7 Things You Should Know About Gardening In Las Vegas

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.

This Japanese blueberry tree is getting a lot of reflected heat from the concrete surrounding it.

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.

The golden barrel cactus grows naturally in the Mojave, so no protection or irrigation is required.
The golden barrel cactus grows naturally in the Mojave, so there’s no need for irrigation or special care.

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.

A dwarf Joshua tree in Las Vegas. www.gardeningonmars.com
A dwarf Joshua tree in Las Vegas. www.gardeningonmars.com

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.






  • Just moved here to Las Vegas from Saint Petersburg , Fl. I just love taking care of a garden but it seems things are alot different here .Just purchased a new home a town house that gives me not much of a option for the gardening I use to have. I have a court yard aprox. 30 by 20 ft.concrct . The boarders aprox 2.5 ft on three sides so most of my plantings will be in pots. There is 2 huge date palms on the north side that shades most of the yard with a shade screen on west side . What can I plant in ground now or keep in pots . Is anything now I can do or do I have to wait for spring. And when will that be .Can you refer me to a book web site? I am so out of my element here but I have the need to Garden

    • Welcome to Vegas, Frank! I guess we’re about as different as a place can get from Florida, but once you get your bearings, I’m sure you’ll do just fine. The good news is, you can grow just about anything in a container, as long as the container is large enough for the plant’s roots to grow. That means, you may have to stick with plants that stay smaller or that you’ll need to have larger containers. I also grow some things with the knowledge that it’s going to outgrow my place at some point so I just plan to give it away when it gets too big. I do have a consulting service and you can feel free to email me at julie@gardeningonmars.com for details or you can check out the UNLV Master Gardener’s program at for solid gardening advice. I’d also definitely plan a visit to the Springs Preserve for some inspiration and guidance. I wish you and your new plants the best of luck!

  • How about palm trees? I moved here from the tropics and I have no idea what to do with my palms in the cold of winter. I already lost 2.

    • Hi Christine,
      Welcome to Mars! Do you know what kind of palms you lost this winter? The pygmy date palms and queen palms are the two most commonly lost here due to the cold. I don’t usually plant them because of that but if you want to try again remember to either wrap them (the heart of the palm, where the new growth comes out) and/or put lights on them (the old kind that get warm) to help them through a cold spell. Just be aware that if we get a prolonged period of really cold temperatures, they still may not make it through, even with the aforementioned precautions. Good luck 🙂

  • We’ve had a Jade plant that is actually a tree thrive for 20+ Years. I have to relocate to Las Vegas , I’m worried it may die with the hot dry weather. What would you suggest, is it possible to migrate to the desert with my old green friend ?

    • Oh gosh, that would worry me too, Diane. I’d definitely make it a houseplant during the winter here and probably during the summer as well just to avoid having to move a tree in and out twice a year. It should be fine outdoors in a protected spot during the warmer months (April-Octoberish) if it needs more light though. Just keep in mind that the summer sun is intense and can scald that soft leaf tissue pretty quickly, especially one that’s never been exposed to it. I wish you all the best and hope you love it here as much as we do 🙂

  • Hello, You might have the answer to my question. I have a small backyard, 18 feet long by 50 feet wide. I am thinking of planting 2 Japanese Blueberry evergreen trees, one at each end of the yard. I have never heard of this tree before so I hesitate to purchase 2 without more information. According to all my reading they have an extensive root system but that might not be good for a small backyard. Also they can grow to 30 feet tall, I’m thinking that may be too large for a small yard. I love the idea of small white flowers but I wonder how messy the berries are when they fall? Is there such a thing as a dwarf Japanese Blueberry? That maybe the solution to my problem. Thank you, any advise will greatly be appreciated.

    • Hi Carol, I hope you haven’t made a decision on the trees just yet. Japanese blueberries aren’t a species I would recommend for Vegas for a couple of reasons. They hate our soil and heat, making for a pretty distressed tree overtime. That being said, I’ve seen some lovely specimens that have been in for years in the right spot- in or near a lawn, not subjected to refelected heat and with regular soil amendments. I’ve never seen a Japanese blueberry make it to 30′ tall or do damage to a wall but that’s probably because even the healthiest ones in our valley have a much shorter lifespan than those planted in milder climates and in richer soil.

      The main mess you’ll get from a Japanese blueberry will likely stem from its sloughing off period in the late spring/early summer. The tree drops foliage for a few weeks as it prepares to put on new growth. Also, I don’t think there’s a dwarf variety available but I’ve not looked into because it’s not something I’d specify for a design.

      The small trees I’d recommend considering are greek myrtle (Myrtus communis), mastic pistache (Pistacia lentiscus) or Silver Sierra Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora ‘Silver Sierra’). Much better suited to our region 🙂 Good luck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *