The hot, dry summers of Arizona can be a challenge for gardeners in the southwest. However, when you choose drought-tolerant plants, you can enjoy a gorgeous garden all-year-round. And what's more, drought-tolerant plants are usually easy-care, so you can spend more time enjoying your garden without the backbreaking labor.
Fortunately, the enormous amount of diversity in drought-resistant plants means that Arizona gardeners have many choices when creating beautiful and unique gardens. Here are a few of our favorite picks and how they can help complement your garden.
Thornless Palo Verdes
Thornless Palo Verdes hybrids explode in splashes of brilliant yellow across Arizona gardens at the onset of spring. Canopies are lush and green, making them an excellent shade tree. They are very popular for landscaping and provide ample nesting opportunities for birds. Flowers are abundant during spring, but will still show up on occasion through the summer months.
Thornless Palo Verdes don't need watering after a year, other than a light spritzing during summer. On the contrary, too much water will kill the tree. Control the growth and size of established trees by weaning them off regular irrigation so you can enjoy one of the most versatile and colorful desert trees available all year round.
Their blue-green bark is unique in that the tree can carry on photosynthesis even when no leaves are present.
Desert Willow (chilopsis linearis)
Desert willows are fast-growing and can reach 24 feet in less than a year. They are a multi-trunked tree featuring glossy-green willow-like foliage and trumpet-shaped flowers that grow in clusters on the branch tips. The drooping, thin, leaves can grow up to 12-inches long.
They are a native of the southwestern United States and Northern Mexico and mostly found in dry washes between 1500 and 5000 feet. Flower colors range in white, pink, and violet shades, but all have a yellow throat. Because they grow so prolifically from dropped seed pods, the desert willow is considered invasive in some areas of Arizona.
Hummingbirds will frequent the fragrant orchid-like flowers. The tree is deciduous and will reveal an interesting branch structure during winter. Plant desert willows on the western and southern exposures wherever a little more shade is required for humans, or other plants like Mexican honeysuckle.
Fairy Duster (calliandra)
Fairy dusters get their name from the beautifully tufted furry blooms that can range in shades from deep reds to pale pink and white hues. The flowers create a striking contrast against the dense ferny leaves and attract a wide range of bird species, including hummingbirds, wrens, and finches.
The plants will do well against western facing walls that receive the hot afternoon sun; otherwise, plant in areas that receive full sun all day to get the best blooms. Pruning requirements are minimal and they are extremely drought tolerant. Frost can damage them, but they will typically recover quite quickly.
Caesalpinia varieties are a fantastic option for creating a spring to fall landscape that is awash with color. Large, brightly colored flowers will brighten your garden for a long time with fiery reds, oranges, and yellows.
Desert Bird of Paradise
Large clusters of yellow flowers featuring long red stamens and medium-sized green leaflets supported by a slender trunk are perfect for adding a spot of color in the desert landscape.
Red Bird of Paradise
Showy orange and yellow clusters of flowers with exotic looking long red stamens create a vibrant display from spring to fall. Plants will perform best in moist, well-drained soils and are great options for borders and hedges. Prune heavily during winter and you will be rewarded with new growth in the spring, while also keeping the plant's form tidy and compact.
Hummingbirds and butterflies will be familiar visitors when you have a few birds of paradise plants scattered around. Once established, the red bird of paradise becomes very drought tolerant. You will also extend the blooming period if you water heavily every two weeks.
Texas Sage (salvia)
Texas sage is a native of the Chihuahuan desert. It's a dense woody shrub that can grow to 6 feet, with the same distance in the spread. The plant performs well in high heat and cold desert temperatures and produces beautiful purple flowers. The foliage isn't the most pleasing to the eye, but wildlife and birds are attracted to the dense shrubbery's protection. Pruning the plant in early spring will produce the most flowers and extra irrigation may be needed for young plants.
You can add a lot of color to your desert garden by sprinkling it with different species of daleas. Plant them in a sunny, well-drained dry location. Daleas are very drought hardy, and you won't need much in the way of supplemental irrigation. A row of daleas will create an attractive hedge or natural border and make an excellent ground cover option. Match them up with fairy duster, sweet acacia, blue Palo Verde, brittlebush, and sage. Encourage new growth with a light trim or cutting back every two or three years in the fall to early spring.
