Growing Plants in the Desert

Meredith Gaines — Apr 20, 2022

Unless you live in the desert and have experienced its climate, you might think a desert is a place that’s barren, flat, and devoid of life beyond some spiky cacti and a tumbleweed rolling by. While there’s some truth to this description, it’s largely generalized, as there are several types of deserts in the world. These kinds of deserts range from very cold in Antarctica to very hot in the Sahara. Each has a unique life of its own, unlike any other place in the world.



Keep reading to better understand deserts better, what makes them up, and most importantly, how to grow your favorite desert plants.

What is a Desert?

To start understanding the characteristics of the desert, it’s best to begin with the Earth’s different biomes. A biome consists of the animals, plants and weather that define a geographic location like a rainforest or, you guessed it, a desert. The key feature that sets the desert apart from other biomes is the amount of rainfall it receives. To be defined as a desert, an area must receive less than 10 inches of rainfall per year. This is a very little amount of rain, and when combined with evaporation, makes deserts characteristically dry. New York City gets, on average, around 50 inches of rain per year and Texas receives about 30 inches per year for comparison.

Types of Deserts

Deserts exist on every continent, but not all deserts are the same. Below are some different types of deserts and where they’re located.

Subtropical

Subtropical deserts have to do with how the Earth’s winds move near the equator. This movement of winds discourages clouds, and no clouds equal no rain. The Sahara Desert in Northern Africa is one of the largest examples of a subtropical desert.

Subtropical desert

Coastal

Coastal deserts are unique since they have plenty of fog but still no rain. As the name suggests, you find these deserts alongside the ocean, specifically where cold ocean currents are, like in the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Coastal

Rain Shadow

For a rain shadow desert to exist, it has to be close to some mountains. The shape of the mountain range directs air and results in half of the mountain becoming lush and green with abundant water and the other side being dry. Death Valley in the U.S. is an example of a rain shadow desert, thanks to the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.

rain shadow

Interior

Interior deserts are completely landlocked with no mountains to direct the wind. They mainly occur deep inland where the moisture from the coast and other areas simply doesn’t reach. The Gobi Desert in China is a fantastic example of this.

interior

Polar

Polar deserts are near the poles in the Arctic and Antarctic. They contain a lot of water, but due to the cold temperatures, none of this water is available for plants and animals to use and there’s little rainfall, making it a desert.

Deserts are so diverse that scientists further classify them based on their temperature and how arid they are. arctic desert

Arid Deserts

Think of stereotypical deserts that are hot, dry and sandy, and you have the arid desert. The Mojave is an example of these where sand dunes shift and the sun is relentless.

arid desert

Semi-Arid

If you take the arid desert but turn the temperature down, you have a semi-arid desert. The state of Nevada is almost completely a semi-arid desert where the temperatures don’t exceed 100F in the summer but they can also get snow.

semi-arid desert

Temperate or Cold Deserts

Cold means very, very cold, as in lower than -40F. There’s quite a range in cold deserts with the coldest being towards the poles in the Arctic and the warmest being in the Gobi desert. arctic desert

Life in the Desert

Desert life is often thought to be extreme or unlivable, but certain wildlife not only survives but thrives in desert climates. This wildlife has to overcome many obstacles to sustain life, making the plants and animals you do find in desert environments unique and irreplaceable. Even civilizations have understood how to survive in a seemingly un-survivable place.

Barriers to Life in the Desert

There are certain obstacles that all living organisms face in the desert, but there are also solutions to these problems. Over many years, animals and plants have found creative ways to survive, even in the most extreme environments. Take a look at some of these obstacles and their solutions below.


Obstacle

Creative Solution

Little Water

Water is present in the desert (in underground basins or frozen), but if you can’t reach it you can’t use it. Plants have to be creative and that’s why cacti have their signature shape. Extra water is stored inside, giving cacti and succulents a plump appearance, while the thorns are modified leaves to reduce water loss during the day. Other plants have short life cycles or become dormant when not enough water is present to conserve energy.

Intense Sun

With the sun beating down on you all day you’d expect shade would be a welcome relief, but when it comes to desert plants, the intense sun is no worry. Plants in the desert respirate at night instead of the day (typical of other plants). This way they can focus on harvesting energy during the day and converting it during the night.

Extreme Temperatures

Not only do deserts get very hot and very cold; they can go from one extreme to the other in the span of one day! To cope with the weather changes, plants take on a variety of different survival techniques like maximizing water uptake, minimizing water loss, going dormant quickly or increasing the amount of sugars in cells to avoid freezing!


Growing Plants in the Desert

Whether you live in the desert or just want to grow some desert plants, here’s some general requirements that will help your desert plants thrive.

Sun

It's no secret that desert plants love sunshine. Most desert plants will need full sun or at least 8 hours of bright or direct sunlight per day to be happy. If there’s too little sunlight, your plant might be elongated or experience slower growth.

sun in desert

Soil

Desert soils aren’t the rich black kind that you would grow a vegetable garden in. They’re mainly composed of little organic matter and high mineral content. The texture should be sand-like and crumble even when wet. Look for mixes that are made for cacti or use additives like sand, gravel, perlite or vermiculite to aid in texture. The goal is to have little moisture held to the roots and a nice loose texture with excellent drainage and air spaces.

