Last Updated on August 9, 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

Tomatoes

Tomatoes are a warm-season crop that can tolerate heat and drought. They are a good source of vitamins A and C, and they can be eaten fresh, cooked, or canned.

Tomatoes thrive in a desert climate with full sun exposure and well-drained soil. Start by selecting a sunny location in your garden or using containers if space is limited. Prepare the soil by adding organic matter and ensure proper watering to support their growth.

When planting tomatoes, dig a hole deep enough to accommodate the root ball and gently place the plant in the hole. Backfill with soil, firm it around the base of the plant, and water thoroughly. As the plant grows, provide support such as stakes or cages to help the branches and fruits stay upright.

Regular watering is essential for tomato plants, especially in a desert climate. Water deeply but less frequently to encourage the development of a strong root system. Monitor for pests and diseases, and apply appropriate organic or chemical treatments as needed. Finally, harvest ripe tomatoes regularly to encourage continuous fruit production.

Eggplants

Eggplants are another warm-season crop that is well-suited to desert climates. They are a good source of vitamins A and C, and they can be cooked or pickled.

To grow eggplants in a desert climate, provide them with a sunny location and well-drained soil. Start seeds indoors early in the season and transplant them outdoors after the danger of frost has passed. Water regularly and provide support as the plants grow.

When planting eggplants, space the seedlings appropriately to allow for adequate air circulation. Apply a layer of organic mulch around the plants to conserve moisture and suppress weed growth. Maintain consistent moisture levels, avoiding both overwatering and underwatering, and fertilize with a balanced organic fertilizer according to package instructions.

Monitor for pests such as aphids or flea beetles, and use natural or organic pest control methods if necessary. Harvest the eggplants when they reach their desired size and color, using a sharp knife or pruners to cut them from the plant. Enjoy them in various culinary preparations or preserve them by pickling or freezing.

Peppers and chillies

Peppers and chillies are a type of nightshade vegetable that is native to Mexico and Central America. They are a good source of vitamins A and C, and they can be eaten fresh, cooked, or pickled.

Growing peppers and chillies in a desert climate requires a warm and sunny location. Start seeds indoors early in the season and transplant the seedlings outdoors once the temperature warms up. Provide adequate water and protect the plants from extreme heat.

When planting peppers and chillies, prepare the soil by incorporating organic matter and ensuring good drainage. Space the plants appropriately to allow for air circulation and growth. Mulching around the plants can help retain moisture and control weeds.

Water the plants consistently, keeping the soil evenly moist but not waterlogged. Consider using drip irrigation or a soaker hose to deliver water directly to the root zone. Fertilize the plants with a balanced vegetable fertilizer according to package instructions.

Monitor the plants for common pests like aphids or pepper maggots, and address any issues promptly using organic pest control methods if possible. Harvest the peppers and chillies when they reach the desired size and color, using pruning shears or a sharp knife to cut them from the plant.

Melons

Melons are a warm-season crop that is a good source of vitamins A and C. They can be grown in a variety of desert climates, but they do best in sandy soils that are well-drained.

To grow melons in a desert climate, choose a sunny location with fertile, well-drained soil. Prepare the soil by adding compost or well-rotted manure to improve its fertility and drainage.

When planting melons, create mounds or hills to enhance drainage and warm the soil. Space the plants adequately to allow for proper airflow and growth. Plant the seeds or seedlings at the appropriate depth, following the instructions on the seed packet or plant label.

Water melon plants deeply and consistently, ensuring the soil remains evenly moist. Mulching around the plants can help conserve moisture, suppress weed growth, and protect the fruit from direct contact with the soil.

Monitor the plants for pests such as aphids or cucumber beetles, and take appropriate measures to control them. Provide support for the growing melons, such as trellises or slings, to prevent them from touching the ground and reduce the risk of rot.

Harvest the melons when they are fully ripe, as indicated by their aroma, color, and a slight give when gently pressed. Cut the melons from the vine using a sharp knife or pruning shears, leaving a short stem attached.

Corn

Corn is a warm-season crop that is a good source of carbohydrates. It can be grown in a variety of desert climates, but it does best in sandy soils that are well-drained.

