I’m really only half-joking when I say that gardening in Las Vegas is like gardening on Mars. We have brutal summers where the temperature regularly tops 110°, while our winter nights dip well below freezing at least a couple of times a year. I once heard a soil expert on NPR compare our soil quality to that of Baghdad, a fact that I delight in telling newcomers to the area, just so I can see the look on their faces. But none of this means that you can’t grow plants here; it simply means that you have to work a little harder at it. That’s why I’d like to offer a few tips for gardening in Las Vegas in order to help you realize what’s actually possible here, with a little less heartache and fewer dead plants along the way.
1. Our full sun can beat up your full sun. You know that cute little stake with the instructions for care that came tucked into the pot of your new plant? The one that says it’ll take full sun? It can go directly into the garbage without a second thought. It doesn’t mean Las Vegas full sun. The people who put that stake in there are somewhere in California or maybe central Utah. They have no concept of what full sun here really means, especially at 3 o’clock in the afternoon with no hope of shade for another five hours. Don’t believe those stupid little stakes. They’re filthy liars and you can tell ‘em I said so.
2. Reflected heat is a whole thing here. If you came to the desert from just about anywhere else, this is probably not a concept that you’ve ever had to worry about before. Basically, reflected heat is exactly what it sounds like: sunlight that is reflected off a surface and onto a plant. It might seem pretty straight-forward, but sometimes people don’t realize that it can come from more than just a west-facing block wall. Reflected heat can come off the walls of a house, landscaping rock, sidewalks, windows, pools and even cars that are regularly parked nearby, scorching your plants in a matter of days, or even hours. There are trees, shrubs and flowers that can handle that kind of torture, but there are many, many more that can’t. If you’re looking for something that will thrive in an area with any of these circumstances, you should ask the nursery specifically for plants that will tolerate reflected heat.
3. It does get cold in Vegas, dammit. If I hear one more person from Chicago tell me that it doesn’t get cold in Las Vegas, I’m going to have to slap them hard, and I really don’t want to see it come to that. I understand that it doesn’t seem cold to you, Nanook, but to a plant that thrives in 110° heat, 30°is more than a little bit uncomfortable and your plants are probably going to show a reaction. Now, please don’t make me hit you. I’m such a nice person at heart, I swear.
4. Succulents are not cacti and vice versa. A lot of people who are new to the desert (and some who have lived in it their whole lives) assume that these plants are one in the same, but the fact of the matter is that there are a number of differences between the two. One of the most important things you should know is that cacti can usually take considerably more sun than succulents can. Many succulents actually grow in tropical climates, where the sun is much less harsh than it is in the desert, so one hot afternoon exposed to the heat of the Mojave can easily burn their soft skin. They also aren’t typically equipped to deal with our below freezing temperatures, so you’ll want to plant them in a protected area or be prepared to throw some burlap or a blanket over them at night in the wintertime. Some cacti will also need protection from the cold, something that comes as a surprise to a lot of new desert gardeners.
5. Cacti and succulents should get no water from November through March. That’s right, you can go for five months without watering these plants. There are a couple of reasons for letting cacti and succulents go dry during the winter months in Vegas and other mild winter areas. Since a lot of them basically shut down during the colder seasons and take up very little or no water, if you keep putting water on their roots, you’re setting them up for rot. If, on the other hand, we have a mild winter and a plant remains active, taking water up, its skin becomes all nice and plump with moisture. Then, when we have our inevitable hard freeze in January or February, that internal water freezes and expands, often splitting the skin and damaging the plant beyond repair.
6. Plants have a lifespan. And the thing is, the lifespan of non-native plants here tends to be a bit shorter than in other places. Our climate stresses plants out, with both the heat and the cold doing a number on certain trees and shrubs. These stresses will often reduce the life expectancy of some of the most popular landscaping plants in our city. Those pretty flowering plums that you love to see bloom every spring? If you get 20 years out of one in Las Vegas, you’re doing pretty good. The same goes for privets, hawthorns and many other leafy green plants. You can buy yourself at least a few extra years by fertilizing on a regular basis and watering deep and infrequently to establish deep-rooted plants. Here’s an explanation of what actually constitutes deep and infrequent water.
7. Desert plants, on the other hand, will often outlive you. The lifespan of desert plants can often be a hundred years or much, much longer. Dwarf Joshua trees are a good example of a native plant that will live for centuries, growing slowly to a height of no more than about 15’ in that time. Creosote, turpentine broom and Mojave yuccas are also natives to our desert that are known to live for several hundred years at least. Work these into your landscape and your children’s great-great grandchildren could very well be looking at the same plant that you did, with little-to-no maintenance required on your part. For a fascinating read on long-lived plants of the Mojave Desert, check out this article by Chris Clarke for KCET.org.
Now, if you’re new to desert gardeing, sincerely, welcome to this world. I hope that you’ll find the plants here as endlessly compelling and rewarding as I do. Also, I promise not to hit you, even if you’re from Chicago.