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Growing Plants in a Desert Garden is Easy

Updated on December 1, 2015
Nanciajohnson profile image

I enjoy painting fantasy art, art shows, creating delicious dishes, spending time with my grandkids, taking walks and reading a good book.

Growing Plants in the Desert is Easier Than You Think

I have lived in the Phoenix, Arizona area since 2008. Yes, you do get used to the "dry" heat of the summer. Actually, I feel the winter can be more drying to the skin than the summer. Even plants will struggle in extreme heat but there is a way to grow wonderful vegetables, beautiful flowering trees, lovely roses and more in the desert southwest. I wanted to share my experience of gardening in the desert with you.

My boyfriend grew up in the Southern California desert area and spent much of his adult years landscaping professionally and growing beautiful plants. He definitely has a green thumb and grows plants as a hobby now instead of a career. We are going to write this lens together because I want to share with you all his expertise and experience growing plants in a desert garden environment.

We live in a neighborhood with normal size lots, but have made sections for our favorite flowers, vines, plants, trees and cactus. We have a cactus garden in the front yard along with huge chinese elm tree, shade plants such as gardenias under the front window and an array of other desert plants and trees along the side yard. We have two huge Cape Honeysuckle out front that the hummingbirds love to visit. Our pride and joy though is a huge wisteria vine that reaches along our roof line and in two years is producing beautiful blooms. The photo is a current photo of its full blooms.

In our back yard we have just about everything! The house came with a mesquite tree that reaches out like an umbrella for shade. We put in a rose garden in just about every color rose. The Angel Face Tea Rose is my favorite and very fraqrant. I am spoiled when I wake up to a vase full of roses waiting for me at the breakfast table!

Of course, in Arizona we must have an orange tree because citrus just thrives in this climate. We have touches of native desert plants such as pestimon, mallow, creosote, fairy duster, bitterbrush and lupine. Lastly, we have had success with our vegetable garden growing basil, cherry tomatoes, cantaloupe, squash, onions and peppers.

In fact, growing plants in the desert means you can garden year round. With the right planting techniques, soil care and watering, most plants will grow in this climate even with temperatures reaching over 110 in mid-summer. It is our hopes that you will get some good tips for growing a garden in the desert.

Photos taken by Nancia

Flowers From our Garden

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Mexican Bird of ParadiseOlympiad RoseYellow Cactus FlowerQueen Elizabeth Tea RoseRed Cactus FlowersSnail VineWhite Cactus FlowerYellow Flowers on CactusRose GardenBougainvillea
Mexican Bird of Paradise
Mexican Bird of Paradise
Olympiad Rose
Olympiad Rose
Yellow Cactus Flower
Yellow Cactus Flower
Queen Elizabeth Tea Rose
Queen Elizabeth Tea Rose
Red Cactus Flowers
Red Cactus Flowers
Snail Vine
Snail Vine
White Cactus Flower
White Cactus Flower
Yellow Flowers on Cactus
Yellow Flowers on Cactus
Rose Garden
Rose Garden
Bougainvillea
Bougainvillea
The Gardener's Guide to Cactus: The 100 Best Paddles, Barrels, Columns, and Globes
The Gardener's Guide to Cactus: The 100 Best Paddles, Barrels, Columns, and Globes

This guide helps when shopping for which type of cacti you might like to put in your cactus garden. We have a variety of different types and sizes of cacti to enjoy.

 
Cactus Garden
Cactus Garden

Growing Cactus in the Desert

Unlimited Varieties!

Of course, when living in the desert you must have a cactus garden. Whether you have just a section of your yard with a nicely designed cactus garden or fill up your whole plot of land with cactus and native bushes, cactus are as easy to grow with the right blend of soil, sun and water. Yes, cactus do need some water to thrive. Since they are native to the desert regions, they like lots of sun too.

In our area, there are several nurseries that specialize in cactus. We look for varieties that thrive in the lower or Sonora desert regions. There are some cactus that are native to the high deserts and need the colder winters to thrive. The experts at the nurseries can help you or pick up good books on growing cactus.

