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Plants That Work in The Desert and Those That Don’t

Which plants work well in the desert, and which plants don’t?

To answer this question, we engaged Jon Riep of Think Green, Inc., a Rosie on the House Certified Partner, and our go-to radio guest, master gardener, Jay Harper.


Jon and Jay agree that with the right soil preparation, planting procedures, proper irrigation, appropriate microclimate, and consistent monitoring, most plants can be grown in the desert, though some are more adaptable than others. It is important to consider how much time and water you want to invest.

The type of landscaping you are looking for plays an important role in selecting the plants to consider, as do the location, exposure, and soil conditions. Jon tells us these same criteria are used to determine which plants they would not recommend using, and without an adequate irrigation system, even indigenous plants may have a hard time.

Ground Cover

Another consideration is the type of ground cover. The use of rock ground cover instead of grass keeps the ground hotter, and that impacts the microclimate needed for several species of bushes and trees.

There are a lot of factors that contribute to the success of various plantings. Jay notes that the plants in some older neighborhoods would not be recommended today. Landscape practices have changed quite a bit. Water usage and conservation efforts have eliminated certain plants. We thoroughly support conservation efforts, and they are thankfully here to stay.


Another factor in determining the best plants for your landscape includes wildlife considerations. Javelina, rabbits, and an assortment of other critters that may be hanging out in your area will impact plant selections. Depending on the plant, they can help draw or discourage critters in your yard.

We asked Jon and Jay for a list of the “good” plants and the “probably don’t want to go there” plants. We are not surprised that these professionals had very similar lists.

Tropical plants, such as tropical fruit trees, don’t do well in the desert. They include:

  • Banana trees
  • Avocado trees
  • Flowering Plum
  • Magnolias

Some palms do not do well either because they are not suited to the year-round temperature swings, such as:

  • Queen palm
  • Sago Palm
  • Pygmy Palms

    Blue Purple Hydrangea

Other plants that struggle in the desert heat and therefore require extra care include:

  • Hydrangeas
  • Azaleas
  • Rose of Sharon
  • Mandevilla (Rock Trumpet flower)
  • Butterfly Bush
  • Gardenias
  • Roses


With proper irrigation, soil amendments and preparation, microclimate modification, and monitoring, some of these plants can do well. But for the majority of us who just want to plant something, water it, and not spend a great deal of time tending them, you may want to choose more adaptable plantings such as:

  • Oleander
  • Jojoba
  • Texas Sage
  • Lantana
  • Tacoma Stans
  • Orange Bells
  • Yellow Bells
  • Cape Honeysuckle
  • Bougainvillea
  • Most Cacti
  • Pink Trumpet

There are more, but these are considered fairly bulletproof choices. Water Use It Wisely has some suggestions as well.


Once you have made your choices, you still need to follow the appropriate planting procedures for each plant. These plants tend to thrive in our extreme temperatures and soil. Soil is a huge factor in selection. Our soil tends to be alkali with a high clay content. Jay told us that plants are like people, and like us, with the proper preparation, they can adapt to different environments. You need to decide upfront how much involvement you want in your yard. You also need to take into consideration where you live. There are older, established neighborhoods still using flood irrigation to support a grass-covered yard. The trees in these areas are well established, and the type of vegetation you see creates a much different microclimate than you would find in a new subdivision. The planting choices in each location need to be considered.

Start a conversation with your local nursery. Yes, local, and choose one close to where you live. Nurseries are great resources for guidance in making good selections. Landscape contractors are another great resource.

Justin Rohner, with Agriscaping, was a guest on our show on January 14, 2023. Listen to the podcast. Justin and his team offer in-person and virtual consultations and classes. You can also contact the Arizona Nursery Association for more planting tips.

Jay suggests driving around your neighborhood in August to see what looks good, what you like, and if that is how you want your yard to look and feel.

If you have some plants rocking your yard, please drop us a note and let us know what they are!



What plants, bushes, vines, palms, even fruit bearing trees grow well in the desert while other don’t? Think Green’s Landscape Architect Angelique Kerbaugh has many suggestions that adapt well to our desert climate and some that are not worth the effort. With added discussion on soil prep, water and fertilizing.

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