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02 Aug 2016

The Potted Desert Garden: How Often Should the Soil Be Changed in Pots? Well … That Depends!

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Don’t worry if plants wilt or droop during the heat of the day; that is what they do for self-preservation. They should bounce back once the sun has gone down. Don’t worry if plants wilt or droop during the heat of the day; that is what they do for self-preservation. They should bounce back once the sun has gone down.

As I mentioned last month, gardeners are typically rule-breakers. We bend the rules and seek out plants that we are told will definitely not make it in the desert. We try to grow our favorites, climate be damned, saying as we stomp our foot: “Yes I can!

Unfortunately, it’s proven a lot more difficult for potted desert gardeners to successfully break the rules this year. I have heard from a lot of desert gardeners recently who are trying to grow plumeria. While some fortunate souls may luck out, the recent high heat in the Southwest U.S. has been killing off these plants rapidly.

I cannot believe how many people I’ve heard from in the Coachella Valley complaining about the plants they are losing this year. Tropical plants just cannot live in our summer heat unless they are placed in an area that can be temperature-controlled.

Of course, as I also mentioned last month, there are constant gray areas within the rules for gardening in the desert. I almost always preface my gardening answers with, “That depends.”

One question I get asked often is: How often do I need to change the soil in my pots?

My answer? You guessed it: That depends!

Pots may need the soil replaced if:

• Water runs through very quickly.

• Plants are wilted even after watering.

• Large plants’ leaves are curling even after you water deeply a second time in the same day.

• Plants that are wilted in the heat of the afternoon are still wilted in the morning.

If you see one or more of these symptoms and decide that your pot needs new soil, what should you do? Well, first off … DON'T change the soil now, during the heat of the summer!

You want your potted plants to rest right now and get through this summer period. What you can do is keep them hydrated—but that does not mean adding even more water.

You should only water potted cactus plants every week or two. Potted shrubs and trees should be watered once or twice a week, while potted perennials and annual flowers need to be watered daily.

So how do you keep plants hydrated without watering more? You water smart: Be sure to water in the early morning so the plants go into the hottest periods moist. In the desert heat, that is going to be between 5 and 6 a.m. Don’t worry if plants wilt or droop during the heat of the day; that is what they do for self-preservation. They should bounce back once the sun has gone down.

If they are still struggling, cover plants in direct sun with shade cloth, or move the pots under a tree or under a roofed ramada.

Palm Springs has been even hotter than normal this year. Without the benefit of monsoon rains, you will need to be vigilant with your potted desert gardens—and it couldn’t hurt to cross your fingers.

As you go through the rest of this summer, closely observe your pots and your plants’ watering needs. Make a note which pots may need to have their soil replaced this coming fall—something that’s typically done during the October planting season. I will share more information on how to do this next month.

Your August To-Do List

1. Do not prune plants during the continuing August heat.

2. Deadhead your spent flowers.

3. Garden and water very early in the morning.

Marylee Pangman is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. With more than 18 years of experience, 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; it’s now available on Kindle. Email her with comments and questions, or requests for digital consultations, 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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