Desert Gardening Book Recommendations

Successful landscaping in the Southwest requires a different set of techniques than used by gardeners in most of the country.  Whether you’re new to the desert southwest, or you’re looking for some fresh gardening ideas, every gardener’s favorite non-gardening hobby is reading about gardening. Here is a collection of desert gardening books we recommend.

A Desert Gardener’s Companion by Kim Nelson

Master Gardener Kim Nelson provides a wealth of information in an easy-to-use seasonal format, covering what to do week-by-week in desert climates.

Nevada Gardener’s Guide by Linn Mills

This book contains easy-to-use advice on the top landscape plant choices.   It also recommends specific varieties, and provides advice on how to plant, how to grow and how to care for the best plants.

Month by Month Gardening in the Deserts of Nevada by Mary Irish

The Month-By-Month series is the perfect companion to take the guesswork out of gardening. With this book, you’ll know what to do each month to have gardening success all year.

Desert Gardening for Beginners: How to Grow Vegetables, Flowers and Herbs in an Arid Climate by Cathy Cromell, Linda A. Guy, and Lucy K. Bradley

Plain and simply packaged, this book does not have gorgeous illustrations or lush photographs, but the information contained within is excellent. From choosing a site to ways to improve soil structure, all the basics that gardeners need for this region are covered. The authors do offer a few suggestions on selecting plant varieties for the desert as well as an appendix devoted to growing calendars for vegetables, fruits, and herbs.

Plants For Dry Climates: How To Select, Grow, And Enjoy by Mary Rose Duffield

Plants for Dry Climates comprises both good landscape design and essential cultural information for nearly 450 plants. It gives readers all the information they need to plan a complete landscape that includes both mini-oasis features as well as arid-landscape plantings.

Sunset Western Garden Book

What plants to grow, how to nurture them, and where they do the very best, it’s all here. The most recent edition of Sunset includes more than 8,000 plant selections for western states. While not all plants in this book are suitable for the desert, this book is a great place to get ideas and understand plant requirements.

Desert Landscaping for Beginners: Tips and Techniques for Success in an Arid Climatby Arizona Master Gardener Press

Desert Landscaping for Beginners contains the latest research-based information from the University of Arizona, written in user-friendly language. Topics covered include selecting and transplanting trees and shrubs, watering desert landscapes, pruning, plant problems and pests, cacti and succulents, wildflowers, roses, citrus, lawns, and the magic of desert plants.

Trichocereus hybrid Flying Saucer blossom

Trichocereus hybrid ‘Flying Saucer’ blossom

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Norm’s Caesalpinia Chit Chat: A Primer on the Birds of Paradise

Caesalpinia pulcherrima (Red Bird of Paradise)

Caesalpinia pulcherrima (Red Bird of Paradise)

It’s wintertime in the desert, and even with our relatively mild climate, not all plants respond well to a cold season planting. So, what not to plant this time of year? The first plant that comes to my mind is the summer-time favorite, Red Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima).

Native to the West Indies, Central and South America, the Red Bird of Paradise is a well-adapted for our hot climate and poor soils. This tropical-looking plant produces large, colorful clusters of orange-red flowers from summer until the first frost, and boasts lush, green, fern-like foliage. Red Bird of Paradise adds superb showy color and a tropical flare to the garden.

It has been my experience that Red Bird of Paradise only takes off well if planted in warm

Caesalpinia pulcherrima (Red Bird of Paradise)

Caesalpinia pulcherrima (Red Bird of Paradise)

weather, so we limit planting them from May through September. If requested by a customer, we inform them of what we know in regards to time of year of planting and let them decide, but really advocate only planting them when nighttime temperatures are above 60°F. Red Bird of Paradise does go dormant in the wintertime, but makes a colorful comeback in late spring. The amazing flower show makes it well worth tolerating its cold weather downtime.

Caesalpinia mexicana (Mexican Bird of Paradise)

Caesalpinia mexicana (Mexican Bird of Paradise)

Unlike the Red Bird of Paradise, its cousin the Mexican Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia mexicana) has a longer planting season, ranging from early spring to mid-fall. Because it does have the potential for cold damage, and younger plants die in cold more readily than more established specimens, I do not recommend planting the Mexican Bird of Paradise from October to mid-February. C. Mexicana does well in the Vegas valley, and only freezes back in the coldest of years. It will remain evergreen in warmer part of the valley, but will shed foliage when frost occurs. If it does not receive cold damage, it can grow into a small tree of about 8-10′ in height and spread.

Caesalpinia mexicana (Mexican Bird of Paradise)

Caesalpinia mexicana (Mexican Bird of Paradise)

Mexican Bird of Paradise is especially striking in the warmer months when its dark green, fern-like foliage provides a backdrop for the bright yellow flower spikes erupting from the tips of its woody branches. Speaking of erupting, the Mexican Bird of Paradise has a very interesting way of spreading seed! After flowering, the plant forms pea-like seed pods. As the pods mature and dry, the two sides begin to twist, but in directions opposite one another; each side holds the other in check. The tension increases over time until it reaches a point where it can’t hold it anymore, and then, pop! –the pod pops open with a loud snapping sound and scatters the seeds a great distance, often 20 feet or more. Though C. mexicana does look similar to C. pulcherrima, it can be differentiated by flower color and by the size of the individual leaflets of C. mexicana being much larger than those of C. pulcherrima.

Though in the same genus (Caesalpinia) as the Mexican and Red Birds of Paradise, the Yellow Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia gilliesii) seems to be much more challenged here, especially long-term. The flowers are particularly showy, with a combination of yellow petals and red stamens. If requested by a client, I inform them that it tends to get borers, and suffers from discoloration and die-back of stem tissue, as well as sporadic die-back of random portions of the plant. Over the years, this plant has seemed quite unreliable to me, and thus – no thank you!

Not the Bird of Paradise plants you were thinking of? The other Bird of Paradise plants that are totally different and unrelated to the Caesalpinia are the Birds of Paradise in the Strelitzia genus. Planted on occasion in the Vegas valley, Tropical Birds of Paradise (S. reginae, and S. nicolai) have large, thick, deep green leaves and a springtime blossom that resembles the head of a bird. Tropical Birds of Paradise need lots of water, prefer rich organic soils, and require protection from cold. As you can probably guess, they usually don’t do well in Southern Nevada, except for the rare moist, protected microclimate. Of the two, I’ve only seen the smaller one, S. reginae, survive in an outdoor planting.

Remember, plant the right plant in the right place – and it sure helps if you’re planting it at the right time of year. Happy digging to you!