Prescott is a marvelous place to garden because there are so many great moments throughout the year to do it. Prescott does, however, offer a number of special challenges.
The first is wildlife. Animals that eat plants here include desert rats, pocket gophers, squirrels, rabbits, javelina, and deer. And all are voracious. Most gardens exist only when special attentions have been given to excluding these animals, or when plants are selected that are found undesirable by all of them.
Water can be a serious problem, especially in spring when we can go from the middle of January to the end of June without two inches of precipitation.
Unseasonably warm days in February and March can tempt plants out of dormancy in spring long before the last diurnal dip below freezing, typically in late April. New foliage, being more tender than old, perishes quickly. This can kill a plant.
If one were to copy nature here, one might plant evergreen trees and shrubs and concentrate on low growing, waterwise perennials, hardy or very quick-growing annuals, wildflowers and grasses. Or one might employ lots of containers.
Achillea – More commonly known as yarrow, its fine-leafed plants bear large plates of tiny flowers in white, yellow, or various reddish or pinkish tones. A few – such as Moonshine – also feature grayish foliage. They tend to spread and to reseed where happy. They will grow in fairly poor soils, including clay.
Aquilegia – Their soft sage-green foliage distinguishes them in the garden when they are out of bloom. The flowers may be baby blue and white or a cheery lemon yellow. They mostly grow in stream beds and will need soil that is loose and moist, and a little PM shade.
Artemisia – Plants grown primarily for their fine leafed gray foliage and the distinctive odor of their leaves. Quite hardy and drought tolerant once established, it might pair well with iris or red leaved penstemon.
Agastache – With at least one commercial cultivar selected from Coconino County in AZ, it’s a native plant well suited to the area. The tubular flowers, much loved by hummingbirds, are usually purplish or orangish. They are not always easy to establish, but they do last well. Ava and Coronado are cultivars with some success here.
Alcea – Not everyone finds the hollyhock easy to establish, but the fig leafed hollyhock alcea ficifolia is of easy care and it is reliably perennial here.
Asclepias – The foliage is much loved as a food source for monarch butterflies. The flowers can be pink, yellow, or orange, and the foliage has a hint of blue-gray. It builds up slowly, and can tolerate clay soils. It can be invasive in places where it’s happy.
Buddleia – Otherwise known as the butterfly bush for its great panicles of pinkish or purplish flowers borne over large portions of the season and much loved by butterflies.
Caryopteris – Its pure cobalt blue flowers are tiny but plantiful. It lends color balance to a late summer garden, where pinks and reds predominate, or yellows and oranges.
Centranthus – The cultivar known as Jupiter’s Beard, Centranthus ruber, creates heads of tiny pink flowers through much of the season. Loved by pollinators, it will romp through the garden where it is happy, usually a spot with loose, sandy soil and dappled shade.
Coreopsis – A perennial that blooms as generously as an annual when it is happy. Originally it was available with yellow blooms, but now there are reds, pinks, maroons and oranges. Fairly water wise once established.
Datura – Loathed by ranchers as the noxious jimson weed, datura makes huge white trumpet shaped flowers that can be quite fragrant if one rises early enough in the morning to smell them. The plants emerge from winter dormancy late in the season and might be underplanted with narcissus. Hawkmoths feed on their flower nectar and there is reason to believe they might work as trap plants against tomato horn worms.
Dianthus – Gray leafed plants with fragrant little flowers in crimson and pink. They will tolerate poor soils and dry soil, but they will want a little extra water. They are sometimes eaten whole by pocket gophers.
Digitalis – Foxglove is a quintessential plant of the English garden, but dalmatian cultivars descend from dryish areas in the Caucasus where weather is not so different from our own. They add a strong sculptural interest when in bloom, and bloom season can be quite long.
Echinacea – Two decades ago the purple coneflower Magnus was what one got. Intense breeding has brought to market more colors in this tough high prairie daisy.
Euphorbia – Euphorbias are a huge genus, only a few of which are reliably cold hardy here. Most are sold for their foliage, and sometimes for contrasting bracts around their flowers. The milky sap can irritate and they are sometimes planted to retard the onslaught of gophers. It doesn’t always keep javelina from eating them.
Gaillardia – Their flowers – in shades of yellow and red – cover the plants for much of the growing season. The Indian Blanket is a native flower, but supplemental water is required for good growth and bloom.
Guara – It’s a native to the US Southwest that has undergone some breeding work over the last several decades. The flowers vaguely resemble wind turbines the size of a silver dollar in pink or white. Sometimes the foliage is bronze. A pretty good easy-care choice.
