If you’ve just moved to Southwestern states like Arizona, New Mexico or Texas, you’ve probably noted a stark difference in the landscape. If you don’t already love it out West, you will soon. And you’ll learn to love the challenge of growing in your Southwest garden.
Why Is the West Different?
The wildness of the Southwest owes more to its geography and climate than to lawlessness or gunfights that color many of our towns’ histories. Mountains and desert plains run through our landscape, affecting weather patterns, rainfall and soil makeup. You might be used to warmer or colder climates, but the fun begins as you – and your plants – adapt to extremes in temperatures. Southwest temperatures often vary at least 40 degrees from morning lows to afternoon highs. So layer your clothes when headed outside and get to know how these conditions affect plants.
Native Plants Really Matter
In any town, gardeners can lessen their work and raise chance of success by choosing plenty of native plants. It’s especially important where drought and temperature extremes stress plants to their limits. Native plants have adapted to thrive and flower in each region’s conditions without human help. Choosing a variety of natives limits frustration for Southwest gardeners, and especially lessens watering needs. Growers also continue to test plants from throughout the world, such as South America or the Mediterranean, that can grow well in the Southwest.
Water Is Precious
Saving water in the garden should be a priority in any region. But out here, water is especially precious. California can draw moisture from the Pacific Ocean, but inland states of the Southwest are much further from water sources. We count on our mountains to help form clouds as air lifts over the high peaks. That means more than 20 inches of precipitation per year near eastern slopes and 8 inches or less a year in many low deserts. At lower altitudes, we count on mountain snow pack to fill our rivers each spring. The amount and timing of snow and rain can vary markedly from one year to the next. I’ve had 18 inches of snow in 24 hours one winter here in southeastern New Mexico, but no measurable precipitation this year from August to late January!
Our Soil Is Weird
If you’re used to dropping seeds in the ground and watching them sprout, you’re in for some disappointment in a Southwest garden. Only our weeds seem to shoot right up with no help. Most Southwest soils lack the organic matter so prevalent in other regions. Our soil was formed by volcanic eruptions and shifting mountains and a lot of topsoil has blown away. Southwest soil is more alkaline than acidic because we get less rain, so you really can’t grow hydrangeas or blueberries without extensive amendment to the soil. Digging in the Southwest often yields caliche or lots of rocks for making garden borders.
Tips on Adapting
To adapt to gardening in Southwest conditions, allow yourself some time and don’t give up. Here are a few more tips to help you succeed:
Southwest Zones and Climate
Know that growing zones and regions vary considerably. You can drive less than 30 minutes and see a marked change in temperature, wind or lushness of the landscape. We have low deserts, high deserts, intermountain and mountain regions. Learn your specific zone.
Ask Fellow Southwest Gardeners
Even with zone information, you should ask gardeners in your new community about first and last frost dates. You might have to delay starting your cucumbers by weeks in the mountains or move dates up by a few months in the low desert. It also helps to review favorite varieties to see how they’ll handle different soil makeup and growing seasons.
Choose Native Plants
Become familiar with native plants that grow in your area. Sources like the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin list native plants by bloom color, state and other features. Native and low-water plants offer plenty of color and texture. Many trees, bushes and succulents have interesting shapes, textures and foliage.
Visit Local Nurseries
Small, independent nurseries in or near your town are most likely to offer native plants and other choices more suited to your climate and soil than are chain stores. Save discount stores mostly for annuals to fill in beds or containers and try local sources for trees, bushes and perennial plants.
Seek Professional Help
If you have no landscaping at your new home, invest in a professional local landscape designer who can help you enjoy your new habitat through plant choices, watering set-up and overall flow and design. It will be money well spent compared with replacing plants that never had a good shot at survival because you didn’t yet know about gardening in your new location.
Follow Local Garden Writers
Find a favorite local author, book or blog in your area. There is a strong East Coast bias in gardening literature and online sources, but you can find local and regional books, newspaper columns, magazines and web sites that focus on Southwest gardening or your community and state. Help lines from local master gardeners or workshops at nearby botanical gardens can get you started.
Hang on to a Favorite
Retain a little bit of your former garden. Work a favorite color into your new garden, or try a compact blueberry in a container, where you can control the soil. Try a small favorite from your last home as a summer annual or a houseplant in a sunny window. If you’ve moved to the desert heat, plant your cooler-weather favorite in a container and place it in on the northeast side of the house for shady afternoons. In the rain barrel photo above is a gorgeous tropical canna in a container. It’s never bloomed in our short summers, but I still love the foliage.
Finally, embrace the wildness of your new natural landscape and learn to love gardens with a more natural than sculptured look. Enjoy the thrill of trying out new plants, harvesting rainwater and spending more time outside in nature.