You Can Grow A Colorful Garden in the Desert

Colorful flowers in the heat of a desert summer? Sure! And without spending tons of water either!


Most of the folks reading this article enjoy color in our life – in the gardeners sense of the term that is. “Color” is the term for flowering plants that the Green Industry uses (nurseries, landscape designers, and the like).

Color in the landscape provides us with something bright and cheerful to greet us as we look out the window with the morning cup of coffee, or something welcome us home from the daily grind. Bright, colorful flowers bring people joy (just ask a florist!) Lucky for us, “color” in the Southwest is a year round thing – especially if we use some annuals.

Cock’s comb is a relative of the edible amaranth.

Colorful Choices

There are over 10,000 trees, shrubs, and perennial plants that can grow in the the Land of El Sol – and they all have bloom times that run from January through December! Not only every month of the year, but also every season, and unlike other areas of the world, we have more than four seasons.  When it comes to plants blooming, you can divide the flowering year into summer, but also monsoon season, early fall, late fall, winter, early spring, and late spring. Such a plethora of choices! In Low and Middle Desert (defined on my XXX page – here), you could have at least one colorful plant in Full Glorious Bloom (FGB) in any given week.


Garden Nerd shares

“FGB” is a quick and easy way to describe the state of flowering. FGB can occur with a single plant – “My yellow bells was in FGB for months!” or can describe an entire area – “Joshua Tree National Park got some extra rain this year and the whole place was in FGB!”


All these colorful perennial plants throughout all these seasons is charming – BUT.  But sometimes one part of the yard lacks blooms, and thus the whole landscape canvas appears off balance or out of kilter. Then it is time for some annual plants to come to the rescue!

Annuals for Color

Annual plants live only a season, or maybe two, but are generally finished with their life within a single year. This is opposed to perennials, which last many years. Annuals have only one goal in life – to flower, set seed, and go to the great compost heap in the sky. Perennials are cautious, they flower, but want to store energy for next year, so their blooming is generally not as showy nor as long-lived.  I discussed planting perennials for pollinators – here.

Celosia comes in many colors but needs afternoon shade in our climate.

Styles in annual plants have fashion swings, just like hemlines. One year petunias predominate, another year marigolds are the masters. It can be fun to try the latest and greatest, but tried and true are good too. With our extreme gardening climate, I advocate bet-hedging. Try some of the newbies, but have a few tried-and-true in case the new kid falls flat and fails.

Some of my Favorite Colorful Annuals

Moss roses are not roses nor moss, but small creeping annuals with gorgeous bright flowers. There is a wide variety of color and flower size available, but the consensus opinion is the less hybridized, the better they do in our climate. Moss rose, Portulaca grandiflora, is a close cousin of the vegetable portulaca, Portulaca oleracea.  Both are edible – and here is one way to use them.  Portulaca is (sadly) generally considered a “weed” in our area.  In all the centuries before supermarkets, this “weed” was commonly grown as a summer green for eating.

Moss rose comes in many colors and is a low-growing annual – good in the front of a flower bed.

Gaillardia (Gaillardia species), also called blanket flower, blooms through the summer months. Originally from prairie areas, it does best in improved garden soils or in containers, and with some afternoon shade.

Galliardia is a tall annual (or perennial) with lovely green leaves and bright flowers.

Echinacea (Echinacea species) is another prairie plant that is best grown as an annual in the hotter areas of the Southwest. It blooms prettily, but doesn’t seem to come back after winter in my desert soils. Please let me know if you have more success with it. (Gardeners are always learning form each other.)


Dyssodia, also called golden threadleaf, is a native plant generally considered a wildflower, or maybe a weed.  While some are called dogweed, they have been bred to be large and showy, and these larger forms are available in pots from nurseries as summer annuals.  They like a little shade in afternoon and do well under a tree with patchy shade, like a palo verde. Some of the Dyssodia are now considered Thymophylla.

These pretty little dysodia daisies love the heat of summer. Photo courtesy W. Anderson.

It’s a tad late to plant sunflower – but you can try it. I usually plant mine the first week of April. Since we are getting some monsoon rains this year, they may grow for you.

Colorful & Edible Foliage

If you have followed me for very long, either here or on my YouTube channel, you know that I am very fond of plants that not only look good but are also edible, or useful in other ways.

Garden sage (Salvia officinalis) is one such pretty and useful plants. Color is from the leaves alone. For our hot climate and alkaline soils, try sages such as the variegated and ‘Victoria’ sages, available with leaves of white or yellow with green. Mine grow best in large containers of potting soil.

Sage can be colorful and useful in the kitchen!

Amaranth has lovely edible leaves, plus seed for humans and birds. Amaranth is a colorful addition to the yard, plus you can harvest young leaves for tasty and stunning looking summer salad. The leaves are high in both calcium and iron. More about using amaranth on Savor the Southwest.  Amaranth is a close relative of the popular annuals cockscomb and celosia, which I just discussed above!

Colorful amaranth has edible leaves.

Annuals are to Enjoy

Annuals are fairly easy to grow. Stick ’em in flower beds, tuck some in around other plants that are already on the drip system, or plant them in pots, pans, old cowboy boots, or what have you. Annuals have shallow roots, so give them ample water – like daily – especially when temperatures are over 100 degrees.

Thanks for reading!


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