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Desert Gardening: Stretch Seasonal Interest

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

With its long warm season, the desert lets gardeners stretch bloom times from February through November. Here are favorite picks for lasting garden interest.

Ocotillo, with its red blooms, is one of the best early-spring accent plants.

By Scott Calhoun

Desert Seasons

Some say the desert has five seasons: spring, fore-summer, monsoon, fall, and winter. That sounds about right. Those two seasons that are different—fore-summer and monsoon—set our climate apart. With a little thought selecting plants, gardeners can have something blooming nearly every month.

Early-Season Stars

In mid- to late February a few plants begin to show color. Flowers of ocotillo (photo above) draw hummingbirds, and wildflowers begin a dazzling display. Below are some plants to consider for February through early April. Plan ahead and plant these in fall:

  • Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), accent plant
  • Desert bluebells (Phacelia campanularia), wildflower from seed
  • Valentine emu bush (Eremophila maculate ‘Valentine’), evergreen shrub
  • Shrubby germander (Teucrium fruticans), evergreen shrub
  • Mexican gold poppy (Eschscholtzia mexicana), wildflower from seed
  • Parry’s penstemon (Penstemon parryi), perennial wildflower
  • Firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatoni), perennial wildflower
  • Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), perennial wildflower
Yellow bells keep blooming even as the heat ramps up.

Spring Through the Dry Fore-Summer

A wealth of desert plants strut their stuff in April and May. But when temperatures consistently soar over 100°F in June, the dry fore-summer has arrived and many plants go dormant until monsoon rains begin. The plants below are some of the best performers for this harsh time of year:

  • Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora), succulent
  • Mexican bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima), deciduous shrub
  • Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis), deciduous small tree
  • Sundrops (Calylophus hartwegii), perennial ground cover
  • Lantana (Lantana spp.), many varieties, ground cover or shrub
  • Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus drummondi), perennial
  • Yellow bells (Tecoma stans), deciduous shrub, pictured right
Texas ranger in full monsoon bloom.

Monsoon Favorites

Beginning at the end of June and stretching into September, monsoon season brings much appreciated rain and is a sort of a secret second season for gardening. The plants below love the heat and humidity associated with the season and put on a show:

  • Little-leaf cordia (Cordia parvifolia), semi-evergreen shrub
  • Fishhook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii), accent
  • Queen’s wreath (Antigonon leptopus), vine
  • Wooly butterfly bush (Buddleia marrubifolia), evergreen shrub
  • Desert senna (Senna covesii), wildflower by seed
  • Sacred datura (Datura wrightii), perennial
  • Texas ranger (Leucophyllum frutescens), evergreen shrub, pictured right
Ripening pomegranate with yellow fall leaves.

Fall Favorites

As monsoon storm activity decreases and nighttime temperatures cool off, fall is here. It is the season for ornamental grasses, some sages and a few deciduous trees with fall color. Below are some surefire winners for fall:

  • Autumn sage (Salvia greggii), perennial
  • Regal Mist muhlenbergia (Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Regal Mist’), ornamental grass
  • Side-oats grama (Fraxinus velutina), ornamental grass
  • Arizona ash (Fraxinus velutina), deciduous tree
  • Chinese pistache (Pistachia chinensis), deciduous tree
  • Pomegranate (Punica granatum), deciduous tree, pictured right
Purple prickly pear following a rare winter snowstorm.

Winter

Winter in the desert, with colder low temperatures than you might think, is when most plants are dormant. There are however, plants with lots of winter interest. To add appeal, consider using succulents, such as agave plants and prickly pear cactus (see photo right), and citrus. Citrus fruit from many varieties ripens over the cool months and adds a festive feel to holiday gardens.

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