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05 Jul 2016

The Potted Desert Garden: All Good Gardeners Know—Rules Are Meant to Be Broken

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Red yucca helped Marylee break her own rules in order to make a restaurant client happy. Red yucca helped Marylee break her own rules in order to make a restaurant client happy.

Gardeners are typically rule-breakers. We don’t always follow instructions; we try the untried; we seek out plants that we are told will not make it in the desert.

Desert transplants and snowbirds often yearn for the gardens we had “back home,” leading us to try to replicate our favorites. This has led to many dead tulips and fuchsia plants. I am sure some of you are reading and saying, “I have them in my Palm Springs garden!” If so, you are an exceptional gardener, likely with the perfect location and conditions for these plants that love water, humidity and non-scorching temperatures.

There are constant gray areas within the rules of gardening in the desert. For example: I teach beginning gardeners to place plants with the same light, sun and water requirements together in the same pot. Ornamentals, succulents and drought-tolerant plants all have their place in our gardens … happily segregated. However, there have been times when I’ve needed to try rule-breaking combinations for special environmental conditions.

My first rule in desert container gardening is that bigger pots are often better: When choosing a container for anything other than cacti, an 18-inch internal diameter is the smallest you’ll want to have. This size or larger provides enough soil to hold moisture longer than a couple of hours and gives roots added insulation from the direct heat of the sun. Even an 18-inch pot in all-day-sun locations is too small. To repeat: The bigger, the better, I always say, especially when gardening in low-desert regions such as the Coachella Valley.

However … one of my former commercial clients was a restaurant with a railing around the outside dining patio. This area was within a brick-floor courtyard, surrounded by brick buildings. In the summer, the patio was drenched in sun for eight or more hours. Needless to say … it was hot! We changed the existing 4-by-6-by-30-inch plastic window boxes to the largest I could get, which were 12-by-13-by-40. I knew this was smaller than what my rules dictate, but the chef was determined to keep the window-box effect.

We succeeded easily during the winter with typical winter flowers for desert pots—but in the summer, the plants struggled. I looked for a solution that allowed both a permanent or perennial tall plant and surrounding annual color. I decided to give red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) a try over a few years to see if it would hold up with the higher water content needed by the annuals. Long story short: It worked very well, as you can see from the accompanying photo. The Yucca grew nicely and never experienced any root rot from the plentiful water.

I still used medium-water annuals during both the winter and summer. Once well-grown, we could usually reduce the watering during the hottest months to once daily in the early morning. If we had to water them again later in the day, we applied a very short period on the timer (3 to 4 minutes). They were, of course, on a dedicated irrigation pot line. Winter plantings were always only watered in the mornings.

I am also a fan of the gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida), another succulent which can handle the additional water you will need when combining with perennials. For added height, consider including a lady slipper (Pedilanthus macrocarpus) to the back of your combination planting.

Do not let your pots go empty all summer. Happy gardening!

Your July To-Do List

1. Avoid pruning plants now that the desert has heated up. You can deadhead your spent flowers, but pruning leads to sunburn by exposing previously shaded stems.

2. Increase the watering frequency to be sure your pots don’t dry out. If your ornamental plants are wilting in the afternoon heat, first check to see if the soil is moist. If this is the case, mist the plants with cooler water from the hose. This will NOT burn them as long as you let the hot water run out first.

3. Keep up with biweekly applications of a water-soluble fertilizer. Be sure the soil is already damp before applying.

4. Garden and water very early in the morning.

Marylee Pangman is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. She has become known as the desert’s potted garden expert. Marylee’s book, Getting Potted in the Desert, is now available. Buy it online at potteddesert.com. Email her with comments and questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert.

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