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Desert Garden Maintenance Ideas for January

January is one of the slow months in our desert gardens. The days are pleasant but there is a possibility of frost at night. Winter Solstice was in December and the days are short so plants are growing slowly or are in dormancy.


This is a good time to look at the infrastructure of your garden. Do you need to fix anything? Finish any projects. Check to see what rebates your local water district is offering.

Topics covered: Planting, Pruning, Flowering, Vegetables, Irrigation, Pests, Weeds, and Fertilizer


  1. Adjust Watering Levels: Increase the time between watering to align with the cooler weather and shorter days. If a plant is not actively growing, its water needs are much lower.  Winter is also when we get most of our rain. So between the slow growth/dormancy and rain, it may be possible to discontinue all supplemental irrigation. At the very least, reduce it considerably. Check the soil around your plants. You do not need to irrigate if it’s damp a foot or two below the surface. Remember, desert natives thrive with deep, infrequent waterings, allowing the soil to dry out between sessions. If there is any doubt about watering, do not. It is better to underwater than over water, especially in cold weather. 

  2. Deep and Infrequent Watering: Ensure your irrigation system delivers deep watering, encouraging plants to establish deep root systems. Infrequent watering intervals promote healthier, more drought-resistant plants.

  3. Inspect Water Basins and Mulch: Regularly check the water basins around your trees and plants. Refresh any mulch that may have eroded or thinned out. Adequate mulching conserves moisture, regulates soil temperature, and minimizes weed growth, ensuring your garden remains vibrant and well-nourished.

  4. This is our "rainy" season. Always turn off your irrigation system for at least 48 hours after the rain. If you don’t have a “smart” timer or rain gauge, now is the time to check with your local water district for rebates.


Not all of our plants are in dormancy and winter is their time to shine! When you are planning your wildlife habitat make sure to have plants that bloom in each season. The Cascalote (Caesalpinia cacalaco) tree is covered in magnificent yellow flowers from fall into spring. Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata) and Golden Dogbane or Dysssodia (Thymophylla pentachaeta) bloom year round and Parry’s Penstemon (Penstemon parryi) is about to be a riot of 3-foot-tall hot pink blooms. 


  1. Assess and Swap: This is a slow gardening time. Take advantage by assessing your garden. Observe what plants have weathered the summer successfully and note those that struggled. Use this assessment to decide what to replace. Sometimes, a fresh start with resilient, native plants can breathe new life into your garden. If you are creating a wildlife habitat, look and see what winter food sources you have. Do you have blooms even in the cold winter months? Seeds? And finally look at textures. Some of your plants are going into winter dormancy. How do the colors look together? If you don't have as many blooming plants, do you still have something to give visual interest? 

  2. Go Native: If you love annuals for bursts of color, consider replacing them with native flowering perennials. Natives not only add beauty but also support local ecosystems and wildlife. They are often better adapted to the local climate, requiring less maintenance and resources.

  3. Optimal Planting Time: Fall is the optimal time to plant. This allows the root system plenty of time to acclimate and grow before summer but we can still plant into winter. Just make sure to protect any new plants if we get winter storms or freezing temperatures at night.


Plant bare-root fruit trees.


You can also continue succession planting your root vegetables, leafy greens like spinach or bok choy, and loose leaf lettuces as well as the brassicas like broccoli and cabbage.


Start potato and onion slips as well as artichokes.


Herbs: chives, basil, oregano, sage, cilantro, cumin, dill, parsley

Pests, Weeds, and Fertilizer

1. Preventative Pest Control: A healthy balanced garden is your best deterrent for pests. What we consider a pest is a meal for something else. So long as this stays in balance you do not need to intervene. Any intervention, even organic ones have repercussions on the delicate ecosystems in our yards.

Embrace drip irrigation, a method that keeps plants healthy by watering them from below, minimizing disease by avoiding wet leaves. Healthy plants are naturally more resilient, hosting fewer pests. If you did not adjust your irrigation last month, do so now. The days are shorter, temperatures are cooler and we are entering our "rainy season". Still water deeply but extend the days between watering. Overwatered, stressed plants are susceptible to pests and disease.

2. Understand Your Foes: Identifying your garden's foes is essential. Not every bug is a threat, and understanding the natural life cycles of both plants and animals in your garden helps differentiate between normal processes and actual threats. Before you intervene, ask yourself if there is actual harm being done to the plant. If not, allow nature time to rectify the problem.

3. Gentle Intervention: Opt for the least invasive control methods. A powerful jet from your hose or a soapy water solution can work wonders and is gentle on your garden's ecosystem. Timing matters too; treat infestations at dusk when bees and butterflies are at rest, ensuring their safety.

4. Weed Management: Weeds are insidious foes, so regular weeding is essential to prevent their spread. As the weather cools weed growth slows but don't delay when you do see a sprout. If you pull the weeds before they flower, this proactive maintenance saves you from hours of labor later on. Flowers = seeds. Again, adjusting your irrigation and checking for leaks will decrease the amount of extra water available for weeds to germinate.

5. Fertilizing Strategy: While desert plants don't require regular fertilization, they can benefit from a generous layer of mulch (about 3-4 inches). This keeps the soil cool and reduces water evaporation while providing essential nutrients. Consider allowing your leaves to fall and collect naturally. Various sized rubble is another excellent natural looking mulch. The many-faceted sides reflect the sun's rays keeping the ground cool.

For non-native plants in need of a nutrient boost, we fertilize again in February when plants are actively growing again and there is no more chance of frost.


In the desert, we do major pruning in the fall, preferably in October. Any major pruning should have been completed by early November. This protects any new tender growth from being damaged by frost which is possible anytime after Thanksgiving through February. And as a reminder, you do not have to prune. Only do so if needed. 

  1. Observation is Key: While the major maintenance is done for the season, you continuously want to spend time observing your plants closely. Look for branches obstructing pathways or dead limbs that need removal. By addressing these issues as they arise, you prevent them from escalating into more significant problems later.

  2. Preventative Measures: Proactive pruning can prevent future complications. By eliminating potentially problematic branches early, you reduce the risk of diseases spreading and enhance the overall appearance of your landscape.

  3. Reduced Need for Major Pruning: Addressing issues promptly reduces the likelihood of major pruning requirements later on. By keeping growth patterns in check, you minimize the chances of plants becoming overgrown or misshapen, thereby reducing the need for extensive corrective measures in the future.

  4. Most trees and shrubs do not need major pruning yearly. When we prune we are mimicking nature such as animal predation. To promote fuller growth in shrubs, trim the tips as an animal would nibble on the ends. Over-maintenance is one of the most common ways native plants are killed. By pruning only what is needed you extend the life of the plant, lessen your maintenance, and have a healthier plant with more blooms.

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