Wondering what plants can survive an Arizona summer? These garden pros have tips for you

·5 min read

While water may seem like the most essential component for the success of a yard or garden, there are many ways to create and maintain a low-maintenance desert landscape without using too much of this resource.

Lots of native, desert-adapted and drought-tolerant plants thrive in the high temperatures and arid conditions of metro Phoenix while still making your landscape look lush.

The Arizona Republic talked to Tina Wilson, senior director of horticulture at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, and Alex Washburn, general manager at Dig It Gardens in Phoenix, a landscape design and build studio that sells a variety of plant species and provides horticultural knowledge.

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Wilson said people shouldn’t necessarily ask, "What are the most drought-tolerant plants?" but rather think about what kinds of plants have adapted to this climate and are native.

Choosing plants that can thrive in desert heat and are not invasive will minimize land modification to accommodate them and lessen excess watering.

Tina Wilson senior director of horticulture at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix poses for a photo.
Tina Wilson senior director of horticulture at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix poses for a photo.

“One thing that we really appreciate in the desert are our succulents, like our cactus, our agave, because those plants have adapted to be able to store the resources — the water and the moisture — to be able to be heat resistant,” Wilson said.

When you are thinking about buying these kinds of plants, Washburn says it's important to know whether they have been adapted to desert conditions.

“A lot of the time, purchasing a plant right out of the nursery, that plant has yet to go through all of the native conditions because they were nursed in some way," Washburn said.

"So as far as drought tolerance, find native plants or things that are growing naturally here and in the desert. Those genetically are going to have the best chance of becoming that drought-tolerant plant."

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Wilson encourages people to think about designing their landscapes with a combination of native and desert-adapted plants.

A prickly pear cactus at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix with a bright yellow flower.
A prickly pear cactus at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix with a bright yellow flower.

“When you use native plants or desert-adapted plants, you're setting yourself up for success and your yard up for success because these plants have adapted to use less water because they know the environment they're living in. They're able to withstand the heat," Wilson said.

“I think that's sometimes the hard thing. People are looking for those lush summer gardens. You can have those, but they just have the desert twist on them.”

Here are some common plants that do well with full sun and low water:

  • Cactus: Opuntias, prickly pears.

  • Agaves: Black-spined agave, Harvard agave.

  • Shrubs: San Marcos hibiscus, hopbush, creosote.

  • Perennial:  Yucca varieties.

  • Trees: Mesquite, paloverde.

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Among the plants that Dig It Gardens carries this time of the year are eremophila varieties.

“We've been doing a lot of different eremophila varieties. They're Australian and native, but they translate to our climate really well because we're essentially a mirror climate of different parts of Australia," he said.

For flowers and lush shrubs that can survive the Arizona heat, try these:

  • Perennial: Chrysactinia Mexicana, bluebells.

  • Vine Yellow orchid vine.

  • Small shrub: Globemallow, pink fairy duster, red fairy duster, brittle bush.

  • Large shrub: Ocotillo varieties.

Aside from providing a variety of colors, tones and textures to your garden, Washburn said these plants also attract different pollinators, which can help native plants to pop up naturally in your garden, especially after the monsoon.

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Drip irrigation pros and cons

When people call the Desert Botanical Garden asking for help with their gardens, Wilson said one of the first questions a staffer asks them is, "What's your watering schedule?"

“The first thing we usually find out is that they're overwatering,” Wilson said. “And then what happens is you have too much water in the plant, and it can't hold it all. Or if it's like a desert tree, it's still too much water and you end up creating rot and then the plant dies.”

Sunflowers and other summer flora give the Desert Botanical Garden a nice pop of color.
Sunflowers and other summer flora give the Desert Botanical Garden a nice pop of color.

The garden promotes drip irrigation, which delivers water and nutrients precisely where they're needed on a specific schedule.

“We recommend this as opposed standing in your yard with a hose and just trying to get where you can," Wilson said. “Because a lot of that we lose to evaporation.”

Wilson said drip irrigation can be costly to install, depending on the size of the area being watered, but you'll reduce the amount of water you're using because it's precisely timed and targeted, and you'll probably lose fewer plants to over- or underwatering.

"Around 70% of an individual's water use is used to care for your garden," Wilson said.  "So if you can reduce that by having the right plants with the right watering system and watering at the right time of day. That can substantially reduce your water usage."

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Want to increase your horticulture skills?

The Desert Botanical Garden's Desert Landscape School offers a wide range of free and fee-based courses. You can take free online classes such as "How to Water" or "5 Tips for Growing Houseplants."

Among the paid courses are "Desert Plant Palette" and "Introduction to Sustainable Desert Landscapes." You can even enroll in a 10-week comprehensive course at the garden.

The garden is at 1201 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix. Fees for paid classes are $30-$500. See the catalog at https://desertlandscapeschool.org.

You can also learn about desert gardening at DBG’s plant sale every fall and spring. It's typically held in October and March. The plant sale offers vegetables and herbs, trees, shrubs, cactus, succulents and more. Check the website for dates and special members-only hours.

Contact Dig It Gardens with all your landscaping questions. You can call the plant hotline at 602-812-7476 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily or email hello@digphx.com. If you would like to shop or ask your questions in person, Dig It Gardens is at 3015 N. 16th St., Phoenix.

You can connect with Arizona Republic Culture and Outdoors Reporter Shanti Lerner through email at shanti.lerner@gannett.com  or you can also follow her on Twitter

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: What grows in full sun in Arizona? Drought-resistant plants to try