Temperature

Warm temperatures are best, but desert plants can withstand some cold. Make sure to look up the temperature requirements of your specific plants and protect them if the temperatures get too cold. If you’re experiencing colder temperatures and are unable to bring your plants indoors, try covering them with a frost blanket and reduce watering before the frost hits. Placing rocks as mulch around the plants will also aid in keeping the plants and soil warm.

Nutrition

Cacti do surprisingly well in poor nutrient conditions and can actually suffer in nutrient-dense soil, but they’ll still need some nutrients in order to perform their best. Try using a cactus specific fertilizer during the growing season at least once per year or as often as the manufacturer recommends. They’re sensitive to overfeeding so make sure to go light on the fertilizer and flush the soil if you notice a buildup. Diluting a fertilizer is also good practice when feeding cacti and other desert plants.

Water

Water is the most common reason succulents, cacti and other desert plants don’t make it. Desert plants will make the most of any water you give them. Hold off on watering until it’s needed. If you have a tendency to overwater, make sure your container has many drainage holes and the soil mix doesn’t retain moisture.

wet grass

Location

Deserts can experience lots of wind, and in some cases, humidity. They don’t mind taking up space and don't do well when crowded. Make sure you’re spacing your plants appropriately based on the mature size they’ll grow to and ensure the area has good airflow with lower humidity if possible. If you live in an area with higher humidity, make sure there’s room for plants to dry out a bit and not hold moisture to avoid fungal issues.

Busting Desert Myths

There are many misconceptions about the desert in general, especially when it comes to growing things in it. Below, we’ve busted some popular desert plant myths that people often believe. Take a look to keep learning about desert life!

No Flowers or Colors Beyond Green

If you’re fortunate enough to time your visit to the desert right, you’ll be blown away by the colors you’ll see. Iridescent pinks, whites, and purples with bold yellows and reds all contrast against a bright green. Deserts are full of color! The trick is that the color never lasts long so you have to enjoy it while you can, as most flowers on cacti only last a day.

Everything has Thorns

The thorns, spines and prickles that are common on most desert plants are actually modified leaves! With water being such a precious resource in the desert, modifying leaves to be small and sharp saves water, even if it means that they’re uninviting. However, not all desert plants will have this adaptation, so if you’re wanting to avoid getting poked, we suggest staying clear of agaves and cacti.

The Soil isn’t Fertile

The soil you find in the desert will not be dark and rich and able to sustain just any plant. There are some hidden nutrients in the soil, but most aren’t widely available due to the lack of moisture. The good news is that desert plants don't expect the sandy and dry soils to be particularly fertile and adapt to what is there.

There are no Pollinators

Without pollinators, we would have no life, and this includes the desert. All plants have to be very selective and picky when it comes to opening their flowers at the right time by using pollinators. Desert pollinators include the wind, birds, butterflies, bees, and bats. Some pollinators visit the desert along their migratory routes instead of living there year-round, which might lead to the misconception that they don't exist.

pollinator on plant

Plant Don't Need Water

Desert plants need water too - they just don't need as much water as other plants do. Think of a succulent that has thick, rounded leaves. It doesn't like much water because it has become an expert at holding water to survive the long wait until the next rain comes. So, it's not a lack of water; it's just a less frequent need for water. Desert plants, too, would die without the presence of water.

There’s Little Selection of Plants, Only Cacti

Cacti are a family of plants that can look very different from one another, but no, that’s not the only plant family you can find. Members of the grass, mint, rose, pea, sunflower and agave family are all found in deserts, as well, making the desert a diverse climate filled with all sorts of plants!

Everything That’s Planted There Dies

You should know by now that there’s LIFE in the desert! But, just like if you were to plant a palm tree in a cold place and it wouldn't survive, if you don’t choose the right plant for desert conditions, it may not survive. It's all about having the right plant for the right place.

Our Favorite Desert Plants

There’s so many wonderful desert plants to enjoy! From bright colors and unique textures to easy care, unusual growth and versatility, the benefits are aplenty. Check out a few of our top desert plant picks below to be inspired!

La Jolla Bougainvillea

desert style landscape

Deserts are notorious for being misunderstood, but knowing what you now know, we hope you can appreciate the unique beauty of desert life and all the wildlife it's home to. Try out a succulent or cactus in your yard or create an entire desert landscape. Shop our full collection of drought tolerant plants to get started!

    Meredith Gaines

    Meredith's love for plants started at a young age, and only grew when she started working in the Desert Exhibit at the South Carolina Botanical Gardens and the Historic Filoli Estate in the Bay Area. After graduating from Clemson University (GO TIGERS!) with a degree in Biology and Horticulture, she found her niche in the FastGrowingTrees.com family as a horticulturist and has grown in her current role as Senior Plant Expert.

    She currently resides in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, and enjoys spending any time she can outdoors. She learns new things about plants every day and loves sharing her plant knowledge and tips with those around her. Her favorite plant is constantly changing, but her long-time favorites are peonies, oak trees, and ferns.

    Questions? Contact Meredith at information@fastgrowingtrees.com.

    Plant problems? We're here to help!
    We've put together the ultimate guide to diagnosing and treating common plant problems, from brown leaves to leggy growth, yellowing foliage and more. Download the guide below!