5 Common Desert Gardening Challenges (and How to Overcome Them)
Gardening in the Southwest comes with numerous challenges, but that doesn’t make it an impossible task. For example, what kind of plants will stand against the harsh climate, and how do you optimize watering for the desert soil?
Combating the dryness, heat, sun and wind sounds like a hassle, but the simple tips below are an excellent ways to have successful harvests and a gorgeous garden.
Continue reading and find out what are the most common gardening challenges of gardeners in the arid Southwest and how to overcome them.
Challenge #1: The Soil’s pH Value
Due to the lack of rain and abundant calcium carbonate, the soil pH levels in the Southwest are generally quite alkaline, with the pH value between 7 and 8.5. Water is very scarce in this part of the country—very low or even nonexistent for some time during the year.
Native plants are already adapted to these conditions, but alkaline soils aren’t as welcoming to trees, plants and crops you would like to grow in your garden.
Most plants thrive in soils with a slightly acidic, neutral or slightly alkaline pH of 6 to 7.5. The soil pH value is essential because it determines the type of nutrients available for your garden—and whether the plants will reach those nutrients and process them. For example, alkaline soils lack copper, zinc, manganese, iron and phosphorus, all of which the plants need for crucial functions and growth.
Test your garden soil, and treat it accordingly
Testing the garden soil is important for knowing which plants, vegetables or fruits will flourish in the garden and how to amend it. The two testing options include an at-home kit or bringing a soil sample to a nearby university extension office. You can also get at-home kits in garden centers. They’re very straightforward to use, but the results might not be as accurate, as with professional testing.
The next step after getting the analysis is learning how to enrich the soil and improve its fertility. In other words, you’ll find out what the soil is missing and how to amend it appropriately.
There are several ways to approach the problem when dealing with alkaline soil. If the analysis shows that the soil is missing iron, the three best ways to deal with the deficiency are sulfur, aluminum sulfate or chelated iron for the foliage. If the results show a lack of zinc, you can optimize the soil with zinc sulfate.
Challenge #2: Extreme Temperatures—Learn When and How to Water
The biggest challenge for desert gardeners is extreme temperatures that can go over 110 degrees, drought—and watering problems. This is why you have to use the water wisely.
Water plants early in the morning
Water is so essential for your garden’s growth, but when should you water it? The early morning hours are the best, since high sun exposure leads to water loss. This tip is especially important during summer. In addition, gardeners in extremely dry states tend to water their gardens at night, as well, to minimize the water loss due to the heat. Also, you want to reduce any potential water wastage while watering your plants.
You can also avoid water wastage by using retractable hose reels with leak-free fittings. These kinds of hoses can help you save time and effort while watering, since you can access your hose with one simple pull.
This means less bending down, carrying, unwinding, detangling and connecting hoses in the extreme heat—and more time enjoying the garden.
Invest in a drip irrigation system
The most important thing to keep in mind is to optimize the water your plants receive via their root area. Since the Southwest tends to be extremely dry, you need a system that’s easy to use and will preserve water.
Drip irrigation systems are an excellent investment, considering they apply the water right around the plant to reach the roots easily. However, before purchasing a hose, remember to get familiar with the garden hose flow rate because a quality product will ensure that your plants get the right amount of water, which means life for the garden.
Another great tip to maximize the amount of water in your garden is applying mulch on the ground. This will keep water from evaporating and protect the ground from direct sun. You will want to use organic mulch, since it can significantly improve soil structure.
For example, when grass clipping, wood chips and straw decompose, it adds nutrients to the soil, making it more fertile.
Challenge #3: Choosing the Right Plants
Don’t experiment with seeds that are not suitable for the arid climate in your area. Depending on the location, the Southwest states fall between zones 7 and 10, according to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.
These areas might not face pest problems as often, but they struggle with arid conditions. That’s why gardening enthusiasts should opt for native plants and crops adapted to water scarcity and dry, infertile soil.