When growing corn in a desert climate, select a sunny location with fertile soil. Prepare the soil by incorporating organic matter and ensuring proper drainage.

Plant corn seeds directly in the soil once the danger of frost has passed and the soil temperature has warmed. Space the seeds according to the variety’s recommended planting distance.

Water the corn plants consistently, providing enough moisture to keep the soil evenly moist. Mulching around the plants can help retain moisture and suppress weeds.

Monitor the plants for pests such as corn borers or corn earworms, and take appropriate measures to control them. Fertilize the corn plants with a balanced vegetable fertilizer according to package instructions.

Harvest the corn when the ears are fully filled out and the kernels are plump and milky. Peel back the husks slightly to check the ripeness, and use a sharp knife to harvest the ears at their base. Enjoy fresh corn on the cob or preserve it by freezing or canning.

Okra

Okra is a warm-season crop that is a good source of vitamins A and C. It can be grown in a variety of desert climates, but it does best in sandy soils that are well-drained.

Growing okra in a desert climate requires a sunny location with fertile soil. Prepare the soil by adding organic matter and ensuring good drainage.

Plant okra seeds directly in the soil once the temperature has warmed up. Space the seeds according to the recommended planting distance for the variety.

Water the okra plants consistently, providing enough moisture to keep the soil evenly moist. Mulching around the plants can help conserve moisture, suppress weeds, and regulate soil temperature.

Monitor the plants for pests such as aphids or spider mites, and address any issues promptly using organic pest control methods if possible. Fertilize the okra plants with a balanced vegetable fertilizer according to package instructions.

Harvest the okra pods when they are about 2-3 inches long and tender. Use a sharp knife or pruning shears to cut the pods from the plant, being careful to avoid damaging the stems or leaves.

Stinging nettle

Stinging nettle is a wild edible that is a good source of vitamins A and C. It can be eaten fresh, cooked, or dried.

When growing stinging nettle in a desert climate, select a shaded or partially shaded location with rich, moist soil. Nettle plants prefer a slightly acidic to neutral pH.

Plant stinging nettle from nursery transplants or root cuttings, as collecting from the wild may not be legal in certain areas. Space the plants adequately to allow for growth and airflow.

Water the nettle plants consistently, providing enough moisture to keep the soil evenly moist. Mulching around the plants can help retain moisture and suppress weed growth.

Harvest stinging nettle leaves when they are young and tender, wearing gloves to avoid stings. Cut the leaves near the top of the plant, leaving enough foliage for the plant to continue growing.

Spinach

Spinach is a cool-season crop that is a good source of vitamins A and C. It can be grown in a variety of desert climates, but it does best in sandy soils that are well-drained.

To grow spinach in a desert climate, choose a location with partial shade or a sunny spot with protection from intense afternoon sun. Prepare the soil by adding organic matter and ensuring good drainage.

Sow spinach seeds directly in the soil or start with transplants early in the season. Space the plants appropriately to allow for proper growth and airflow.

Water the spinach plants consistently, providing enough moisture to keep the soil evenly moist. Mulching around the plants can help retain moisture and suppress weed growth.

Monitor the plants for pests such as aphids or leafminers, and take appropriate measures to control them. Harvest the spinach leaves when they reach the desired size, picking individual leaves or cutting the entire plant above the soil line.

Rosemary

Rosemary is an herb that is a good source of antioxidants. It can be grown in a variety of desert climates, but it does best in sandy soils that are well-drained.

When planting rosemary in a desert climate, choose a sunny location with well-drained soil. If the soil is heavy or clayey, amend it with sand or organic matter to improve drainage.

Plant rosemary cuttings or nursery transplants, spacing them appropriately to allow for growth and airflow. Water the plants deeply and infrequently, allowing the soil to dry out slightly between waterings.

Prune rosemary regularly to maintain its shape and encourage bushier growth. Harvest the rosemary sprigs as needed by cutting them from the plant with pruning shears or scissors.

Cabbage

Cabbage is a cool-season crop that is a good source of vitamins C and K. It can be grown in a variety of desert climates, but it does best in sandy soils that are well-drained.

