Starting a New Life in Our Glorious Desert Garden…

We have a yard, now what?

LESSON#1: What type of garden do you want?

You can create a garden as lush as the ones found in more temperate climates. The trade-off is your time and water. How much do you want to baby your garden? How much time and money are you willing to invest regularly?

If you want to spend at least part of your time outside of the garden, consider the xeriscape models. Xeriscaping is landscaping and gardening that conserves water and chooses drought resistant plants. It is a good alternative to traditional gardening in Arizona. Many people assume these types of landscapes are ugly or limiting, but that doesn’t have to the case. If you long for the green grass and lush foliage of cooler climates, consider a combination of desert and traditional gardening to strike the balance you are looking for.

LESSON 2: Make a plan

Take your time to develop a plan for the type of garden and landscaping you want. You can get an overall plan design from a local landscaper if you have difficulty visualizing what the garden should look like. Check with your homeowner’s association CC&R to determine if there are any planting restrictions for your neighborhood. The plan will guide you through your landscaping process. It can keep you focused when you find something wonderful (but not in the plan) at the nursery or in your neighbor’s yard. It can help you avoid expensive mistakes. Think long term and develop your garden in stages over time. Remember, this is your little piece of heaven, where you will go to enjoy the beautiful weather and relax. Take your time to make it what you want.

LESSON 3: Plant the trees first!

the trees

One of the most important considerations in enjoying your Arizona garden is to provide adequate shade. If you don’t have any trees on your property or if you need more shade than you currently have, invest the money in larger trees and have them professionally planted. Snowbirds and retirees don’t have time to wait for smaller trees to mature. You want to enjoy your garden as soon as you can. Larger, more established trees will have a better chance to survive the planting process. Put your money here and save on shrubs and smaller plantings. It’s good to get the advice of a professional when planting the trees. Don’t plant them too close to foundation walls, retaining or privacy walls or piping and irrigation systems. As the plants root system expands, it can damage these structures.

Consider the tree’s form and make sure it’s suited to the location and space available. Trees shapes vary: upright, open; wide-crown; rounded-crown; shrublike; vase shaped.

Trees we had good luck with:


  • Chaste Tree: Temperature:15 degrees Fahrenheit-Light: Full to partial sun-Water: moderate watering-Growth: Moderate 20x20-Shape:shrublike
  • Evergreen Elm: Temperature: 20 degrees Fahrenheit-Light: Full sun-Water: Moderate watering-Growth: Fast 35x35-Shape: Umbrellalike
  • Live Oak: Temperature: 0 degrees Fahrenheit-Light: Full sun-Water: Moderate-Growth:Moderate 40x50-Shape: Wide crown.
  • Texas Honey Mesquite: Temperature: 0 degrees Fahrenheit-Light: Full sun-Water: Low-Growth: Fast 30x30-Shape: Wide crown.
  • A deciduous tree – it will lose its foliage during the winter. Chaste trees have beautiful lavender spikes. No thorns, moderate litter, seeds can be hazardous on sidewalks.
  • Elms are Semi-evergreen so they have some foliage year round. The leaves are dark green and it creates a beautiful moderated umbrella effect. The bark is interesting. No thorns, some litter, works well with lawns.
  • Oak trees are “semi-evergreen” meaning they have some foliage all year round. The leaves are dark green and it has a beautiful thick crown. No thorns, allergenic, works well with lawns.
  • The leaves have a fine texture, Deciduous; Large thorns, seasonal litter; pale yellow flowers in spring.

LESSON 4: Do you want Winter Grass or Summer Grass?

Bermuda grass tolerates Arizona’s extreme temperatures, but is dormant during Arizona winter months. To have a green lawn all year round, you will have to plant winter rye grass. It’s usually planted in October. Wait until evening temps are around 60 degrees Fahrenheit before planting.

Bermuda Grass

Cut back the summer grass and thin it to create room for the new grass. Overseeding – the term used for planting rye grass in the winter because you are planting rye seed over the existing Bermuda.

Don’t worry about the Bermuda (summer) grass. The Bermuda will awaken from its beauty sleep in late April or May. Rye grass will die in early May when temps reach 100. Stop watering the grass to let it die out for a couple of weeks, and then begin watering again to help the Bermuda grass come back.

You can plant summer (Bermuda) grass for the first time from seed, but the easiest way to have a great looking lawn is to lay sod. Remember, snowbirds and retirees want to enjoy their garden. Plant sod to get the results you want quickly.

Some people skip the winter rye grass to save on water and the extra effort of seeding another lawn. The choice is yours, dear gardener.

WATERING - Your lawn needs Deep Roots

If you water frequently, but for shorter periods, it’s like giving your grass a sip of water. Grass needs a deep soaking to develop deep roots. Water it less often, but for longer periods.

The water should seep into the soil about a foot each time. Run the sprinklers and insert a screwdriver 12 inches into the ground. It will stop when it hits dry soil.

