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Planting Desert-Adapted Trees: A Comprehensive Guide for Landscapers, Designers, and Architects

Updated: Jul 6

Desert landscapes offer a unique challenge and reward for those who design and cultivate them. While the beauty of cacti and succulents is undeniable, incorporating desert-adapted trees can add significant visual interest, shade, and even wildlife habitat. However, planting trees in arid environments requires techniques different from perennials or cacti, for example, to ensure their survival and healthy growth. This guide will walk landscapers, designers, and architects through planting desert-adapted trees, from selecting the right time to aftercare practices.

Table of Contents

Planting Desert-Adapted Trees - Joan Lionetti Texas Live Oak
Planting Desert-Adapted Trees - Joan Lionetti Texas Live Oak

Choosing the Perfect Timing and Location for Planting Desert Adapted Trees

Planting Time: The best time to plant a tree is yesterday. Planting trees during summer months requires more consistent and regular water.

Location, Location, Location:  Selecting the right planting location is crucial for the long-term success of your desert tree. Here are key factors to consider:

  • Mature Tree Size: Research the mature size of the chosen tree species (such as our Joan Lionetti Texas Live Oak) and ensure enough space for its future canopy spread. Avoid planting under power lines, buildings, or close to structures where its roots might cause damage.

  • Mature Root Size: Roots of trees will grow 3 to 5 times the radius of the tree crown. Make sure you plant your tree in a location that considers this.

  • Sun Exposure: Consider the tree's sun requirements. Some desert trees thrive in full sun, while others prefer partial shade.

  • Drainage: Urban soil is compacted and is typically slow to drain. Dig a small hole in the chosen spot and observe if water drains within a reasonable timeframe (a day or two). Poor drainage can lead to root rot.

Digging a hole for planting desert adapted trees
Digging a hole for planting desert adapted trees

How to Prepare the Planting Hole and Tree

Once you've selected the planting time and location, it's time to prepare the hole and the tree itself.

Planting Hole Preparation:

Digging:  Using a shovel or jackhammer, dig a hole 6 inches to 2 times wider than the diameter of the root ball. However, the depth should be no deeper than the root ball's height.

  • Soil Compaction: Soil compaction is a major hindrance to the success of urban trees. Decompacting soil to a depth of 18 inches to 2 feet will greatly improve the long-term success of trees and shrubs.

  • Shallow Tree Roots: If the tree roots are shallow, the majority of roots are in the first 6- to 18-inches of soil.

Prepping the Tree:

  1. Careful Removal: Carefully remove the tree from its container, ensuring the root ball remains intact. Handle the tree by the base of the root ball, not the trunk. If the tree is in a # 15 or # 30 sized container or up, the container should be cut off.

  2. Root Inspection and Pruning:  Inspect the root ball for any circling, kinked, or girdled roots. These can restrict future growth and should be removed with a sharp pruner, knife, saw, or flat shovel.

  3. Root Prune: Girdling roots is the number one killer of trees. If circling roots are present it is important to trim roots. See the instructional video series.

Desert adapted trees at Civano Growers
Desert adapted trees at Civano Growers

Planting Desert-Adapted Trees and Aftercare Techniques

Planting the Desert-Adapted Tree:

  1. Positioning: Place the tree in the planting hole, ensuring the top of the root ball sits level with or slightly above the existing soil surface. Planting too deeply can suffocate the tree and lead to crown rot.

  2. Backfilling and Watering: Fill the hole with the excavated soil, breaking up any large clumps. Avoid compacting the soil by walking on it. Instead, use water to settle the soil around the root ball. Water thoroughly until the surrounding soil is moist, but not saturated.

Optional Support: If the tree requires support due to wind or instability, use two stakes placed outside the root ball and secure them with ties that allow for slight movement of the trunk. This will help the tree establish a strong root system.

Pruning: Avoid major pruning at this time. Small branches can be left on the tree for the first year to provide shade and nourishment for the new root system.


  1. Apply a 2-4 inch layer of organic mulch or coarse material like wood chips around the base of the tree to retain soil moisture, regulate soil temperature, and suppress weeds.

  2. Maintain a few inches of clearance between the mulch and the tree trunk to prevent moisture buildup and potential disease issues.

Watering: Water the newly planted tree regularly during the first few months, especially during hot and dry periods.

  • Frequency: The frequency will depend on soil conditions and weather. Review watering guides dependent upon your region to determine best watering practices. Aim to keep the root ball moist, but avoid overwatering, which can promote root rot.

  • Distance and Radius: Established trees should be watered broadly. Roots are shallow, typically 6 to 18 inches in depth, particularly with compacted soils. It is important to note that roots are 3 to 5 times the radius of the tree canopy, so irrigation must be considered when first planting the tree.

Fertilization: Fertilizer application is not necessary at planting. Nitrogen fertilization may hinder root establishment. Monitor the tree's health and consult a professional if fertilization seems necessary in the future.

Aftercare: Monitor the newly planted tree regularly, ensuring it receives adequate water, especially during the first year.

Joan Lionetti Texas Live Oak Tree in Containers
Joan Lionetti Texas Live Oak Tree in Containers

Additional Tree Planting Considerations for Landscapers, Designers, and Architects

Beyond the basic planting techniques, here are some additional factors for landscapers, designers, and architects to consider when incorporating desert-adapted trees into their projects:

  • Choosing the Right Tree: Selecting the most suitable tree species is crucial. Consider factors like drought tolerance, growth rate, mature size, flowering characteristics, and any potential mess from falling leaves or fruits. Native desert trees are often well-adapted to the local climate and require minimal water once established.

  • Long-Term Irrigation Strategies: While newly planted trees require regular watering, the goal is to encourage them to develop a deep root system that can access natural moisture reserves in the soil. Explore water-efficient irrigation methods like drip systems or bubblers to deliver water directly to the root zone and minimize evaporation.

  • Soil Amendments: In some cases, amending the planting hole with a small amount of compost or composted manure can improve soil quality for young trees, especially in areas with poor native soil. However, avoid overdoing it, as desert trees are adapted to thrive in lean conditions.

  • Wind Protection: If the planting site is exposed to strong winds, consider using temporary wind protection screens made of fabric or mesh for the first few months after planting. This will help reduce stress on the newly planted tree.

  • Long-Term Maintenance:  Desert-adapted trees generally require minimal maintenance once established. However, regular inspections for pests or diseases are still recommended. Pruning may be necessary in the future to maintain the tree's shape or remove dead branches.

  • Planning for the Future: When designing landscapes with desert-adapted trees, consider the mature size of the trees and how they will interact with other elements in the design. Leave enough space for their canopies to spread without crowding walkways, buildings, or other trees.

By following these guidelines and incorporating thoughtful planning, landscapers, designers, and architects can successfully plant and establish desert-adapted trees that will thrive in arid environments, adding beauty, shade, and ecological benefits to the landscape for years to come.

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