There are different shapes of cactus which go together real well when designing a nice cactus garden. Do remember most of them will grow very large, either tall or wide, so leave space between each new cactus when you are planting. If you do find that your cactus grows and crowds another out, just cut it back and transplant to another section. Most pad cactus are easy to break off and restart in a different area. That is how we have gotten most of our pad style cactus, by getting pieces from neighbors and friends to start in our garden.

The barrel style cactus are a little more difficult to take a cutting and transplant. The red and golden barrels will produce little pups and with the correct steps they can be transplanted. To be honest, that is a technique we have not taken the time to experiment with. We will update this module when we have successfully transplanted a Golden Barrel pup.

Our favorite style cactus are the pipe cactus. The one shown in the photo is a"Hairy Old Man" which is our favorite. Since putting him in last spring, he has doubled in size. The other pipe style cactus grow really tall. We have one that is almost as tall as I am. You can practically see them grow inches overnight. All cactus mentioned have the most beautiful flowers in the springtime. They bloom in an array of colors and the flower petals are of a waxy substance. Some bloom only at night, and some only last one day. So get your camera ready and take some gorgeous photos.

Cactus like very sandy soil. Their root system needs to reach down deep to anchor themselves and find moisture. The surface soil in the desert drys out quickly even after a rain. There is a special blend of cactus soil and feed to use when planting cactus. It will have just enough blend of nutrients for a cactus when first planted.

One more thing to make note of is that during the winter even in the desert the temperature may drop below freezing at night. We cover the tops of our pipe cactus with a large styro-foam cup to protect them from the freeze. With just a little work and care, you can have the most beautiful cactus garden in your neighborhood.

Esschert Design Canvas Tool Apron
Esschert Design Canvas Tool Apron

This tough, but lightweight apron will keep you clean when working in your garden plus it will hold the tools you need to get the job done.

 
Orange Blossoms
Orange Blossoms

Growing Citrus in the Desert

Fresh Oranges, Lemons and Grapefruit from the Tree!

If you love citrus and fresh juice, then make sure you do plant at least one of each orange, grapefruit and lemon trees in your desert garden. There are groves of citrus trees all around the Arizonan low desert and in the winter around February you can smell the orange blossoms in the air. It is such a sweet smell even though it can be challenging for those with allergies.

Also in the winter is when the fruit is ripe and you will see bags and boxes heaping high with fruit on the sides of the road. In time and with proper care of your citrus trees, you will also have so much fruit that you will be trying to give it away to neighbors, friends and winter visitors!

Citrus trees do not need to much special care, but they do need a special blend of food to produce lots of blooms and then fruit. A great tip is to make a well around the tree line (edge of the widest part of the tree) and soak thoroughly. We do get frosts in the winter here in Arizona and that will be the hardest on these citrus trees.

Whenever the temperature is to dip to 32 degrees or less, cover the citrus trees with a frost cover. We use sheets which work just fine to keep the frost off the leave and blossoms of the tree. I have to say the heat of the summer does not seem to affect or damage the citrus like a frost will do. We do get winds in the desert and have staked the tree when it was first planted so it would not blow over in a strong wind.

Photo by LilMonkey

Rose Garden
Rose Garden

Growing Roses in the Desert

Beautiful Blooms All Year!

Roses love the sun, and Arizona has plenty of sunny days. More than 300 of them per year! If you love roses, you too can have beautiful blooms just about all year long here in the desert. We have found that the extreme heat can be a bit challenging to the rose bush and it does not bloom very often in the hot temperatures. We have gotten a few small buds and flowers which will die off quickly.

In the winter months of December to February, the temperatures can dip down to even freezing at night in the desert. This gives the rose bush just enough dormancy time that the plant needs to regenerate and grow. This is the time to really prune back and trim off any dead branches, etc. You can even find and plant bare root roses in January. The bare root season is short here in the desert so there is no time for procrastination!

Before planting, analyze your soil since some desert soils are all sand and some are all clay. We have hard clay dirt in our yard, so we must work at improving the soil before planting. Dig down a foot or two further than needed for the rose plant and add a good soil mixture of potting soil. Add some type of filler to keep the soil loose and soft. This way the roots can really reach down and get away from the surface heat during the summer. This is a key to the success of growing all plants in the desert.

