By Scott Calhoun
The desert is a harsh teacher. More than any other climate I know, the desert punishes you for making inappropriate plant selections. You may try to re-create a Midwestern border, lawn, and evergreen shrub plantings, but the intense desert climate (and a soaring water bill) might persuade you to abandon those hydrangeas in favor of plants more in line with local conditions. Simply put, choosing plants that are well adapted to the desert climate makes gardening easier — and a lot more ecologically sound.
Cacti and succulents are musts. In areas with infrequent rainfall, plants that store water in their leaves and stems (succulents and cacti) tend to perform better than those that don’t. However, it’s best to avoid succulent plants that grow in milder coastal conditions, as those can rot during summer’s high nighttime temperatures. Good selections for low-desert areas include the vividly colored golden barrel cactus, as well as fishhook barrel cactus. For succulents, the red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora), pictured at the top of the story, is a good candidate. And many agaves work well, such as the artichoke agave (Agave parryi truncata) pictured at right.
Think about bean trees. Legumes, or trees with bean pods, are good choices for desert gardens. They tend to have stellar drought resistance, and most also fix nitrogen in our poor soils. Try palo verde, mesquite, ironwood, and acacia trees. Palo verde and mesquite have spreading umbrella-shape canopies that cast pleasant filtered shade. Popular selections include ‘Desert Museum’ palo verde and South American hybrid mesquite trees (sometimes labeled “Chilean” mesquites); plus Texas honey mesquite, such as the one pictured right.
Employ workhorse shrubs. Woody shrubs comprise some of the best plants for harsh desert climates, providing screening and flashy flowers. Texas ranger blooms in shades of rose, white, blue, and purple when summer moisture is on the rise, typically following monsoon storms. Favorites include compact ranger (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Compacta’), which is a dwarf variety; or Chihuahuan sage (Leuchophyllum laevigatum), which sports fragrant lavender flowers.
Mix in containers with annuals. If the plant types mentioned above aren’t lush enough for your tastes, try incorporating some of your favorite annuals in containers (like the ones pictured right) to add more greenery or color.
Take a big step toward ensuring success in your garden. Stick with plants that are well adapted to your region’s climate.Learn More