Desert soils often contain caliche, sometimes referred to as hardpan. This is a result of abundant calcium in the soil. It first dissolves, then collects and hardens into something similar to concrete. It can range in color from white to light pink to a deep rust.
This phenomenon can cause serious problems for your landscape plants. Drainage is hindered by the solid layer of mineral deposit, and plants have difficulty growing an adequate root system. As a result, they have a hard time getting enough oxygen.
Plants are also unable to get adequate nutrients, water or just the space to grow. Plants that do not get enough iron have a tendency to turn yellow in the new growth areas. Typically, if this is the problem, the yellow leaves will show green at the vein area, and the rest of the leaves will be yellow. There will also tend to be an abnormal buildup of salt in the soil above the caliche, which is detrimental to the plant.
Dig before planting to determine if your site is afflicted with caliche. If you determine you have a problem at your location, its important to provide adequate room for the roots of your plants so they are able to grow properly. To get rid of caliche, dig 4 to 6 feet when planting trees, 3 feet for shrubs and 18 inches for groundcover. If the layer is deeper than the root system of your plants are expected to extend, you should dig the hole for the plants then dig smaller holes down through the affected level so the water is able to drain.
After digging your holes, be sure to completely replace the soil you have removed. Discard the soil you removed from the site. Refill the hole with a mixture of good soil and compost or wood material. You can use two or three bags of composted manure in a five foot hole. Too much soil improvement is not necessary for desert plants due to the fact that they thrive in the natural desert soil. This is why its best to use native plants for your desert backyard.