Last Updated on January 30, 2023

Growing plants and trees in the desert is surely no easy task, but it can be a very rewarding hobby that can help make your life in the desert a little bit greener.

In a world that is becoming increasingly hotter and drier, the discipline of dryland farming is more important than ever, so give it a chance and learn what kind of plants, flowers and trees can grow in harsh, hot and dry environments.

If you are looking into desert homesteading, draught- and heat- resistant crops can also help you set up a small desert garden, but you will still need access to large amounts of water, which can be scarce in the desert.

Desert Gardening Plants
Desert Plants, Cacti, and Trees.

Desert Gardening

Desert gardening is the practice of successfully growing plants in a desert environment. These may include wildflowers, cacti and succulents, shrubs, or trees.

In this case a “desert” is usually a type of environment characterized by hot, dry weather (although technically cold deserts exist as well), with a sharp drop in temperature at night, and prone to windstorms and flash floods.

A desert by definition receives very little precipitation throughout the year, which is the main reason gardening and farming are so challenging there.

What kind of plants can you grow in the desert?

There are many drought-tolerant plants that have adapted to life in the desert. Succulents and cacti, for example, store large amounts of water directly in their leaves and stems, and can survive months without being watered.

Desert-native shrubs, wildflowers, and trees (e.g. palm trees) have also adapted to grow and thrive in such environments.

These species should be your go-to choices if you are attempting to grow anything in the desert as it will be much easier to keep them happy, especially if you are a beginner.

What kind of vegetables can you grow in the desert?

Technically, any kind of vegetable can be planted in the desert, provided you can provide adequate shade and water frequently (especially during the summer months).

For obvious reasons, it is easier to grow hot-weather vegetables in the desert, such as tomatoes, melons, squash, eggplant, corn, and okra (lady finger plant). Depending on your exact location and local climate, you may attempt to grow some cold-weather vegetables such as cabbage, beets, radishes, broccoli, carrots, spinach and lettuce.

Best crops for desert climate

  • Tomatoes
  • Eggplants
  • Peppers and Chillies
  • Melons
  • Corn
  • Okra
  • Stinging Nettle
  • Spinach
  • Rosemary
  • Cabbage
  • Beets
  • Radish
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Basil
  • Collards
A garden in the desert
A Garden in the Desert

Desert Gardening Tips

1. Know your local climate

Not all deserts are equal, especially when it comes to climate. For instance, the Sonora Desert in Arizona is considered the “wettest” desert in the world, with two wet seasons from December to March and from July to September.

In the Mojave Desert, rainfall mostly falls between November and April, and it may even snow on some of its taller peaks. In the Atacama desert in Chile, rain only occurs in cycles of seven years!

2. Pick native species

The easiest way to build a successful desert garden is to study the local flora and grow native species that have adapted to the specific conditions of the desert you live in.

If you live in a hot desert, you can make your life much easier if you opt for cacti as succulents as your plant of choice for your garden. Some species of cactus, like the prickly pear, even have edible fruits and pods which means you can grow your own food in the desert with relative ease.

3. Enrich your soil

As a rule of thumb, soil in the desert is nutritionally poor, often comprising a combination of sand, clay and/or gravel. You can fix this by “enriching” the soil with organic material in the form of compost, manure, and topsoil.

Coffee grounds and used teabags can also be used to enrich a small desert garden, as well as fruit peels, especially banana and avocado peels. You can either dry these up and bury them in the soil, or make a “tea” by letting them soak in water over long periods of time before you implement them into your garden.

4. Pick quality seeds and heirloom varities

Regardless of your location, getting your hands on high-quality seeds that are proven to grow in your local area will make your attempts at desert farming much, much easier. Ideally, try to get the seeds directly from someone else who is growing plants in your area or the near proximity.

If you are attempting to grow vegetables which are not native to the desert, you may want to give heirloom seeds a try. Again, local nurseries can help you pick the best choice.