Helianthus – There are native sunflowers well established in the Prescott area – enough that the seeds of many unbranched varieties grown here will produce branched plants with small flowers. They do need a little supplemental water to establish, but they grow vigorously. The perennial maximillian sunflower does well, once established.
Hemerocallis – Daylilies do best here with three hours of PM shade. In complete shade they may not flower well; with no shade at all they will need more supplemental water. This is especially true in very years with very dry spring weather. Given the right spot and good care early on they are easy to establish and therefter are fairly troublefree.
Heuchera – This genus is grown for its colorful foliage, interesting through the season. They need PM shade, AM sun, loose soil, adequate irrigation, and protection from rabbits. They might be worth it.
Iris – All of its thousands of named cultivars are well suited to cultivation here. There are a few animals, however, that will eat some varieties: some eat the leaves, others the rhizomes. All will need supplemental water in sites that have punishing sunlight. Too much mulch will lead quickly and inevitably to the rhizomes rotting.
Kniphophia – Originating in the mountains of South Africa, the red hot poker does well without much water. Sometimes nibbling animals will finish off an established bed by eating the roots. Otherwise, it’s an easy-care plant.
Lavandula – Lavenders are much loved for their fragrant flowers and foliage. Many can do pretty well here, once established, although it is wise not to try them loose, well drained soil. They do seem to need some supplemental water in spring.
Nepeta – The cultivar Walker’s Lowe will bloom for weeks on end here, twice in a season. Its blue flowers are beloved of bees and butterflies. In and out of flower, it looks good for most of the growing season.
Penstemon – The Rocky Mountain penstemon is especially well suited to this area. It produces blue flowers with a hint of violet. It’s doubtful one could find a flowering plant for this area that does better with less attention. A few dozen other penstemon cultivars are commercially available and many are just about as good.
Rosa – Roses have a reputation for being thirsty plants. Certain cultivars to do well without outsized amounts of supplemental water. Ispahan, a damask rose, is one. Pink Pet (Caldwell Pink) has the distinction of being fairly resistant to deer, which otherwise can decimate a rose garden full of hybrid tea roses.
David Austin roses, shrub roses, and roses with a good measure of multiflora heritage such as most floribundas, are likely to thrive.
Some hybrid teas suffer from repeated freezing and thawing in spring. The fresh new foliage of hybrid teas tends to be a little more prone to being nibbled than other groups, too.
Rudbeckia – Even if the popular Goldsturm were the only choice here, it would be worth growing, especially in combination with grasses.
Salvia – This genus is huge, including plants popular for their bright blue, purple, or pink flowers as well as a few plants featuring silvery foliage.
Low growing sylvestris cultivars May Night and Blue Hill do very well here without much supplemental water, once established. A large planting of these might be heard buzzing with bees from twenty paces at high summer. The Texas sage Salvia reptans has lovely blue flowers on a chest-height plant.
The genus has been a workhorse of flower breeding for decades and not all cultivars will be quite so drought tolerant or frost hardy as these, but many will be worth a try.
Stachys – Lambs’ ears or Stachys byzantium grows well here. The named cultivar Helen von Stein is larger and more vigorous than its unnamed relative, but it is also less conspicuously gray and fuzzy.
Verbascum – Mullien is endemic to the area, making very sculptural tall plants in a ghostly pale green. There exist a handful of cultivars that have built on or accentuated some of its qualities. Not all are of such easy cultivation, though.
Veronica – It’s not completely drought tolerant, but with a bit of irrigation it does stand up to the onslaughts of most animals.
Yucca – With its thick, heavy straplike leaves and big fleshy roots, the yucca is well suited to this area. Most have head-height stalks bearing panicles of cream colored flowers. There is a Texas yucca with reddish flowers that is almost always available at big box stores. Javelina, though, love the roots of yucca and will dig up established ones. So wire cages for the roots are advised. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad standard practice for a lot of plants.
Wildflowers – The California poppy, Escholzia californica, grows well from seed here, even in hard caliche soil. It needs winter and eary spring moisture but it tolerates drought well.
Perhaps it would need just a little more shade, but the showy primrose Oenothera speciosum will also make huge banks of flower for weeks on end when planted en masse.
Surprisingly, it is possible to grow larkspur, Delphinium ajacis, and foxgloves, Digitalis purpurea, from seed here – with adequate moisture. Their chemistry makes them pretty good at resisting nibbling creatures.