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It’s Cold in the Desert! Finding Frost Tolerant Landscape Plants

treeblogAs Water Conservation Specialists, we often talk about water in the outdoor landscape, where a large portion of residential water is used.  For this month’s Water Blog, we focus on how selecting plants that are well-adapted to the desert not only saves you water, but can save you from extra yard work as well.

With temperatures now in the downright chilly, it won’t be long until we get our first frosty night.  If you’ve ever wondered why some plants fare better than others after a frost event, it all comes down to adaptability.

The desert is an interesting place. Usually, it is dry and hot, but it can be punctuated by spells of wet and cold. Consider the 16 degree Fahrenheit record low in January 1913 in Phoenix. Some plants can tolerate such extremes.

This isn’t news to Palo Verdes, Mesquites, and Ironwoods—native trees of the Sonoran Desert.   It’s also not news to the trees that are highly adapted (but not necessary native) to our desert, such as Evergreen Elms and Chinese Pistache trees.  “Hardiness” is the ability to withstand below freezing temperatures.  A Velvet Mesquite is hardy to 0 degrees Fahrenheit; an Ironwood, more like 20 degrees F.

Below freezing temperatures can spell trouble for some of the popular non-native landscape trees and shrubs in Gilbert. For example, Ficus trees and Bougainvillea shrubs do well throughout most of the year, but because of their origin in the tropics, they can suffer under frost conditions.

If last winter you experienced the brown, dry, brittle leaf mess that is frost damage, consider replacing sensitive plants with more hardy varieties to eliminate the landscape cleanup in the spring.

There are nearly 200 low-water-use, low-maintenance, and desert-adapted plants to choose from.  Check out the Arizona plant guide here.  We can also mail you a hard copy if you like.  Just visit our website to order or call us at (480) 503-6098.

Choosing plants for your landscape that can tolerate the desert’s extreme heat and intermittent cold could mean less yard work, lower outdoor water use, and a lush looking landscape that still fits in with the natural character of the desert.

Plus, you’ll avoid the frostbitten Ficus look come March.


Q & A with Town of Gilbert Water Conservation Specialists

Question: I like my more exotic, tropical plants.  What can I do to protect these plants in case of cold weather?

Answer: If you have a passion for frost sensitive, non-native plant varieties and want them to thrive in your yard, there are some steps you can take to protect them.

  • Plant frost sensitive plants in the warmer areas of your yard, such as the south and west sides of your house.
  • Place frost cloth (not plastic) around the plant when you hear on the news that a frost event is coming.
  • Find more information on frost protection from your local Cooperative Extension office here.

If you do experience frost damage on your sensitive plants, it is important that you do not prune or remove the dead portions of the plant until the danger of frost has passed (plus, the shoots might not actually be dead; they may sprout new growth when temperatures warm). This is usually sometime around early March. Be patient. If you prune back the damaged portions of the plant too early and then new growth occurs, that new growth could suffer if another frost event hits in mid-February.

Blog Contributor:  Haley Paul, Town of Gilbert Water Conservation Division

Photo Credit: Dr. Chris A. Martin, Arizona State University





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