Black daleas have finely textured silver tinted foliage and tiny purple flowers when blooming in late winter.
Trailing dalia features tiny gray-green leaves and grows to 18-inches, producing a delicate lavender flower. It also works well for erosion control on sloping ground. Bush daleas deliver a proliferation of violet flowers, all bunched together in heavy heads.
The Saguaro cactus flower is the state flower of Arizona. The cactus is very long-lived and a slow grower. Lateral stems growing off the main trunk can take up to 75 years before the first one appears. Some Saguaro cactus found in the desert are around 175 years old.
Most Arizona gardeners will inherit the cactus when buying a new home or building on land with already established plants because of its slow growth.
Saguaros only grow in areas where temperatures never reach freezing point. Use low water levels when caring for your Saguaro cactus and let the soil dry completely between watering.
Purple Prickly Pear
Prickly pears are a fast-growing cactus that can withstand the hottest areas of your garden. Notable features of the purple prickly pear include flat, thick pads covered in spines.
The spines are detachable, which means they may not be suitable for all gardens. The plant doesn't do very well in freezing temperatures. Plant prickly pears away from main thoroughfares where they may become a hazard. Irrigate new plants every three weeks until established. Once established, prickly pears will happily survive on rainfall alone.
Agave leaves radiate out from a central stem. The plants thrive in desert climates, especially Mexico, but are also popular in most of the south/southwest USA. Plant agave in areas of full sun and gritty soil that drains well. Watering requirements are low to moderate, but make sure the ground has time to dry between watering fully.
Banana yucca are known for and get their name from the sweet, fleshy seedpods that resemble short, fat, green bananas. Most other yucca species produce dry, hard fruits. The plants are evergreen and create beautiful flowers come spring. They make excellent barrier plants because of the needle-sharp leaf tips.
All varieties of muhlenbergia are clumping and non-invasive, and with 125 different species, there are lots of opportunities to accent your garden with varying shades. Pink muhly has striking feathery, soft pink flowers and becomes semi-dormant in the winter. The plant doesn't seed, but you can easily create more by dividing mature clumps during early spring.
The pale blue-green of the lindheimer muhly make perfect accents to poolside areas or as a surrounding border around a tree trunk. Plant lindheimer in rocky, calcareous soils or heavy clay. Flowers reach over 2 feet tall and are a golden amber color during the fall, which give way to silvery-gray foliage when mature. The flowers are often used as a stunning addition to floral arrangements.
Deer grass grows in the bottom of mountain washes in the oak/juniper belt and is one of Arizona's favorite decorative grasses. It loves full sun or partial shade and has very moderate water needs, making it exceptionally low maintenance. Depending on how much water the plant receives, it generally grows from 3 to 4 feet tall.
Tall, thin, creamy colored flower spikes bloom during late summer, which looks fantastic when plants are grouped. Once the plant is established, watering requirements are minimal, and it will do fine in rocky, alkaline, and poor soils, providing there is adequate drainage. Use deer grass as an attractive feature around cacti, water features, or to soften border edges.
Over eons of agriculture, gardeners have learned that different species of plants benefit each other when planted close together. Despite centuries of anecdotal evidence, many skeptics in the gardening community still dispute the value of companion planting and use the lack of laboratory testing to back up their claims.
The world would be a lifeless husk if we didn't have insects, birds, and other animals to help maintain the ecological balance. Still, that doesn't mean we should let insects have their run of the garden or provide a buffet for the local rabbit population and birdlife. As gardeners, we will always have pests eyeing our hard work as a potential meal, but the goal should be control rather than eradication.
With the COVID-19 pandemic maintaining its grip on the planet, more people are staying at home. An interesting side-effect of a house-bound populace is a sudden surge in interest for gardening. Maintaining a garden at home is one thing. However, gardening is not always a solitary activity - neighbors often share gardening space while others head off to the community garden with friends.