Feed your roses with a plant food of 15-30-15 blend or a specific Rose food. We have really good luck with this product and our roses produce the largest and most fragrant blooms that we have ever had. We also have a large well around each bush and soak them at least 2-3 times per week in the winter and every day for 15-30 minutes in the summer depending on how hot the temperatures are.

Also, it is recommended to go out and trim off the dead blooms often so your rose will continue producing beautiful flowers. It is a thrill to have a colorful bouquet in a vase on your table everyday!

Photo by LilMonkey

G & F 15226M Women's Garden Gloves, nitrile coated work gloves, assorted colors. Women's Medium, 6 Pair Pack
G & F 15226M Women's Garden Gloves, nitrile coated work gloves, assorted colors. Women's Medium, 6 Pair Pack

Ladies, protect your hands with these sturdy, colorful gloves. I love having pretty and fun gloves (more than one pair of course) when working in my garden!

 
cherry tomatoes
cherry tomatoes

Growing Vegetables in the Desert

A Salad Right From Your Garden!

I have been mentioning in each module in this lens about growing a desert garden on how poor the soil can be in the desert. With our vegetable garden we really added a good soil amendment or mulch and worked it in for months before planting. It is recommended to go deep with this good soil.

We also compost and add this into the garden as needed. The longer that you have your garden the more healthy the soil will become. We just turn over our garden plot with the dead leaves, plants and compost periodically to build up good soil to grow beautiful vegetables.

Just about every type of vegetable can be grown in the desert. We grow tomatoes, cantaloupe, squash, peppers, onions and okra. We only grow what we can eat fresh. The planting time for vegetables in the desert is a little earlier than the northern areas.

We get our plants in by February to March so we have vegetables by early summer. Since it gets so hot here in the desert, our cherry tomatoes stop producing from mid-summer until the fall then they will give us another crop of tomatoes. The cantaloupe seems to love this heat and does well.

We let our garden run wild and do not stake it up. It seems to like this better with the heat. In fact we mix the zucchini squash with its large leaves and the smaller peppers so they can get a little shade from the intense afternoon sun.

To feed the vegetable plants in a small garden, mix 1 tablespoon of vegetable food to 1 gallon of water. Mix thoroughly to prevent burning when applying to the garden. We water this mixture by hand with a bucket or watering can. If you are going to put in a large garden area, you may want to use a sprayer to apply the fertilizer.

Just a note, container or square foot gardening does not work as well in the desert. Since it can get so hot, the containers or walls of a raised garden will hold the heat and burn your plants. Grow any type of plant at least 6 inches from a wall, container sides or any other solid structure. I have been told that the wall or pavement can reach 180 degrees in the summer.

Also, we have not noticed a large pest problem with our garden. If you do see some white flies, we just mix dish detergent and water to spray on the effected plants. That should do the trick.

Lavendar Plant
Lavendar Plant

Growing Herbs in the Desert

Fresh from Garden to Kitchen

Growing herbs in the desert is possible with just the right amount of sun, water and care. The key to growing these edible plants in the desert is understanding the climate and the watering needs. All edible plants need sun to grow and thrive, which we have plenty of! There are at least 300 days of sun in the southwest desert areas so our growing season can be just about year round. I had had success with cilantro, basil, parsley, chives and thyme. I also grow some lavender (show in photo) but I am not sure if it is really considered a herb. It does make a nice tea and smells wonderful.

The most important tips to growing herbs is to make sure that you prepare the soil just like with the vegetable gardens. For the desert areas, I would really discourage growing herbs in pots or containers since the sun will get the container sides really hot. That will wilt any plants in a hurry. Work the soil with compost or manure plus some sand or other filler to keep the soil soft. The desert soil is mostly clay which will compact too hard for the plant's roots to go deep for watering.

We do get some frost days in the desert during the winter. Usually between mid-November to February. There are certain herbs which will do better planting in the fall and others are successful in planting in February after the danger of any frost is gone. For February, I plant our basil, chives and thyme. In the fall, we plant the cilantro, parsley and chives. It is wonderful to go out and pick fresh herbs to cook with. When we have a surplus of herbs, I will dry them for future use or give them away to family and friends.