To grow cabbage in a desert climate, choose a sunny location with fertile soil. Prepare the soil by incorporating organic matter and ensuring good drainage.

Start cabbage seeds indoors and transplant the seedlings outdoors once they are established and the weather is suitable. Space the plants appropriately to allow for proper growth and airflow.

Water the cabbage plants consistently, providing enough moisture to keep the soil evenly moist. Mulching around the plants can help retain moisture and control weed growth.

Monitor the plants for pests such as cabbage worms or aphids, and take appropriate measures to control them. Harvest the cabbage heads when they are firm and solid by cutting them at the base with a sharp knife.

Beets

Beets are a cool-season crop that is a good source of vitamins A and C. They can be grown in a variety of desert climates, but they do best in sandy soils that are well-drained.

When growing beets in a desert climate, choose a sunny location with fertile soil. Prepare the soil by incorporating organic matter and ensuring good drainage.

Sow beet seeds directly in the soil once the temperature is suitable. Space the seeds according to the variety’s recommended planting distance.

Water the beet plants consistently, providing enough moisture to keep the soil evenly moist. Mulching around the plants can help retain moisture and suppress weed growth.

Monitor the plants for pests such as leafminers or aphids, and take appropriate measures to control them. Harvest the beets when they reach the desired size, gently loosening the soil around them before pulling them out.

Radish

Radish is a cool-season crop that is a good source of vitamins A and C. It can be grown in a variety of desert climates, but it does best in sandy soils that are well-drained.

Growing radishes in a desert climate requires a sunny location with well-drained soil. Prepare the soil by incorporating organic matter and ensuring good drainage.

Sow radish seeds directly in the soil, following the recommended planting depth and spacing. Keep the soil consistently moist during germination and growth.

Thin out the radish seedlings to allow adequate space for each plant to develop. Water the radishes regularly, ensuring the soil remains evenly moist. Mulching around the plants can help conserve moisture and suppress weed growth.

Harvest the radishes when they reach the desired size, usually within a few weeks of planting. Gently pull the radishes from the soil, trimming off the tops if desired, and wash them thoroughly before use.

Artichokes

Artichokes are a perennial crop that is a good source of dietary fiber and antioxidants. They can be grown in a variety of desert climates, but they do best in well-drained soil with a neutral to slightly acidic pH.

To grow artichokes in a desert climate, choose a sunny location with fertile soil. Prepare the soil by incorporating organic matter and ensuring good drainage.

Start artichoke seeds indoors or purchase transplants, as they can be challenging to grow from seed. Transplant the seedlings outdoors once they are established and the weather is suitable.

Water the artichoke plants deeply and consistently, allowing the soil to dry out slightly between waterings. Mulching around the plants can help retain moisture and suppress weed growth.

Monitor the plants for pests such as aphids or snails, and take appropriate measures to control them. Harvest the artichoke buds when they are firm and tight by cutting them from the plant with a sharp knife, leaving a short stem attached.

Basil

Basil is an herb that is a good source of vitamins A and K. It can be grown in a variety of desert climates, but it does best in well-drained soil with a neutral pH.

When planting basil in a desert climate, choose a location with full sun and fertile soil. Prepare the soil by incorporating organic matter and ensuring good drainage.

Start basil seeds indoors or purchase young plants for transplanting. Space the plants appropriately to allow for growth and airflow.

Water the basil plants consistently, providing enough moisture to keep the soil evenly moist. Mulching around the plants can help conserve moisture and suppress weed growth.

Prune the basil plants regularly to encourage bushier growth and prevent flowering. Harvest the basil leaves by pinching them off the plant, starting with the top leaves first.

Chives

Chives are an herb that is a good source of vitamins A and C. They can be grown in a variety of desert climates, but they do best in well-drained soil with a neutral to slightly acidic pH.

Growing chives in a desert climate requires a location with full sun to partial shade and fertile soil. Prepare the soil by incorporating organic matter and ensuring good drainage.

Plant chive seeds or nursery transplants, spacing them appropriately to allow for growth and airflow. Water the plants consistently, keeping the soil evenly moist.

