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How does a desert garden grow?

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If you’re into gardening, you know how delicate the balance can be between flourishing success and wilted disaster. From the soil to the sun and everything in-between, sometimes it feels like everything is working against you when it comes to growing the perfect plants. It’s been a particular battle this year, after 2018’s heatwaves left many gardeners with crunchy grass and lightly-toasted flowers.

So, imagine how hard it must be out in desert biomes! Can anything grow in the sandy ground, baking under the hot sun? Well, as the beautiful Dubai Miracle Garden proves, yes they can! But gardening in harsher climates requires so many different techniques than gardeners in wetter, colder climates might realise.

Let’s explore the techniques and designs deployed by desert gardeners, and who knows — you might pick up a few tips or design choices that you can implement as a unique feature to your own garden!

Considering soil types

Obviously, the soil type in desert regions is a lot different than what we’re used to over here. With a lack of water, the ground is incredibly dry — known as Aridisols, or dry soil. For extreme desert conditions, such as in parts of Australia and in the Sahara, the soil type is called Entisols. You might be surprised to know that Aridisols, despite their dry nature, are actually very fertile. It’s the lack of water that causes the problem of sustaining plants.

So, with the soil type actually lending plenty of nutrients for plants to flourish, a desert gardener needs to look towards combating the age-old desert problem: water.

A happy accident

How to provide water efficiently to desert plants was a problem that would be solved by chance. In the 1930s, Polish-Israeli water engineer Simcha Blass worked in the Negev Desert. Out in the harsh environment, Blass noticed a strange occurrence — one tree was thriving where the rest of the foliage struggled. The tree was, above the surface, apparently growing quickly without any rainwater to sustain it. All great discoveries start with trees, it seems!

Blass investigated the matter further, and came across a small leak in a nearby water pipe. The tiny break in the pipe was dripping a steady, slow supply of water onto the tree’s roots. Thus sparked the inspiration of Blass’ invention that would conserve water while sustaining plant life in harsh conditions — drip irrigation. Drip irrigation became essential to successful plant growing in the desert, as directing the water to roots meant less water was lost through evaporation. It is as much about efficient water usage as it is about encouraging plants to grow.

A problem of sunshine

Though the power of engineering has addressed the issue of effective and efficient watering, not all plants will grow in the desert. After all, you need to consider how the plant is affected above the soil as well as below it.

The Permaculture Life points out that a lack of water is only the start of desert challenges when it comes to cultivating plants and vegetables. Desert plants have to be made of stern stuff to live under the scorching sun and be battered by the drying, hot, high winds. Plants might traditionally need plenty of sun and some water to grow, but out in the desert, gardeners discover “too much of a good thing” absolutely applies to plants and sunshine!

Plants suffer heat stress if exposed to the sun for too long, with the potential for their leaves to even scorch. In an environment where sunlight is in abundance, plants marked “full sun” need around 6-8 hours of direct sunlight. For some of us, the chance would be a fine thing, but out in the desert, this is a very small amount of time when desert cities like Dubai usually have 12 hours or more of daylight a day.

How do you control how much sunlight your plants get though? The Permaculture Life advises created areas of shade in the garden as follows:

  • 70% shade to the west and southwest — to reduce the amount of intense, late afternoon sun hitting the plants
  • 50% shade overhead — a little less on account of getting less direct sun that way
  • 50% shade to the south — to cover the morning sun, but you could have lighter shade coverage here too
  • 0-20% shade to the east — again, to cover the morning sun, which is the gentlest

Shade can be cast with artificial components or a shade cloth, or even with the shadow of a large tree.

Weathering the wind

The hot, drying wind can wreak havoc with desert plants too. This wind will suck the moisture right out of, well, anything! Coupled with sand being whipped up in the air, and you have yourself a seriously difficult gardening situation.

A dirt berm can be built to channel the damaging wind higher to protect your plants from its ferocity and its drying nature. Other potential blockades against the wind could be trees, hedges, or a lattice wall.

Picking the right plants

No matter how hard you work, just like with any biome, some plants are just better suited to the environment than others. Some plants are noted to be “drought tolerant”, so these make for a clear choice. Cacti are another clear winner — their hardy nature and water-retention makes them the superstar of desert survival.

Agave and many types of aloe plant will also fare well in a desert garden, and date palms are a go-to in many hotter climates, as it grows so well under the hot sun and even produces fruit too!

For a splash of colour, bougainvillea is a drought-tolerant bloom that would look lovely in a desert garden flower bed. Tropical hibiscus is another well-loved desert flower, and blooms in a variety of colours.

To give plants their best shot, desert gardeners rely on heavy mulching. The Prairie Homestead comments how this act has three benefits for desert gardening. One, mulch helps to suppress weeds. Two, it locks that all-important moisture into the soil. And three, mulches act as a shield to protect the soil and the bottom of plants from the sun and wind.

Bringing a ray of the desert to any garden

If you love the tropical appeal of a desert garden, but don’t live in these hotter places, worry not! We can bring a little taste of the desert to your back garden.

The classic cactus is a great way to give a desert feel to your garden. They come in a fantastic array of shapes and sizes, so you can experiment with positioning them around different areas of your garden. Just be sure to consider their needs in the winter — don’t water them directly before cold weather, as cacti have a better chance of surviving the frost if the soil around them is dry. Covering the tips of a cactus plant can also help shield them from the cold; time to knit some cactus-hats!

Grass doesn’t survive well out in the desert, so a true desert garden isn’t likely to feature it. But you don’t need to tear up your whole lawn! You could dedicate a corner of the garden as a little desert oasis by lacking grass there but plenty of succulents and leafy desert palms, and decorate it with rugged rocks. For fencing, go for ocotillo rib-style fencing for a look straight out of Arizona. This natural-looking fence consists of branches tied with wire for a really back-to-basics fence that blends in with the nature around it.

There’s a unique beauty to desert gardens, not only for their tropical array of plants but their resilience in the face of such difficult weather conditions. At the very least, we’ll feel a little luckier when we see the rainclouds forming overhead in our own gardens!












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