Our Top Desert Gardening Books

December 9, 2022

Why we need books by local experts!

One thing is certain when it comes to gardening books and magazines . . . gardening in the deserts of the Southwest is far different than in all other regions of the country. For that reason, most books, national magazines, and even those AP stories (that the local newspaper will occasionally publish) just don’t work for our soil and climate conditions. The good news is that there are some great desert gardening books available that have been written by local experts.

Book by Greg Starr, Cool Plants for Hot Gardens

Whether you are a new transplant to this climate wondering what the heck to do or someone who has been here for a while but is just discovering desert plants and Xeriscape designs, find my favorite book recommendations below. As an addition to my blog, I wanted to introduce you to some of the local book authors. I have found that the best authors are not only good writers but also have a way of bringing their interesting landscape and plant experiences to life.

Note that I’ve included links if the books are sold directly by the authors. For other books, be sure to check your local bookstore or online bookseller.

Meet the authors and find their books on desert landscaping, design, plants, and water harvesting

Author, Greg Starr

Greg Starr is a horticulturist and the owner/manager of Starr Nursery located in Tucson, AZ. It is a mail-order nursery where you can shop online. Greg has traveled extensively in Mexico and the southwestern U.S. to study native plants for their potential landscape use in desert regions of the world. When describing plants, he often includes the “field notes” he has taken (and somehow has kept track of) that describe where he found or has observed the plants growing in their habitat. In 2009, Greg started recording his knowledge onto the pages for books. The first two listed below are available directly from the author here.

  • Cool Plants for Hot Gardens: 150 Water-Smart Choices for the Southwest (revised)
  • Field Guide to the Cacti and Succulents of Arizona
  • Agaves: Living Sculptures for Landscapes and Containers (no longer available on the author’s site)

Books by Scott CalhounAuthor, Scott Calhoun

Scott Calhoun is a fourth-generation Arizonan with a passion for the desert environment and desert-appropriate design. Scott has authored six books about the plants and gardens of the desert Southwest. He owns Zona Gardens, a Tucson-based studio focused on landscape design, garden writing, speaking, and photography. His writing is fun and entertaining while providing great practical info. You can see some of that personality on his website where he talks about what they don’t do: “We steer clear of fussy bedding annuals, fake waterfalls, silly-shaped lawns, and designs that overuse hardscape materials.” Order books directly from his website here. If you’re looking for guidance on design, check out the first book listed below.

  • The Hot Garden: Landscape Design for the Desert Southwest
  • The Gardener’s Guide to Cactus: The 100 Best Paddles, Barrels, Columns, and Globes
  • Chasing Wildflowers: A Mad Search for Wild Gardens
  • Hot Pots: Container Gardening in the Arid Southwest
  • Yard Full of Sun: The Story of a Gardener’s Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand
  • Designer Plant Combinations: 105 Stunning Gardens Using Six Plants or Fewer

Books by Mary IrishAuthor, Mary Irish

Mary Irish (1949-2021) was an amazing horticulturist who found her niche as the Public Horticulture Specialist at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. She provided consulting, teaching, and design for many public gardens and spaces. As busy as she was, she somehow squeezed in writing eight books. Here’s a favorite quote from Mary that provides some insight into her engaging personality: “It is amazing how little you can know at first about a new place. I look back on some of my most naïve, or most ignorant mistakes, and wonder what I could have been thinking. But the truth is I just didn’t know. In the world of gardening, you often learn by messing it up royally. . .” I find her writing so entertaining and descriptive that you hardly need accompanying photos. Mary moved back to Texas in 2012, so you’ll find some of her later titles (not listed) focus on Texas plants and landscaping.

  • Gardening in the Desert: A Guide to Plant Selection & Care
  • Arizona Gardener’s Guide
  • Month-By-Month Gardening in the Deserts of Arizona: What to Do Each Month to Have a Beautiful Garden All Year
  • Perennials for the Southwest: Plants that Flourish in Arid Gardens
  • A Place All Our Own: Lives Entwined in a Desert Garden
  • Agaves, Yuccas, and Related Plants

Judy Mielke Book Native Plants for Southwestern Landscapes
Author, Judy Mielke

Judy Mielke has an amazing background when it comes to desert plants. She has a degree in horticulture and worked for nine years at the Desert Botanical Garden. From there, she got her master’s degree in environmental planning at ASU. She is currently a Landscape Architect at a design firm in Tempe, AZ where she has designed landscapes for projects as diverse as parks, custom residential, freeways, and resorts. She is also known for her skills in providing plant vegetation inventories and mapping natural areas. Judy’s book was published in 1993 when local plant books were very scarce. While the main focus of the book is a listing of plants native to our Southwest deserts, it also includes informative discussions of desert ecology, growing instructions for native plants and wildflowers, and “how-to” ideas for the revegetation of disturbed desert areas.

  • Native Plants for Southwestern Landscapes

Author, Brad Lancaster

Brad Lancaster is another talented designer, consultant, and educator from Tucson, AZ. The Lorax might speak for the trees, but Brad Lancaster speaks for the rain (as in rainwater harvesting)! His two books are must-haves if you have any interest in rainwater harvesting (and every desert dweller should as it’s the best and least expensive water you can get for your landscape). His amazing enthusiasm for water shines throughout his books along with detailed and practical advice. Order his books at his website.

  • Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands: Guiding Principles – Volume 1
  • Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands: Water-Harvesting Earthworks – Volume 2

Author, Noelle Johnson – AKA AZ Plant Lady

Noelle Johnson, AKA AZ Plant Lady is not new to writing about plants. She has been a garden writer for local and national gardening magazines for years. With a degree in Urban Horticulture from ASU, she has also worked in the Valley as a Landscape Design Consultant to promote her passion for beautiful drought-tolerant landscapes that thrive in hot, arid regions. In 2009, she launched her AZ Plant Lady website and blog platform. You may have noticed that we often repost her blogs on our Water – Use It Wisely pages. This book is highly recommended. Inside you’ll find everything you need to know like how to handle desert soils, plant care techniques specific to dry climates, plant profiles, and design for maximum impact and minimal water needs. Best of all, the plant and landscape photos in this book are exceptional! Find more details on her website.

  • Dry Climate Gardening: Growing Beautiful, Sustainable Gardens in Low-Water Conditions, Noelle Johnson, The AZ Plant Lady

Here are other great desert plant and general landscaping booksUofA Press gardening books

  • Landscape Plants for Dry Regions: More Than 600 Species from Around the World, Jones and Sacamano
  • The Arizona Low Desert Flower Garden: A Seasonal Guide to Bloom, Height, Color, and Texture, Kirti Mathura
  • Books published and sold by Arizona Master Gardener Press (most are available at the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension office, 4341 E. Broadway Road, Phoenix): Desert Gardening for BeginnersDesert Landscaping for Beginners, and Earth-Friendly Desert Gardening

Don’t forget these tried & true southwest gardening classics

  • The New Western Garden Book: The Ultimate Garden Guide, Sunset Western Gardening Guide
  • Plants for Dry Climates: How to Select, Grow, and Enjoy, Duffield and Jones
  • Pruning, Planting & Care, Eric A. Johnson

Donna DiFrancesco is a Conservation Coordinator, horticulturist, and avid book reader with the City of Mesa, AZ, one of nineteen Water– Use It Wisely partners to offer water-saving advice and programs.