More Flowers & Plants from our Desert Garden

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Charisma RoseBower Vine - Hummers FavoriteOnion Flower at NightPink RoseRed Cactus FlowerPink Cactus FlowerGold Medal RoseSnail VineSnapDragonsDahlias
Charisma Rose
Charisma Rose
Bower Vine - Hummers Favorite
Bower Vine - Hummers Favorite
Onion Flower at Night
Onion Flower at Night
Pink Rose
Pink Rose
Red Cactus Flower
Red Cactus Flower
Pink Cactus Flower
Pink Cactus Flower
Gold Medal Rose
Gold Medal Rose
Snail Vine
Snail Vine
SnapDragons
SnapDragons
Dahlias
Dahlias

What are Your Experiences with Gardening? - Vegetables, Flowers, Butterfly and More!

There are all types of gardens. What type of plants do you prefer to grow in your garden?

We would like to know!

What Do You Grow in Your Garden?

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Orange Snapdragon
Orange Snapdragon

Growing Flowers and Vines in the Desert

Perennials, Annuals and More!

Vines are so much fun. We grow snail vine around our back sliding door. This vine is so hardy and grows like a week. We are always trimming it back because it cover the patio light and even the kitchen window. We are training it to grow up a trellis that is in front of the spare bedroom window to give it extra shade from the afternoon sun. A great, natural energy saver that is beautiful also. The snail vine has little light purple flowers constantly that look like a snail. The vine itself is thick and has nice dark green leaves. This vine grows without little care and attention. Just regular watering is all it needs.

We have strategically placed several trumpet flower vines both in the front yard and back yard to attract one of our favorite local birds, the hummingbird. The deep red-orange flowers are our hummers favorite. The tuber vine along one of our patio posts is the most delicate and is shaded from the hot afternoon summer sun by the patio roof. Vines give you height in your flower garden and love to grow up a trellis.

The flower choice can be endless in the desert. When we moved here, I never thought we would be able to grow perennials and annuals such as dahlias, snapdragons, pansies, marigolds, mums, and even lavender. I have to say we planted a six pack of marigolds last spring and they are seeding themselves all over our back yard! We like the marigold because it naturally keeps the pests out of the vegetable garden. I would plant a border of marigolds around any vegetable garden you put in.

The snapdragons love the springtime in the desert and grow so tall. All is needed again is a good fertilizer and you will have lots of bright, colorful flowers. Oh, and don't forget to water. We put our flowers, vines and other plants on a drip system to make it a bit easier for us. The plants are getting water while we are weeding and pruning.

Growing plants in the desert can be very enjoyable and relaxing. Just think of the Vitamin D you are getting while doing some yard work in the sun but don't forget the sunblock!

Photo by LilMonkey

Wisteria Blooming in July!

July Wisteria Blooms
July Wisteria Blooms

What a wonderful surprise we received a couple of days ago, wisteria blooming in the middle of July in the Arizonan desert! With temperatures topping over 115 degrees and the intense sun, you wouldn't think this vine would thrive. But we are learning that this wisteria is much hardier than we first thought. I don't know if you can see, but this photo is of my garage roof line. I can't wait for the day when my front porch is all beautiful blooms!

-Nancia


BLACK+DECKER LPP120 20V Lithium Ion Pole Saw, 8"
BLACK+DECKER LPP120 20V Lithium Ion Pole Saw, 8"

Trees need constant pruning and trimming to keep them looking nice. Pruning dead and excessive branches keeps your tree looking nice and prevents breakage in heavy winds which come up in the desert all the time.

 
Idaho Locust Tree
Idaho Locust Tree

Growing Flowering Trees in the Desert

Beauty and Shade!

This photo is of our purple Idaho Locust Tree. I love flowering trees. We also have a Jacaranda Tree in the front yard near the driveway. It should grow large enough that along with the Chinese Elm in the front yard, they should shade our driveway from the intense heat of the sun. If you live or have visited the desert areas in the summer, then you know you are always looking to park under the shade of a tree!