5. Make the most of your water

Keeping your green friends watered and happy is undoubtedly going to be harder in the desert,where water is scarce. In most desert environments, rain does occur in the form of rare but intense flash floods, which is an opportunity for you to collect as much rainwater as you can.

You can then also recycle water from your cooking (make sure it’s unsalted), baths and showers, washing machine and radiators.

6. Create shade

Deserts are notorious for having scorching hot temperatures, which can be harmful to your plants. To protect your garden, create shade using shade cloth, natural materials like bamboo or by planting trees. You can also consider adding a trellis or arbor to your garden for climbing plants like tomatoes.

How to Prepare Desert Soil for Gardening

One thing you may need to do to the soil in the desert before sowing is to add organic matter.

Desert soil is often very sandy and low in organic matter, which can make it difficult for plants to thrive. Adding compost or other organic matter to the soil can help improve its structure and provide nutrients for plants.

Other things you may need to do to the soil before sowing include testing the soil to determine its pH, nutrient levels, and other characteristics, and adding amendments such as nutrients or lime to adjust the pH or improve the fertility of the soil. It may also be necessary to loosen the soil or remove rocks and debris to create a smooth, even surface for planting.

It’s important to properly prepare the soil before sowing to ensure that your plants have the best chance of success. By taking the time to properly prepare the soil, you can create a healthy, thriving garden in the desert environment.

Read also: Best House Plants for Your Desert Garden

Desert Gardening FAQs

What’s the easiest plant to grow in the desert?

The easiest plants to grow in a desert garden are so-called xerophilic plants, which have adapted to conserve water in extremely arid environments, one way or another. The most common example of such desert-friendly plants are cacti and succulents such as aloe vera.

What vegetables can you grow in the desert?

The easiest vegetables to grow in a desert garden are heat-resistant vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers (sweet and hot), eggplants, corn, melons and okra. Unlike xeroliphic plants which have adapted to thrive in the arid conditions, these vegetables require large amounts of water.

An edible plant that grows easily in the desert is the prickly pear cactus, both the fruit and pods can be eaten.

Some cold-weather vegetables like cabbage, beets, radishes, etc. can also be grown with adequate shade and water.

How do you make good soil in the desert?

There are a variety of ways you can improve soil in your desert garden. You may enrich soil using by implementing compost or organic matter directly into it, using dry leaves and hay as mulch, and organic fertilizers.

For small desert gardens, you can try simply burying used coffee grounds, tea bags, and kitchen scraps (such as fruit peels) in your soil as a form of enrichment.

What is the best way to water desert plants?

Desert plants are best watered deeply and infrequently, to mimic the natural rainy patterns of their native environments. Drip irrigation or soaker hoses are the most effective and efficient way to water desert plants, as they allow for controlled and consistent delivery of water to the roots, avoiding water evaporation from the surface of the soil.

How much sunlight do desert plants need?

Desert plants generally need a lot of sunlight, as they are adapted to the intense heat and light of their native environments. Most desert plants will need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day to thrive, but some species can handle up to 10 hours. It’s important to choose the right plants for the sun exposure in your garden, as too little sunlight can lead to weak and spindly growth, and too much can cause sunscald and dehydration.

Do desert plants need to be protected from cold temperatures?

Yes, desert plants can be vulnerable to cold temperatures, especially if they come from a warm and arid region, and they may need protection from the cold in colder climates. This can be achieved by providing proper insulation with mulch, covering them with frost cloths or blankets during extreme cold snaps, or moving them to a sheltered location such as a greenhouse or indoor area.

What fruit trees ca I grow in the desert?

In the desert, some of the fruit trees that can be grown include date palms, pomegranates, figs, citrus trees (oranges, lemons, limes), olives, and apricots. These fruit trees are typically drought-resistant and can handle high temperatures, but will still require some watering and maintenance. Additionally, it’s important to choose fruit tree varieties that are specifically adapted to the unique growing conditions in your particular desert environment. logo icon

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