Grow a spineless cactus Sunset climate zones 12–13: Closely resembling its namesake in shape and color, bishop’s cap (Astrophytum myriostigma) is a nearly pure white spineless cactus that is one of the best for containers or in-ground planting in desert gardens. It is especially attractive when clustered together in rockwork. Bishop’s cap has sweetly fragrant yellow flowers throughout summer. Give it good drainage and withhold water as soon as temperatures begin to drop in October.
Plant a golden bloomer Zones 12-–13: Tecoma shrubs (sometimes called "yellow bells") produce colorful yellow and yellow-orange blossoms all summer long. The trumpet-shaped blooms on T. stans ‘Gold Star’ are so prolific that they practically obscure the plant’s foliage; T. x ‘Sunrise’ produces buds with copper-colored trumpets that open yellow. Both plants have a clean habit of dropping their spent flowers and keeping a more refined shape than the more common T. x alata 'Orange Jubilee', which tends to be rangier and vinelike.
Sow veggies Zones 1a–3b: Sow bush beans, collards, cucumbers, eggplants, melons, okra, and snap beans. Zones 10–11: Sow corn, cucumbers, gourds, melons, pumpkins, squash, and tepary beans. Zones 12–13: Sow black-eyed peas, corn, gourds, melons, pumpkins, squash, and tepary beans. Get tepary beans and black-eyed pea seeds from Native Seeds/SEARCH (866/622-5561).
Try a pink-blooming cactus Zones 10–13: The Glory of Texas (Thelocactus bicolor v. flavidispinum) looks like a conical bird’s nest of red and yellow spines during the cool months. But from spring through autumn, it pumps out 3-inch-wide vivid pink flowers. Find it at High Country Gardens (800/925-9387).
Use a medium-size palm Zones 12–13: Try the striking Oaxaca palm (Brahea nitida), which has no thorns on its petiole (the part of the plant that connects the fronds to the trunk), making it easy to maintain. This handsome tree has graceful drooping fronds that are bright green on top and chalky white underneath. In home gardens, consider locating Oaxaca palm within a mass planting of deer grass. It’s hardy to 18° and slowly reaches 30 feet tall, but is often smaller in gardens.
Hardy vine Orange-flowered common trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) is one of the most colorful and vigorous vines for cold-winter areas, spreading to more than 40 feet each summer. Use this tough vine to climb up ramadas and pergolas, or train it to ramble over fences. Since trumpet creeper produces aerial roots that have a powerful adhesive compound, keep it away from painted stucco surfaces.
Create rainwater basins With a shovel, make depressions in your garden that catch rainwater runoff from the roof of your home and other structures on the property. When your basins are complete, plant trees and shrubs around the perimeter so they can take advantage of any water that accumulates. Visit harvestingrainwater.com or read Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands, Volume 1 (Rainsource Press, 2006; $25) by Brad Lancaster for more information about water harvesting.
Pick figs early To ripen figs at least 30 days before their normal harvest date, use an ancient trick called oleification. When the pulp of the oldest (most basal) fig on a shoot shows pink (check by cutting one open), dip a cotton swab in olive oil and apply a dab to the eye at the bottom of each fruit. After treatment, the figs should ripen in 5 days or so.
Control insect pests Cochineal scale, green aphids, and spider mites can be blasted off infested plants with a strong jet of water. Purple prickly pear is particularly susceptible to cochineal scale, which looks like white cottony duff on the pads.
Harvest prickly pear fruit Zones 10-–13: Late July through early August is harvest time for this ubiquitous desert fruit. Use steel tongs to remove the ripe magenta fruit from the cactus pad. To learn how to process the fruit as well as the pads, check out Carolyn Niethammer’s The Prickly Pear Cookbook (Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2004; $15).
More: Plant a showy coleus