Great Plants and Ideas from Arizona Gardens
These tips and ideas inspired by the annual Phoenix Garden Tour are doable throughout the Southwest. What grows effortlessly in Arizona typically fares well in Southern California---except of course for saguaro cactus.
Here, in addition to high-end gardens I've yet to show you, I share Desert Botanical Garden highlights; provide tips for pots, hardscape and water features; and give advice from plant pros---all with the aim of helping you make your own garden more carefree and inviting.
Garden tours are a great way to see plants and innovative garden enhancements. Check the website of Phoenix Home & Garden Magazine for more about the Phoenix tour. Note: Special thanks to editor John Roark who graciously gave me a complimentary ticket.
If you've recently relocated to Arizona, don't try to grow plants from “back home.” Desert landscapes have a limited plant palette. Stick to it, and you’re on your way to a beautiful, regionally appropriate garden.
Update: I blew it on a few of these recommendations. See corrections in red. Apologies! -- DLB
Embrace cacti (well, not literally)
Learn to prize opuntia. There are hundreds of varieties of paddle cactus, ranging in color from pink through shades of green to purple, with every warm flower color. The pads alone have a singular beauty.
Plant columnar cacti. Slender ceroids celebrate simplicity, throw interesting shadows, and need no maintenance.
Grow golden barrels. These spiny yellow spheres make any garden look more upscale and sophisticated. The globes contrast well with large succulents, perennials, walls and hardscape. Plant barrels in multiples and cluster them in big pots.
Collect totem poles. Lophocereus schottii are nonspiny columnar cacti with intriguing lumps and bumps. Like most succulents, they start readily from cuttings. See them in Janet Orr's Paradise Valley garden.
Plant trees ASAP
Trees provide shade for sitting areas and understory plants, add height, texture and greenery, enrich soil with fallen leaves, and bloom beautifully. Phoenix favorites include palo verde, mesquite, Texas ebony, desert willow and Caesalpinia.
Use low-litter trees near pools. Palms are a good choice. Fronds glitter in the sun, produce intriguing sprays of flowers, and sound wonderful in the wind.
Heed Rich Zeh's recommendations
The aloe most often seen in desert gardens is Aloe vera. Aloes are not native to the Americas (rather, to the Old World) and produce showy flower spikes. Most need afternoon shade in dry, hot climates.
In his Paradise Valley garden, succulent collector Rich Zeh grows Aloe brevifolia, which has a mounding, spreading growth habit; Aloe vaombe, a tree aloe from Madagascar with an unbranched trunk; Aloe cryptopoda, Aloe striata x maculata, Aloe dorotheae; and Aloe porphyrostachys from Saudi Arabia---an excellent aloe for the desert. (See photos in my Aloe Gallery.)
Rich cultivates hundreds of different cacti, including one that deserves to be in more gardens: Astrophytum myriostigma. “It does great here,” Rich says. “It loves thin, poor soil and direct all-day sun.”
Use tough native succulents
Discover dasylirions. Also known as desert spoon or sotol, these slender-leaved natives are fountain-shaped, and grow to five or six feet in diameter over time. They’re hardy to zero degrees and are considered succulents because they store moisture in their cores. Dasylirions are easy to overlook, but they’re great gap-fillers, and need very little maintenance.
Add color with hesperaloes, commonly known as brake lights. These thin-leaved succulents do fine in full sun. They’re often planted in Arizona street medians, and look best when massed.
Know how big an agave will get before planting it. Most species offset, producing pups where you may not want them. Case in point: big bold Agave americana, the century plant, which gets six to eight feet tall and as wide.
Add variegated agaves. Striped agaves look amazing planted in multiples. Keep in mind that a variegate’s paler areas, having less pigment, tend to be more sensitive to sunburn than the darker green tissue.
Plant Yucca species. These succulents store moisture in their trunks. They make good garden accents and produce large sprays of cream-colored flowers. My favorite is blue Yucca rostrata (shown above).
Other must-have plants
Grow bougainvillea. Anyone who thinks desert gardens aren’t colorful needs to see all the red bougainvillea in Phoenix. But paler bougainvilleas are stunning too.
Plant Portulacaria afra (elephant’s food) in pots and terraces. It’s one of the best plants for carbon sequestration. In the video I say it handles desert temperature extremes. It does need protection from winter frost. Grow the pendant, solid-green variety in half a day’s shade.
Grow ornamental grasses. Their feathery textures contrast beautifully with walls and heftier plants. Ornamental grasses have a similar shape as dasylirions, but need more water and should be cut nearly to the ground in winter. Some grasses, like the fountain grass shown in the video, are invasive and illegal to cultivate in the Phoenix area.
