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.

Dead palo blanco

Plants that have failed (usually frozen)

Plant selection

My journey to a desert garden includes a few bumps. I am a fan of native plants only because I’ve tried some that aren’t native and I’ve been disappointed in the results. One reason I’ve killed so many plants is my elevation is higher than the central Phoenix valley and retailers sell plants that can’t tolerate frost. Here is a sampling of the plants I’ve killed and the reasons why.


Palo blanco

I had three Palo blancos that reached 12 feet tall when an extended (4 nights) of frost killed them. I decided not to try again because it is too hard to cover a large wispy tree to prevent frost damage. If you live somewhere without frost, these trees are lovely in groves.

Dead palo blanco


This ferny African tree dies to the ground at every frost. My husband wanted one badly enough to plant three before giving up. If you don’t mind it dying back and regrowing to look like a bush, you can try it.


Yellow bells

I have four yellow bells bushes that repeatedly die to the ground after frost and then regrow. I like them enough to allow them to stay in the ground. If one ever doesn’t regrow I won’t replant it.

Yellow bells blooming


We found hibiscus bushes on sale in the fall and planted three. The frost killed two of the three that winter. I cover the remaining one during frost, but it still dies back nearly to the ground.


I love the bright pink flowers but after my bougainvillea died to the ground two winters in a row, I didn’t want to continually retrain it every year. I also had it planted with low water plants and it needed extra watering, which I had to do by hand.




I tried a couple of lantana, but when they died to the ground the first winter I decided I didn’t want to bother with them. They are overused anyway. Another thing I didn’t like about lantana–they were always covered in tiny white flies.

Prickly pear

I over-watered one prickly pear that I transplanted. It had three arms that fell off the mother plant. I put each in pots and started new prickly pear. I didn’t feel bad about this one because I got three plants instead of one.