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Winter 2023 Garden Checklist and Solutions


All Elevations

IRRIGATE During winter, established, drought-tolerant trees and shrubs need to be watered at least once per month, even if they are leafless and dormant. Non-natives may need to be watered more often. Apply water slowly enough so it doesn’t run off, and let it run for a long enough period that the water percolates to a depth of 3 feet for trees, 2 feet for shrubs and 1 foot for turf and garden beds. A thin, sharp probe will easily penetrate moist soil and stop when it reaches dry soil. A perforated, or “soaker” hose, placed in an undulating ring just outside of the edge of the plant’s canopy can be left on for several hours to slowly hydrate the root system.

PLANT CHRISTMAS TREES Before transplanting a potted holiday tree, gradually acclimate it to outdoor living. Place the tree, still in the container, in a shady location outside for a week, watering it daily. Select a sunny location that will give the tree ample room to grow. Colorado blue spruce, (Picea pungens), a popular living tree at higher elevations, can reach more than 70 feet in height, with a spread of 25 feet. Lower-elevation trees, such as Afghan pine, (Pinus eldarica) grow to 40 feet tall and 30 feet wide. Dig the planting hole 2-3 times wider, but no deeper than the root ball. Backfill with original soil, using water to settle and remove air pockets, which can cause the roots to dry out. Irrigate weekly for the first year, expanding the area water is applied as the tree canopy spreads.


Low Elevations

POMEGRANATES Pomegranates thrive in the desert heat and offer a different look throughout the year. Bright, orange-red blooms appear in spring, followed by leathery fruits filled with juicy, edible seeds. The foliage turns gold in autumn, before falling off for winter. Cultivar ‘Wonderful’ is a popular choice, thanks to its reliable production of large, red fruits with tart, burgundy seeds, or arils. Other options to consider are
‘Parfianka’, rated one of the best-tasting pomegranates with small, deep red seeds. Or try ‘Pink Satin,’ a sweet variety with light-colored seeds that won’t stain surfaces or fabric.

VEGETABLES So many types of vegetables can be grown now. Greens and root crops such as beets, carrots, radishes, turnips, green onions, arugula, leaf lettuce, chard, spinach can be planted from seed directly into garden soil. Sprout tomato seeds indoors in early January to move outdoors once they have 4-6 true leaves. Start broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, head lettuce and artichokes from transplants to give them enough time to produce before spring turns up the heat. Asparagus can be purchased and planted as dormant crowns now. Asparagus is a perennial crop which will continue to produce spears year after year, so plant them in a permanent location and give them plenty of room to spread over time.

This year my son went overboard with Christmas decorations and meticulously strung countless lights in our palo verde trees. He thinks we can just leave them up permanently, but I suspect they aren’t good for the tree. What do you think?

Trees, even palo verdes, grow throughout their lives. As the stems gradually increase in girth, the electrical wires connecting the lights will get tighter and girdle the tree. Girdling restricts the movement of sugars made from photosynthesis in the leaves to other parts of the plant. Eventually, girdling can cause stems to die, impair root growth and lead to tree decline. For the sake of the palo verde, tell your son to get back on the ladder and take the lights down.

Spice up your life and salads with fresh herbs and edible flowers. Sow seeds of annual cilantro, parsley, chives, borage, nasturtium, calendula and dill into garden soil or containers. Transplant perennial oregano, mint, catnip, lemon balm, lemon grass and thyme. Mint has a tendency to take over garden beds, so consider containing this vigorous spreader in a pot.

TEND ROSES Before buds break into new shoots, cut back roses to canes approximately 18 inches long. Hard pruning at the end of dormancy will encourage vigorous new growth and blooming. Dispose of cut stems; they may serve as a hiding place for pests if left nearby. Water roses after pruning.

High Elevations

DE-ICE IN A PLANT-FRIENDLY WAY When de-icing walkways, select plant-safe options rather than using rock salt, which contains toxic levels of sodium. Also, steer away from using fireplace ashes, which are too alkaline to be added to arid Western soils. Sand spread on top of frozen surfaces will improve traction but will not melt the ice. There are ice-melt products on the market made of beet juice, which is less toxic to plants but may harm aquatic insects if it reaches bodies of water through run-off. Alfalfa meal powder, which is marketed as an organic fertilizer, is plant-safe and easy on pet paws.

AMARYLLIS If you received an amaryllis kit as a holiday gift, plant the bulbs as soon as possible to ensure good growth and flowering. Soak the bulb in water for an hour or two before planting to break dormancy and place in the container with the pointed side up. You don’t need to plant the bulb in potting soil; amaryllis can be grown hydroponically in a dish filled with pebbles and water. Be sure to leave the top third of the bulb above the surface of the soil or water, otherwise it may not sprout.


After our neighbor cut down a tree in their yard, we split it for firewood. Now we are finding tiny holes in the wood and little piles of sawdust everywhere. I’m worried we have introduced termites into our home from the wood. What should we do?

Dead trees attract a diverse assortment of insects that feed on dead wood. Healthy, living trees produce substances that deter insects. Once the tree dies, it is defenseless against invasion by wood-eating organisms. There may be termites in the firewood, but they are unlikely to establish a colony in your home and cause damage. The same applies to the many species of wood-boring beetles that feed on dead trees. The tiny holes and piles of sawdust you observed are telltale signs of wood-boring beetles which have already emerged from the log.  Just vacuum up the sawdust you find indoors and pay attention to no-burn advisories for your county.

Can I grow tequila agaves in my garden? 

Arizona is home to many species of agaves, also known as “century plants,” a group of leaf succulent plants that live from five to 50 years before they bloom and eventually die. Throughout the life of an agave, sugars made from photosynthesis are collected in the central stem, or heart. As the plant prepares to bloom, the sugars are mobilized to support the massive flowering stalk that erupts from the heart. Agave farmers in Mexico, known as “jimadores,” harvest the stalks, which are then roasted underground, fermented and distilled into mezcal. Many species of agave can be made into mezcal, but the name tequila is reserved for mezcal from Agave tequilana, known as ‘Weber’s Blue Tequila Agave.’ On top of that, true tequila is only produced in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico. You can purchase the tequila agave through online nurseries to grow in your landscape. They thrive in sandy, well-drained soils in areas where temperatures do not dip below 27 degrees. Give each plant an area at least 5-8 feet wide and protect from sunburn with a light shade cloth during summer, when the sun’s rays are strongest.

Illustration by Gary Hovland


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