in the landscape on purpose.
Once my eyes had adjusted, I realized that the desert really was green. The green colors are just much more subtle with hues of gray and blue mixed in. When you come to Arizona from an area with dark green plants – it makes you temporarily blind to the subtle green beauty of the desert.
Many people are under the impression that you can’t really garden in the desert. But, they are wrong! Our dry, desert climate is ideal for gardening and you can grow much more then just cactus. One thing that I have learned from years of gardening in the desert is that the key to growing a beautiful landscape in the desert is to follow a different set of rules.
- Focus on growing desert-adapted trees, shrubs and perennials. You would be surprised at how many beautiful flowering plants there are that will do well in our dry, hot climate. Don’t waste time on growing lush, green plants that are better adapted to cooler, moister climates.
- Proper watering is key to healthy, attractive plants. Drip irrigation is the best way to water plants deeply without wasting water. The trick to watering plants is to water them to the proper depth. Trees should be watered to a depth of 3 ft., shrubs to 2 ft. and perennials and groundcovers to 1 ft. deep. Deep watering encourages roots to grow deeply where the soil is moister and cooler so your plants can better withstand the stresses of living in a dry climate. Desert gardeners can find more information on how much and when to water plants at Arizona Municipal Water User’s Association.
- The best time to add plants to your landscape is in the fall. This gives plants time to become established and have a healthy root system before the heat of summer arrives. Spring is the best time to plant frost-tender plants such as bougainvillea and lantana. Avoid adding new plants during the months of May and June when it is both hot and dry.
- Add plants that will bloom throughout the year. We are fortunate to be able to grow flowering plants not only the summer months, but in winter also. Firecracker Penstemon (Penstemon eatoni), Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and Valentine Bush (Eremophila ‘Valentine’) are all winter bloomers that deserve a place in the landscape.
- Don’t over-prune flowering shrubs. Unfortunately, there seems to be an epidemic of pruning flowering shrubs into round shapes, which I like to refer to as ‘poodle-pruning’ for obvious reasons. In general, you can prune desert-adapted shrubs back in March and then lightly prune back, if needed, in late August. Allow them to grow in their natural shape and you will be rewarded with a beautiful, flowering shrub instead of an overgrown ‘green blob’.
- Desert-adapted plants need little to no fertilizer. The majority of plants that are adapted to our dry climate need no fertilizer at all. Wait until you see yellowing leaves or other signs of nutrient deficiency. Reserve fertilizing for growing roses, citrus and vegetables.
- USDA gardening zones can’t tell you what will grow in the desert. The reason is that the USDA zones only take into account the average low temperatures – they don’t factor in the heat. Sunset has created detailed climate zones based on low and high temperatures. Much of the Phoenix metro area is in Sunset climate zone 13 with outlying areas in zone 12.
- Don’t assume that because a plant is offered at a nursery that it will grow here. Unfortunately, some of the plants available at ‘big box’ store nurseries can’t handle our desert climate. Do your homework before you buy plants to make sure they will grow here. The Arizona Municipal Water User’s Association and Sunset Plant Finder are both great resources for finding and researching plants for your desert garden.
By following these guidelines, you will have a beautiful desert garden. Whether you want a landscape full of evergreen trees, flowering shrubs and perennials or maybe a rose garden – you can grow it here. A garden full of citrus trees, vegetables, berries, grapes or even your favorite fruit tree (apple, apricot, peach or plum) can be yours as well. There are so many possibilities!
So whether you are new to the desert or a long time resident – remember that gardening in the desert isn’t hard; it’s just different.
Noelle (aka ‘az plant lady’) is a horticulturist, Certified Arborist and garden writer who lives and gardens in the East Valley. Growing up in Southern California, it wasn’t until she married and moved to Arizona that she began to try her hand at gardening. She received her degree in Urban Horticulture and went to work managing landscapes for golf courses and later working as a landscape designer. Noelle now helps people create the garden of their dreams through helpful advice, focusing on using beautiful, low-maintenance plants. Freelance writing and speaking to groups about gardening keep her busy as well. When she is not writing or helping other people with their gardens, you can find her ‘playing’ outside – growing fruits, vegetables and planting flowering shrubs and maybe a cactus or two.