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The good, the bad and the ugly in Arizona landscaping

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Arizona is a “land of challenges,” according to Mary Irish, former director of horticulture at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

She notes in her book, “Arizona Gardener’s Guide,” that “soils do not appear as fertile as they were in a previous home, and rocks are a way of life … rain is just a dream in some seasons.”

So anyone who gardens here knows that choosing the right plants or trees is very important in our rugged climate. We asked Jay Harper of Harper’s Nursery in Scottsdale, and John Eisenhower of Integrity Tree Service what are the really good, the bad and the ugly among the plants you can use in an Arizona garden?

Here’s what we learned.

There are hundreds of good plants out there for Arizona landscaping. Specifically, they mentioned:

  • Texas sage – One of the most common evergreen shrubs you’ll find in the lower desert. They love the heat, they’re drought-tolerant and they thrive in our alkaline soils.
  • Bougainvillea: Tough shrubs that blooms from October to May and can tolerate heat and alkaline soil.
  • Red bird of paradise: This summer-blooming, subtropical shrub loves the heat and the desert. They lose their leaves in winter and are often pruned back.
  • Lantana: This is one of the most reliable plants for desert gardens. It also comes in varieties with several different colors of blooms. They can be low and trailing or large and shrubby.
  • Texas live oak: These large, stately trees can reach 50 feet tall. They have acorns and dark brown bark.

The bad plants? These are things that you can often plant here but that often have problems for various reasons. They aren’t really bad, according to Harper, they’re just planted in the wrong place:

  • Queen palms: These palms are widely sold, but are ones that often do poorly in desert areas. They don’t like our alkaline soils and the summers here are too hot, dry and long. You can baby them along and they still won’t respond very well.
  • Cottonwood trees: These can be fast-growing shade trees but they require too much water for some gardeners.
  • Junipers: These aren’t planted very much in Phoenix and Yuma because they don’t do well there. But gardeners mainly avoid them because they’re too Midwestern in style.
  • Green fountain grass: This ornamental grass has fallen out of favor because it grows too well and can be invasive. It’s so aggressive, it can take over hillside and natural areas. Purple fountain grass is OK to plant.
  • Dalbergia sissoo: This is a tree that many homeowners plant because it’s lush and fast-growing. Sissoos can grow to 35 to 40 feet, providing lots of shade, but their vigorous root systems can invade underground irrigation lines, sidewalks, block walls and even lawns.

When we talked about ugly, Harper would only say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Most shrubs can become ugly because someone didn’t take good care of them or because they were planted in the wrong place.”

Eisenhower agreed: “A tree is ugly if it doesn’t fit the spot, it’s too tall or grows too wild. I believe in the concept of planting the right tree for the right spot.”

For more information, visit these links to learn more about the toughest plants to grow in Arizona and the plants that love Arizona a little too much.

And if you are in need of a quality contractor you know you can trust, visit our list of Arizona’s very best contractors or service providers for your home improvement projects at, Arizona’s most-trusted referral network.

Tune in to KTAR News 92.3 FM every Saturday morning from 7-11 a.m. for the Rosie on the House broadcast!

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