Arizona succulent color garden

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)

Desert garden with purple opuntia, Rich Zeh (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Know the three main forms of cacti: columnar, paddle and spherical. Discerning homeowners and designers consider them living sculptures.

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.

Columnar cacti and yuccas at the Desert Botanical Garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Columnar cacti and yuccas at the Desert Botanical Garden

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 schotii 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.

Palo verde tree (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

"Palo verde" refers to the trees' green bark

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.)

Dyckia in black pot with cacti (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Rich also recommends dyckias, which he says are "good spreaders and can take full sun if watered."

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.”

Astrophytum myriostigma, Rich Zeh photo

Astrophytum myriostigma, Rich Zeh photo

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.

Dasylirion longissimum (Mexican Grass Tree) (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Dasylirion longissimum (Mexican Grass Tree)

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.

Agave parryi 'Truncata' in a Phoenix garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Agave parryi 'Truncata' thrives in dappled shade, and stays manageable at about 3 feet in diameter.


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.

Agave americana 'Marginata' with orange mallow and other spring flowers at the Desert Botanical Garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Agave americana 'Marginata' with mallow and other spring flowers

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.

White bougainvillea on white wall (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Isn’t this white variety of bougainvillea lovely against a white wall?

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.

Pink muhly grass has amazing color, texture and breeze-blown motion.

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.

Steel trough planter in Paradise Valley, AZ (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

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.

Entry pot with totem pole cacti in Phoenix (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

I love the diamond texture on this pot...and its color.

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)

Spray misters in a Phoenix garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Doesn't this look dreamy? Misting systems are also supremely practical.

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.

Shadows in an enclosed desert vegetable garden

I didn't want to leave this garden because of the shadows.

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. 

Astroturf putting green in Phoenix (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

This "lawn" doubles as a putting green.

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.

Turquoise pool with waterfall in Phoenix (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Turquoise tiles mirror the sky and resemble blue ocean water near a white-sand beach.

Phoenix Home & Garden Editor John Roark with garden photojournalist and author Debra Lee Baldwin

Speaking of turquoise, Phoenix Home & Garden editor John Roark and I matched the pool. Photo: Lori Johnson

Related Info on This Site

Tephrocactus geometricus (c) Rich Zeh

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.

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Debra Lee Baldwin, Woody Woodruff (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

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.

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Janet Orr in her garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

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.

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Enjoyed this article? Please share it!


  1. Michele S. on March 31, 2023 at 9:48 pm

    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!).

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on April 6, 2023 at 3:46 pm

      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!

      • Michele S. on April 7, 2023 at 11:58 am

        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.

  2. Debra Lee Baldwin on April 6, 2023 at 4:44 pm

    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.
    Thank you
    (Name withheld by request)
    Docent at DBG
    UA master gardener
    Certified landscape design consultant<<

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