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Best Guide: How to Plant a Perennial Plant in the Desert Southwest

Updated: Jun 30

Perennials are a fantastic choice for desert gardens, adding bursts of color and life throughout the year. Unlike annuals, they come back year after year with proper care. With a little planning and the right plant selection for your local conditions, these low-maintenance wonders will thrive in the hot, dry climate of the desert Southwest. This guide will equip you with everything you need to know to plant and care for stunning perennials in your xeriscape.


Table of Contents


When to Plant a Perennial Plant in the Desert Southwest: Fall is the Golden Season


plant a perennial plant in the desert southwest

Planting in Fall is the Smart Choice: The ideal planting window for desert perennials falls between late September and November. Cooler temperatures and occasional rain showers during this time create perfect conditions for root development. Established roots are better equipped to handle the scorching summer heat, allowing perennials to thrive throughout the year.

Early Spring Works: Early spring (February-March) can also work for planting a perennial plant in the Desert Southwest. However, be prepared to water your plants more frequently as they establish themselves during this warmer period. The increased watering will help compensate for the lack of natural rainfall and ensure the roots have the moisture they need to flourish.


Planting Perennials in the Ground: Step-by-Step Guide


Gather Your Supplies:

  • Shovel

  • Soil amendments (compost, organic matter, coarse sand) - only for caliche soil

  • Rake (optional)

  • Watering can or garden hose


Picking the Best Location:


Sun Seekers vs. Shade Lovers: Different perennials have different sun requirements. Choose a location that provides the appropriate amount of sunlight for your chosen plant. Full-sun varieties need at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight daily, while part-sun perennials prefer some afternoon shade. Be sure to read labels and speak with experts before purchasing a plant. It is always better to know the specific required growing conditions for each perennial.


pincushion flower plant a perennial plant in the desert southwest

Soil Preparation:


Desert Drainage: Desert soils are often heavy clay or caliche, which can hinder drainage and root development for your perennials.


Here's how to improve drainage:


digging - plant a perennial plant in the desert southwest
  • Identify Your Soil Type: Scrape away a few inches of topsoil and examine the underlying soil. Caliche is a white, hardpan layer that can be challenging to penetrate.

  • Amending Caliche Soil: If you have caliche, thoroughly break up the compacted layer with a pickaxe or similar tool as much as possible within the planting area. Then, incorporate a generous amount of organic matter (compost, shredded bark) and coarse sand into the planting hole and surrounding soil to a depth of 12-18 inches. Thoroughly mix the amendments with the native soil to improve drainage.

  • Existing Beds: If your planting area is not caliche, consider amending the existing soil with organic matter to improve drainage and provide nutrients. Mix compost or shredded bark into the top 12 inches of soil.

  • Raised Beds: A Drainage Dream:  Raised beds offer the best drainage and avoid altering your existing soil composition. Fill them with a well-draining potting mix specifically formulated for cacti and succulents.


Digging the Hole: Dig a hole 2 times wider than the diameter of the plant's root ball and slightly deeper than the root ball itself. This allows ample space for the roots to spread as the perennial matures.


Planting the Perennial: Carefully remove the plant from its container, ensuring the root ball remains intact. If you have difficulty removing the plant from its container, simply lay it on its side and press gently on the container to loosen the ball. Gently loosen any tightly packed roots with your fingers to encourage healthy root growth in the surrounding soil.


Backfill and Water: Place the plant in the hole, ensuring the top of the root ball sits level with or slightly above the surrounding soil. Fill the hole with the amended soil or potting mix, gently tamping it down to eliminate air pockets. Water thoroughly until the surrounding soil is moist but not soggy.



plant a perennial plant in the desert southwest

Planting Perennials in Containers: A Colorful Option


Perennials can also be grown in containers, adding a touch of beauty to patios and balconies. Combine perennials with shrubs, annual plants, and even vegetables to create a vibrant and colorful display. If your soil is primarily caliche and amending the ground is not feasible, container gardening is a great alternative for enjoying perennials in your desert oasis.

container garden plant a perennial plant in the desert southwest

Materials:

  • Container with drainage holes

  • Well-draining potting mix

  • Potting bench (optional)

  • Watering can or garden hose


Choosing the Perfect Pot: Select a container 2-3 inches wider in diameter than the perennial's root ball. Opt for a pot with drainage holes to prevent waterlogging. Clay or terracotta pots provide good air circulation for the roots, promoting healthy plant growth.


Potting Up Your Perennial:  Fill the container with the well-draining potting mix, leaving about an inch of space at the top. Gently remove the perennial from its container and loosen any compacted roots. Place the plant in the pot, ensuring the top of the root ball sits at the same level as the surrounding mix. Fill the remaining space with potting mix and tamp it gently.


watering plant a perennial plant in the desert southwest

Aftercare: Keeping Your Desert Perennials Thriving


Watering:


Ground-Planted Perennials: Water your ground-planted perennials deeply and infrequently, allowing the soil to dry completely between waterings. Established perennials in desert landscapes may only need deep watering once a month during the hottest months. Avoid overwatering, which can lead to root rot. Here's a helpful tip: Check out Water Use It Wisely's Interactive Watering Guides.


Container Companions: Containerized perennials dry out faster than ground-planted ones. Water them more frequently, but avoid leaving them sitting in water. Water when the top inch of soil feels dry to the touch.


Feeding Time (But Not Too Much!):

While fertilizer application at planting time is generally not necessary for desert-adapted perennials, there are situations where a little feeding can be beneficial. If your perennial's foliage appears pale, a light application of a balanced, diluted fertilizer formulated for houseplants can be applied during the growing season (spring and summer). Remember, less is more! Overfertilizing can harm your plants.


Mulch: A Desert Gardener's Best Friend:

Applying a 2–3-inch layer of loose pebbles or gravel, or an organic mulch like shredded bark or wood chips, around the base of your perennials (both ground-planted and containerized) helps retain moisture in the soil. This is especially important in the hot desert climate. Mulch also helps regulate soil temperature and suppress weeds, giving your perennials a fighting chance to thrive. Leave a few inches of clearance between the mulch and the plant stem to prevent moisture buildup that can encourage rot.


civano plant a perennial plant in the desert southwest

Additional Tips for Desert Perennial Success:


Winter Drama and How to Combat The Cold:

Most desert perennials are winter-hardy and can tolerate occasional freezing temperatures. However, some tender varieties may benefit from protection during cold snaps. Cover them with frost cloth or burlap during freezing temperatures to shield them from frost damage. Remove the covering material once the danger of frost has passed.


Summer Shade for New Arrivals:

Newly planted perennials, especially during their first growing season, can benefit from some afternoon shade protection during the hottest summer months. You can achieve this by planting them near taller shrubs that cast shade in the afternoon. Alternatively, use shade cloth for temporary protection during peak heat hours. However, most established desert perennials are well-adapted to handle full sun exposure.


By following these simple steps and selecting perennials suited to your specific desert conditions, you can create a vibrant and flourishing perennial garden in your xeriscape. These low-maintenance beauties will reward you with a stunning display of color and life throughout the year, attracting pollinators and adding a touch of paradise to your desert oasis.

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