Surviving Arizona Summer


August felt blisteringly long this year. With the nuclear heat, I didn’t go outside much. Just enjoyed the view of my landscape from indoors. Now that it’s September and the nighttime lows are coming down, it’s time to get outside and see how my plants survived.

Most of my established plants made it through just fine. The front yard irrigation timer shorted out and nothing got watered for about a month. Things started showing signs of stress, but I hand watered and got the system running again. The Spanish dagger and yellow bells showed the worst stress, along with a young slipper plant.


Spanish dagger showing signs of heat stress. This yucca likes regular water.


A young slipper plant has brown at the base of each stalk. It may be too damaged to survive.

In the back yard, I should have watered my smaller/younger cacti to help them through. Many showed signs of sunburn at the end of August. I didn’t notice any sunburn in mid-August when I looked at the yard, but at the end of the month, BAM! The summer rains washed away most of the basins around my plants, so last week I rebuilt them. Now I’ll be able to give them larger drinks. A little attention and everything will flourish.


Baby Cardon with yellow and black sunburn. A cardon is a cousin to the saguaro.


Parry’s agave losing lower leaves


Small hedgehog cactus with sunburn


Small golden barrel cactus sunburn

Some heat stress is normal for this time of year. The brittlebrush and penstemon go dormant the entire plant may appear dead. My rose bush looks seriously neglected. We have a row of bell pepper plants in the garden that amazingly survived (with daily water), though the peppers roasted on the plants before we could eat them. I’m hoping the plants will be able to produce better through the fall, to make it worth keeping them alive.


Brittlebrush and jojoba


Bell pepper in the summer garden


Blue agave that died from an agave beetle. Since I don’t treat my plants with insecticide, all of my blue agaves will eventually die and be replaced by the pups.

Our neighborhood experienced some saguaro carnage this summer as monsoon winds ripped through our street. A five foot saguaro broke off near the base. It had previously developed cracks from overwatering and couldn’t withstand the wind.


Fallen saguaro

A reminder that even tough native plants can succumb.

The contracted pleats of my young saguaros indicated they need a drink. I’ll water them weekly until they plump back up. Remember that a saguaro will absorb all of the water its roots allow, so watering when the ribs are expanded can lead to the cracking that killed my neighbor’s plant.


Baby saguaro with contracted ribs. I put a paper towel over the top to shade the sunburn.


Baby saguaro with expanded ribs.


How did my cactus die? Over- and under-watering and sunburn.

Cactus care

Prickly pear skeleton

A few quick tips on why newly planted cacti die.


If a cactus stays wet too long, it will start to rot. The roots die and the plant will get discolored and soft. If you catch it early, you can save the plant by allowing to thoroughly dry out. Re-time your watering to allow the soil to become completely dry between watering. Recently one of the prickly pear pads I tried to root rotted instead.

Prickly pear start rotted


Cacti love the sun. But a new plant from a greenhouse was definitely grown in complete shade. Exposing it to a full day of bright sun can scorch the cactus’ skin. You can harden it off by leaving it under a tree that gives filtered sun. Or you can plant it and provide shade, gradually decreasing the shade until it can stand the sun. I don’t buy shade cloth. My cheap version is… a paper towel! Ta da! Paper towel shade cloth gradually wears off over time, allowing the plant to harden off.


Not all cacti can be planted and forgotten. All newly planted cacti should be watered regularly the first year to get them established. I don’t water more than once a week and not less than once every two weeks.

Once established, monitor your cacti and you will be able to tell if they are getting stressed from lack of water. Prickly pears get wrinkly in the summer without a drink (once every 2 weeks keeps them very happy). Cholla never need extra water once established. I water saguaros regularly to encourage growth.