Pink muhly grass is a favorite of Phoenix landscape consultant and "AZ Plant Lady" Noelle Johnson, author of Dry Climate Gardening (affiliate link). I’ve yet to grow it in my inland Southern California garden. Noelle has convinced me I should.
Add Garden Enhancements
Use planters to define sitting areas. Steel box planters (affiliate link) develop a rust patina and come in a variety of sizes. Note: Keep steel planters shaded in hot summer sun so roots don't cook. Better yet, line the containers with a plastic foam to insulate it, before adding soil and plants.
In those shown here are Russelia equisetiformis, commonly called firecracker plants, that hummingbirds love. Palo verde trees add bright fluffy color and provide a privacy screen.
Add a fountain. Splashing water sparkles, lends motion, and provides wild birds a place to drink and bathe. In urban areas, the sound of dripping water helps drown out neighborhood noise and muffles private conversations.
Use large pots for focal points. Rather than a lot of small pots, which can create clutter, go with a large one. A pot with the right scale and proportion for your entryway, like the one shown here, is a good investment.
Install misters. One highly rated cooling system that costs a paltry $15 on Amazon has 33 feet of outdoor misting line and 11 brass nozzles. It attaches to a standard hose bib and cools the surrounding air temperature by as much as 50 degrees F. (Affiliated link)
Include work by local artists. The finishing touch for your garden is artwork that withstands the elements and delights you. Not to mention it’s fun to explain to visitors how and why you chose it. See my recent video of an artist's succulent garden in Paradise Valley, Az.
Enjoy shadows. Tucked inside this screened vegetable garden is a small metal table and chairs made of wire fashioned into circles. As the sun slowly moves, soothing shadows shift and overlap.
Install artificial turf. Yes, it’s OK. Lawns need too much water and maintenance, yet who doesn’t love the look? A swath of emerald green is soothing and refreshing. Note: Not everyone agrees! See comments below and on the video.
Go with turquoise for your pool. It's better than a dark bottom, which absorbs the sun's heat and raises water temperature. That's great near the coast but can be uncomfortably warm in the desert, especially when temps rise into the 90s and you need your pool the most.
Related Info on This Site
See Rich Zeh’s 30-Year Succulent & Cactus Collection
Rich Zeh has an Aladdin’s trove of cacti and succulents. “I’m pretty much maxed out on space,” he says of his one-acre garden and greenhouse in Paradise Valley (Phoenix) Arizona.
Tour an Arizona Estate Garden
For 15 years majordomo Woody Woodruff has kept everything running smoothly for billionaire homeowners on 7 acres in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, in Paradise Valley NE of Phoenix. His love of his “babies”—thousands of cacti and succulents—is evident, as is his Southern drawl.
Design Ideas from an Arizona Artist’s Garden
Wait ’til you see these desert garden design ideas at Arizona artist Janet’s Orr’s home! Her whimsical outdoor gallery shows her eye for design, skill as a ceramic artist, love of color, and superb succulent savvy.
You lost me when you recommended ‘artificial turf’. That stuff looks like a green plastic rug even from a long distance away. There are a number of low-growing/non-mowing drought tolerant grasses and grass alternatives that would be better choices. I can understand if that owner wanted a putting green, and then it makes sense, but it really does give the look of having a mini-golf course in one’s yard (and the rest of the landscape is so nicely done!).
Hi Michele — I see your point. You’re not the only one who had a problem with this recommendation. Viewer comments about artificial turf on the video have not been as diplomatic as yours!
Well, Debra, my inner voice was probably a bit less ‘diplomatic’ (I’m sure there was screaming) but I didn’t want to be too offensive towards other peoples’ choices. Still, since you do so much to promote the natural beauty of plants, promoting the use of artificial turf to provide ‘a swath of emerald green’ just seemed an off choice.
From a Desert Botanical Garden docent and University of Arizona master gardener:
>>I just watched your Az Video and have 2 concerns:
1. One of the video shows the fountain grass in a large backyard. Fountain grass is considered invasive species in Arizona and may not be sold in any nurseries in our state not a wise plant to promote when it is now illegal to sell.
2. Those of us who appreciate plants in Arizona, and especially in Phoenix, are very concerned about the impact of fake grass on our in our desert. Do you research about what it does to the heat island effect as well as the roots underneath from adjacent plants.
(Name withheld by request)
Docent at DBG
UA master gardener
Certified landscape design consultant<<