Top crops for the Southwest region
Despite the arid conditions, the Southwest offers a diverse selection of crops you can plant, including:
Green beans: Plant green beans during spring and fall. The best months are either between August and September or February through April.
Peppers: Peppers are suitable for desert gardens, as long as you plant them between November and March. Chili peppers are adapted to the dry, hot conditions. Sow the seeds during late winter or early spring.
Leafy greens: Spinach, broccoli and lettuce are sensitive to the hot and dry climate, but if you decide to plant them, do so during late fall.
Tomatoes: Tomatoes are another gentle fruit that requires special care. It’s best to plant them between January and April; however, you can plant tomatoes a bit earlier if your desert garden is located at a lower altitude.
Berries: Only gardeners in certain Texas, Arizona and California regions should go for berries. If the weather in your area is too hot or dry, you should stay away from them.
Top plants for the Southwest region
These native, drought-resistant, and drought-tolerant plants are the best choices for desert gardening:
Cacti, succulents, juniper, mugo pine, daphne and barbary fig can all stand the heat and survive with limited water supplies.
Gorgeous bloomers like verbena, petunias, marigolds and salvias don’t mind the hot climate, so they can easily enhance the appearance of your garden.
Native plants such as California poppy, Tetraneuris, yellow columbine and autumn sage are adapted to the dry climate, are low-maintenance and look beautiful.
Challenge #4: Extreme Sun, Wind and Heat—Protect Your Plants
Direct sun exposure, wind and dry weather conditions aren’t welcoming for plants and crops. An excellent way to shield your garden from the sun is by pairing the plants properly.
Use high-growing plants to cover the low plants and protect them from both sun and wind. They will also serve as protection against common pests in the garden. You should also think of trees such as ironwood, palo verde, desert willow, etc. Alternatively, protect your garden with shade cloths.
The following enemy to shield your plants from is the strong wind. With the high heat, winds can make water dry up faster before your plants even get to it. That’s why you should consider creating a barrier against the wind.
This can be any kind of windbreak, including a fence, pallets, straw bales, etc. Whichever method you use, it should be strong, placed around the garden and pose a barrier between the wind and plants. Supporting the plants is another idea, but it might not be secure against strong winds.
Challenge #5: How to Landscape a Desert Garden
Everyone wants the perfect-looking garden, but should it come at the cost of pairing plants that don’t work well together or adding rocks just to enhance the appearance? Here are a few ways to create the best landscape for your desert oasis:
Xeriscaping is the perfect landscaping idea for dry, hot climates. This technique includes the plant species xerophytes (succulents, cacti, barbary fig, pineapple, gum arabic tree, etc.). The drought-tolerant plants are excellent for the Southwest and will help you save water and achieve a precious-looking garden.
Be careful with rocks
Rocks and stones are a recognizable part of desert landscaping, but you should be careful with their placement and do not overdo it. The problem with rocks is that they tend to overheat under heavy sun exposure, which can negatively influence your plants’ health, especially the ones planted right next to the stones and rocks.
Group the right plants
Group the plants depending on their need for water. The ones that require careful and more frequent watering should be in one area, and the ones that can survive without water should be in a different area of your garden.
Make sure to create low areas with trees since they require more water than perennials. The low placement means that your garden trees will get the extra water from surrounding areas.
Gardening in the Southwest poses many challenges. Gardeners are faced with very dry soils that form in arid environments, where water content is very low or even nonexistent.
However, if you’re willing to learn, you can overcome those challenges and enjoy gardening. You can plant native plants to decorate your exterior space and enjoy the outdoors; with a little bit of knowledge you can also grow your own food.
By investing your time in your edible garden, you will be enjoying healthy, organic, homegrown vegetables and also attract birds, butterflies and other beautiful animals to your yard, making it even more enjoyable.
Of course, you should stay away from water-loving species such as aspen, purple-leaf plums, iris, swamp sunflower and queen palm and go for native and desert-friendly plants.
Annie Morton is an avid nature lover from rural Australia. After some international adventures, she has settled in New York City.