1-2-3 Rule

Water small plants such as groundcover and annuals to a depth of 1 foot

Medium plants like shrubs to 2 feet

Large plants like trees to 3 feet.

Instead of watering daily, water only every 3 to 4 days or once a week until temperatures hit triple digits.

Lesson 5: Xeriscape is not Zena the Warrior’s Sister

Xeriscaping is landscaping and gardening that conserves water and chooses drought resistant plants. The term comes from the Greek word xeros which means dry. The idea is to create a landscape that is in tune with the local environment and its climate. The savings you gain from reduced water consumption will show on your monthly bill and with the extra time you have from not mowing the lawn, you can play a round of golf on somebody else’s lawn!

If there is no grass, you will need some type of mulch in its place. Mulches cover the soil and reduce evaporation. They cool the soil and inhibit weeds and erosion.

  • Organic mulches – bark chips and wood grindings
  • Inorganic mulches- decomposed granite and crushed rock

Pros and Cons of Ground Covers:

Minimal Maintenance. Rock-based ground covers don’t need frequent replacing, not easily blown away by wind or disturbed by your pets.

ground covers

They don’t decompose so they last much longer than other types of ground covers. Wood chips and bark chips will fade over time and will require replacing more often.

More Durable: Gravel and other rock types stand up to heavy use. Choose the size of the rock based on how much traffic it will encounter. If people will be walking on it frequently, pea gravel is easier to traverse. It’s no fun scrambling over chunky rocks in your flipflops.

Bugs: As organic mulches like wood chips decompose, they attract different insects, especially Termites which are a problem in Arizona.

Sink into the Soil: Rocks are heavier than the soil they are covering. They will sink over time and can interfere with the soil.

Flying Rocks: Be careful mowing the grass near areas with stone-based covers. The lawn mower or trimmer can catch on the rocks and send them flying through the air.

Rising Temperatures: Stones absorb and retain heat which they then release as the sun goes down. They also reflect heat off of their exposed surfaces. They can raise temperatures in the area and make the house hot.

No Nutrients: Inorganic mulches don’t improve the soil like decomposing mulches do.

Lesson 6 “I had no idea it would get this big!”

beautiful blooms

Before planting anything, consider how big it will be when mature. Although we live in the Sonoran desert, once water is available, we actually have two growing seasons. If you water your plants correctly, you will be amazed at how fast they grow. That small flowering plant or bush you picked up at the nursery can easily begin to outgrow its neighbors and start grasping more territory like a greedy land baron. Carefully consider how much water and fertilizer you are using. You may overfeed your plants to get beautiful blooms, but rapid growth also means more time spent trimming and pruning.

Fruit Trees:

We love our lemon tree but you have to accept more watering, pesticides and pruning. There can be the problem of what to do with all of the extra fruit you can’t eat. Some HOAs don’t allow fruit trees so check your CC&Rs. Dwarf fruit trees still produce a lot of fruit but are easier to manage in the garden.

LESSON 7: Just because it’s SOLD LOCALLY doesn’t mean it will GROW LOCALLY

For many transplants and snowbirds, landscaping in this new climate can be challenging. It’s natural to look for plants and flowers from “back home” when shopping. Many will not last in Arizona’s hot summers. It doesn’t help that these plants are sold in local nurseries as well as the big box DIY stores. The plants are shipped in from out of state and can’t survive very long in this climate.

LESSON 8: Caliche is not the Queen of the Dragons.

Arizona soil is composed of a sedimentary rock known as “caliche”. It is very hard and doesn’t retain moisture. It has to be dealt with if you want anything to grow. You will have to loosen the soil before you can start digging. Soak the soil for 1-2 days before starting to dig. Otherwise, you will be chipping away at what seems like concrete. Always dig a bigger hole than you think you will need for planting. You will have to fill the hole with potting soil mix or your plants won’t grow.

LESSON 9: Even “hardy” plants need babying at first.

Although the plant description says, “hardy” and “drought-tolerant”, it’s still a baby when you plant it. It’s gone through a shock being transported and planted and will need extra TLC to get it established. Some plants can take up to a year before their root system is established and only then will they really begin to flower. Be patient and treat the newbies in our garden with care.

garden with care

LESSON 10: Don’t plant “cactus with cosmos”.

When planting your garden, make sure your different residents can live peacefully as neighbors. Cactus and Succulents can’t tolerate too much water – their roots will turn mushy. If you are planting flowers or bushes nearby that need frequent watering – someone will lose the battle. The loser will be YOU, the gardener as your beautiful plants, chosen with so much care turn brown and die. The same applies to irrigation systems for lawns or other water-thirsty plants that might encroach on your desert plants’ territory. Too much water will kill them.


LESSON 11: Sunlight matters just as much as water

Don’t plant your sun-loving babies next to those crying for shade. Be aware of how much sunlight each plant can handle.

LESSON 12: Plants let you know when they are sick.

If your plants lack water or nutrients, they become prime targets for infestation by bugs. You have to feed them and fertilize them regularly.