The Q&A Archives: Flowers for Desert

Question: I have flower beds extending 3 sides of my backyard and am clueless as to what to plant. I want as many perennials as possible.

Answer: You didn't mention what sun exposure you have (full sun, partial sun, shade), but it's important to match that with what the plants prefer. I'm going to assume you have full sun. I recommend you use native or desert-adapted perennials because they can tolerate our intense heat and sun. Here's some I've had good luck with: Salvia leucantha (Mexican bush sage) has gorgeous purple blooms stocks in late summer that are almost velvety or "furry" in appearance. It prefers full sun, average soil, and doesn't need much water once established. Angelita daisy has yellow, daisy-like flowers and it thrives in the harsh sun. It has a small clump of green foliage, somewhat similar in appearance to the desert marigold, but it is greener, whereas desert marigold (another good choice) is more greyish. Mt. Lemmon marigold has clusters of one-inch daisy-like flowers in a goldish shade. The foliage has a feathery appearance. The plant usually reaches 2-3 feet wide and tall. The foliage has a very strong scent. I like it, but some people find it overpowering, so pinch a leaf in the nursery to see what you think. Desert milkweed (Asclepias subulata) is an interesting plant with tall, thin greyish stalks that have a few feathery type leaves. It blooms with a creamy cluster of flowers. It's not a typical "leafy" plant, but it adds structural interest to the garden. It takes full sun and well-drained soil. It also is a butterfly attractant. Any of the desert mallows (Abutilon sp.) do extremely well, and they are available in numerous colors, blooming in spring. Globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) has soft grey foliage that feels like lamb's ears and an orangey-gold flower. Chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) has a white daisy flower that smells like chocolate early in the morning. Penstemon bloom beautifully in the spring in a variety of pinks/reds, and the foliage forms a nice mounding clump that lasts year around. P. parryi does extremely well, and all attract hummingbirds. Consider coreopsis, yarrow, butterfly weed (asclepias), lavender, catmint, gaillardia. For bulbs, try bearded iris, gayfeather (liatris), and glads. For sun-loving foliage plants consider herb plants such as artemesia and sage, which have interesting colors and textures.

Note that it is getting late to plant, as we are heading into summer's heat. There are two distinct growing seasons in the low desert with different annuals thriving in each season. There's a cool season from approximately the end of September through April. Annuals can be installed from late September to February. Some gardeners prefer to wait until October, as cooler temperatures also help kill off whitefly populations which can quickly decimate plants.

The warm season starts with planting in mid to late February. Some plants will make it through the summer's heat; others will end their growth when the heat arrives in May or June. A good reference book that contains planting calendars for the low desert is called "Desert Gardening for Beginners: How to Grow Vegetables, Flowers and Herbs in an Arid Climate." ISBN 0-9651987-2-3. Good luck!
I hope this gives you some ideas!

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