The best growing and popular tree in the area is the Mesquite Tree. It grows an umbrella-like shade covering of branches and soft leaves. The trunk does tend to lean, so it is important to keep it staked if you want it to grow straight and tall. We have one that is in the south-east corner of our yard, so we encourage it to grow at an angle so we optimize the shade for ourselves.

All trees in the desert area should be planted deep and staked well. The desert winds can come up quick and blow strong enough to knock down large trees. I recommend using 3 tall tree stakes with ties to secure your new tree. We leave the stakes on our trees for a year or two, just to be sure they have developed a strong root system that will hold in a strong wind.

Watering is important when planting trees. Dig a nice deep well along the drip line of the tree (the circumference of the top branches) and soak daily so your new tree can get established. Most people in the desert area just don't water enough when putting in a new tree. A drip irrigation system is what we use to water our trees, shrubs and other plants. We have to remember how drying the desert can be even in the winter.

Trees also love a good dose of food or fertilizer now and then for an extra boost. The desert is not know to have the most nutritious soil. With just the right combination of water, fertilizer and care, you will watch your trees grow right before your eyes!

Photo by LilMonkey

Do you Enjoy Gardening or Growing Flowers?

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    • MBurgess profile image

      Maria Burgess 12 months ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      I live in a desert climate as well and fight the heat to maintain a garden. Your images are lovely!

    • HSP Connections profile image

      Peter Messerschmidt 3 years ago from Port Townsend, WA, USA

      Beautiful article-- and lovely photos! My parents lived in Mesa for many years, and they always kept a very lush and colorful desert garden. They were out in an old citrus grove and kept most of the trees in the back yard... wonderfully fragrant when everything was in bloom.

    • Nanciajohnson profile image
      Author

      Nancy Johnson 3 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

      @microfarmproject: I agree! It is amazing on the variety of plants and flowers that we CAN grow here. I love it!

    • microfarmproject profile image

      microfarmproject 3 years ago

      Enjoyed your lens. We grow lots of food and raise animals in Phoenix. The desert has its challenges, but it has plenty of benefits, too!

    • Nanciajohnson profile image
      Author

      Nancy Johnson 4 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

      @ajgodinho: Thank you for the blessing! I am blessed everyday with my beautiful flowers and garden. Our cacti is blooming like crazy right now.

    • ajgodinho profile image

      Anthony Godinho 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Wow, you surely have made the best of your desert land. It's amazing, with the right techniques, one can have a great garden even in the desert. I've lived in Dubai, UAE for 6 years, so I know the dry heat you're talking about. Wonderful lens and great pictures. **Blessed by a Squid-Angel**

    • Nanciajohnson profile image
      Author

      Nancy Johnson 4 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

      @Sniff It Out: Thank you so much for your comment. I am truly blessed with my favorite gardner!

    • Sniff It Out profile image

      Sniff It Out 5 years ago

      My garden is nothing more than a few tubs of herbs on the patio, I would love to have a flower garden like yours... and a gardener to tend it :-) Loved the photos. Blessed!

    • ramonabeckbritman profile image

      ramonabeckbritman 5 years ago

      I try! I have a little flower garden and small pond which I adore. This is my peace and quiet haven. Nothing fancy but it's mine. I've always wanted to incorporate a small cactus garden. One day I did. Wasn't very successful though. I left them outside during winter and they died. But, I plan to give it a try again. Nice Lens.

    • Grasmere Sue profile image

      Sue Dixon 5 years ago from Grasmere, Cumbria, UK

      Very informative. A lovely personal lens. Blessed.

    • profile image

      RinchenChodron 5 years ago

      Excellent job on this lens! Your photos are great.

    • Rangoon House profile image

      AJ 5 years ago from Australia

      If you have citrus success in the dessert, maybe that is why I don't have it in the tropics. Spring Blessings to you in Phoenix and Scottsdale - I have been fortunate to visit several times.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Congratulations for being featured on Squidoo's 2012 Spring Gardening Showcase and Blessed by a fellow Gardener and Squidoo Angel

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