Harvest chives by cutting the leaves from the base of the plant as needed. Avoid cutting more than one-third of the plant at a time to ensure continued growth.

Lemongrass

Lemongrass is an herb that is a good source of antioxidants. It can be grown in a variety of desert climates, but it does best in well-drained soil with a neutral to slightly acidic pH.

When planting lemongrass in a desert climate, choose a sunny location with fertile soil. Prepare the soil by incorporating organic matter and ensuring good drainage.

Plant lemongrass stalks horizontally in the soil, leaving the top exposed. Water the plants deeply and infrequently, allowing the soil to dry out between waterings.

Monitor the plants for pests such as aphids or spider mites, and take appropriate measures to control them. Harvest the lemongrass stalks by cutting them close to the base of the plant, leaving enough foliage for regrowth.

Cilantro

Cilantro, also known as coriander, is an herb that is a good source of vitamins A and K. It can be grown in a variety of desert climates, but it does best in well-drained soil with a neutral to slightly acidic pH.

To grow cilantro in a desert climate, choose a location with partial shade or a sunny spot with protection from intense afternoon sun. Prepare the soil by incorporating organic matter and ensuring good drainage.

Directly sow cilantro seeds in the soil, as it does not transplant well. Keep the soil consistently moist during germination and growth.

Harvest the cilantro leaves when they reach the desired size, starting with the outer leaves and working your way inward. Cut the leaves from the plant with scissors or pruning shears, leaving enough foliage for the plant to continue growing.

Dill

Dill is an herb that is a good source of vitamins A and C. It can be grown in a variety of desert climates, but it does best in well-drained soil with a neutral to slightly alkaline pH.

Growing dill in a desert climate requires a location with full sun and fertile soil. Prepare the soil by incorporating organic matter and ensuring good drainage.

Sow dill seeds directly in the soil, as it does not transplant well. Keep the soil consistently moist during germination and growth.

Monitor the plants for pests such as aphids or caterpillars, and take appropriate measures to control them. Harvest the dill leaves and seeds as needed, cutting the foliage from the plant with scissors or pruning shears.

Lettuce

Lettuce is a cool-season crop that is a good source of vitamins A and K. It can be grown in a variety of desert climates, but it does best in sandy soils that are well-drained.

To grow lettuce in a desert climate, choose a location with partial shade or a sunny spot with protection from intense afternoon sun. Prepare the soil by incorporating organic matter and ensuring good drainage.

Sow lettuce seeds directly in the soil or start with transplants early in the season. Space the plants appropriately to allow for proper growth and airflow.

Water the lettuce plants consistently, providing enough moisture to keep the soil evenly moist. Mulching around the plants can help retain moisture and suppress weed growth.

Harvest the lettuce leaves when they reach the desired size, picking individual leaves or cutting the entire plant above the soil line.

Marjoram

Marjoram is an herb that is a good source of vitamins A and K. It can be grown in a variety of desert climates, but it does best in well-drained soil with a neutral to slightly alkaline pH.

Growing marjoram in a desert climate requires a sunny location with fertile soil. Prepare the soil by incorporating organic matter and ensuring good drainage.

Start marjoram seeds indoors or purchase young plants for transplanting. Space the plants appropriately to allow for growth and airflow.

Water the marjoram plants consistently, providing enough moisture to keep the soil evenly moist. Mulching around the plants can help conserve moisture and suppress weed growth.

Harvest the marjoram leaves as needed by cutting them from the plant with scissors or pruning shears.

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.

What is the cheapest way to improve desert soil?

The cheapest way to improve desert soil is to add organic matter.

Organic matter is any material that was once alive, such as leaves, grass clippings, wood chips, or manure.

When organic matter decomposes, it releases nutrients into the soil and helps to improve the soil’s structure and drainage.

Here are some examples of organic matter you could add to your desert soil to improve it:

  • Collect leaves and grass clippings from your lawn or garden and add them to your desert soil.
  • Buy wood chips from a nursery or garden center.
  • Find manure from a farm or garden center, or from someone who has livestock.
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