Regal Mist Pink Muhly—or Muhlenbergia capillaris—is probably my favorite landscape grass in this part of the country. I love the way the sun shines through its plumes during its flowering season. That hazy but eye-catching frothy mist of deep pink is what first caught my eye when I saw a mass planting in a landscape. All I could say was, “Amazing!”
So grab your gloves and tools, because now that cooler weather is here, it’s a good time to plant this stunning grass.
The grass stays relatively small and is drought-tolerant, but thrives with regular watering. Its bloom period is during the fall months, and it boasts glossy green leaves the rest of the year—until you cut it back annually to the ground in January. As a clumping grass, it only grows in size and does not propagate new plants. It also is not prone to reseeding, so you can trust that it will only be where you plant it. Regal Mist thrives in full-sun and reflected-heat locations.
People often ask about planting these gorgeous grasses in pots—and this leads to a bit of a conundrum. Yes, the plants look great. They are clean and look splendid around a pool—plus you don’t need to worry about them throwing off debris you’ll have to clean up. They will wave in the breeze, and with regular but lesser amounts of water, will reward you with a stunning show all fall and early winter. The color intensifies as the desert cools off into the 50s and 60s. Its seeds provide a banquet for native birds, and the grass can provide these same birds with shelter—while also being critter-resistant.
However, there is a problem: The grass must be cut back in January. It will start sprouting new leaf growth as the spring warming trends begin, in March or so. So what should one do with this stark pot from January to early April? I am definitely a gardener who prefers immediate gratification, and no matter how splendid the grass is in the fall, it’s a bummer when it brings nothing to one’s container garden for half of the winter.
One suggestion to deal with this problem: When the grass is cut back in January, plant pansies or other winter annuals around the perimeter of the pot to hide the cutback grass in the center. Of course, this means the grass needs to be placed in a pot large enough to support the root space needed for these plants. I recommend a 22-24-inch diameter pot.
Of course, you could also put the pot away somewhere out of view and replace it with another temporary pot that is filled with the look you want this winter—and then bring back the Regal Mist come April.
Whatever you decide … happy gardening!
Trust me: These hot days are getting shorter. The summer equinox was way back on June 20; that is when the sun started its journey north.
As we think of the sun’s journey, it’s time to start thinking about how the sun affects our potted desert gardens.
We know that our climate changes from long summer days, with daytime temperatures of 115-plus, to long winter nights, where temps regularly dip down to 30-45 degrees. In some areas, temps may drop even lower.
The sun is shifting from its northern angle in the summer, and moving more southerly now. Plants that were getting a lot of sun over the summer, if kept in the same location, may have much less sun. Some plantings on the more northern side of the house will eventually be in complete shade.
Note where your winter sun is so that your plants that do well in the shade are not blasted with rays. You also want to make sure your sun-loving plants, fruits and vegetables are getting enough sun during the cooler season.
I know this sounds like a science experiment, but if you pay attention as the sun travels from season to season, your plants will thank you. They really do want to please you!
Hints to Help Your Plants During the Changing Seasons
1. Put pots that you know will need to be moved regularly on pot dollies. Plants may need to be moved not only for the shifting sun, but for protection from the cold, too.
2. To make it easy to move wheeled pots, try to keep them on flat surfaces with no steps or gravel to traverse.
3. Move plants before you water them so they are lighter.
4. Don’t put off moving sensitive plants. Sunburn and freeze damage don’t improve over time. Parts of plants suffering from these ailments will need to be pruned.
Tips for Your Next Flower-Shopping Trip
1. Know your pots—sizes, colors and sun/shade.
2. Know your desired color scheme.
3. Grab a cart at the nursery, as well as an empty flat or carton.
4. Place your selections on the flat. Step back and look at it.
5. Stare at it, and be sure it sits right with you.
6. If something seems off, take out one plant. Look at color combinations, textures and heights. You may have too many small, flowered plants with small leaves, and that can complicate the arrangement.
A 24-inch pot with one central planting will need approximately 14 4-inch plants. If you select gallon plants, they can replace three or four smaller ones. I urge you to use 4-inch plants and not six-packs.
Important: When you go shopping and bring your plants home, water them in well, and plant as soon as possible—preferably on the same day. If you have to wait until the next morning, place them in the shade to rest until then.
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.
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.
There are different ways to look at the arrival of summer in the Coachella Valley.
While many people complain about the heat and the hefty power bills, summer also brings a lot of good. Our winter visitors have left, which means we can get into popular restaurants at a reasonable time, possibly without a reservation—and we can get some great deals, too! Traffic is certainly less troublesome.
In your garden, summer offers opportunities, despite the heat. Of course, we can simply rely on the strongest desert and arid plants, which require little water and minimal work, such as cacti and succulents, bougainvillea, trees and shrubs.
But that’s kind of boring, isn’t it?
The largest pots in our yards offer us another opportunity: You can choose to do some minimal but productive gardening in pots that are 24 inches or larger (in width and height), as they will retain enough water to support the plantings of your choice.
If you are like me and want some summer color, two heat-surviving summer annuals are vinca (see picture above) and pentas (below). Go with hues of vibrant reds and hot pinks, or soften the look with pale pinks and white. These plants will need daily water, but not so much that you risk violating the water restrictions. You can even save the first water from your shower in a 5-gallon bucket to use to water your pots. (For more ways to save water in your container garden, check out this article.)
If you would like to grow a little food, try some basil in an area which only receives early-morning sun. Make sure the soil stays consistently moist, and harvest the leaves regularly. Pesto, anyone?
Two popular vegetables that can take the heat are okra and eggplant. Both of these thick-skinned veggies will do pretty well—especially if you can keep them out of the sun by 1 or 2 p.m. Harvest the okra while still young on the vine, and it will be nice and tender. Local nurseries will have appropriate varieties of both of these plants, but I would get them ASAP, from starts; it is too late to begin from seed.
If you have become inspired to grow your own food, and are thinking about tomatoes … sorry. You have missed your season, and you’ll need to wait until the fall to grow your own.
As for that okra and eggplant that you’re growing … try grilling the veggies, and combine them with a few other fresh ingredients to complement your summer dinner!
- Wash both vegetables thoroughly. Slice the eggplant into 3/4-inch pieces, and place on a paper towel with a little salt sprinkled on the top of each slice.
- Heat your grill to a medium heat, and brush the grate with cooking oil. Then brush the veggies with your favorite olive oil, and place them on the grill.
- If you have some tomatoes, cut them into thick slices and add them to the grill when the okra and eggplant are almost done. You can use cherry tomatoes, too.
- Remove the veggies from the grill on a serving platter; top with that the fresh chopped basil you grew; and season to taste. Add some feta or goat cheese if you like. Enjoy!
See? Summer does not need to be all about air conditioning and ice cream. Just do your gardening early, and then get out of the heat. Remember: Both you and your plants need to stay hydrated!
Your June 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 pots don’t dry out.
3. Keep using a water-soluble fertilizer biweekly. Be sure the soil is already damp before applying fertilizer.
4. Garden and water in the early mornings.
Do you hate it when you look through your yard and see a fence or block wall?
A majority of our desert homes are cordoned off by walls. These walls can seem restrictive—but they certainly do not have to be prison-like. Walls are linear—that is, they go on in a line. Even when the wall is curved or turns a corner, it is still linear (just not straight). Unless your design is minimalist in its truest, purest form, this can get rather tedious.
If your walls are boring, be creative while enhancing the view from your home. This can certainly be done with landscaping: Trees, shrubs and even vines can go far in limiting the view of the wall. Structures such as a gazebo, shade sails or even a planting shed can also move the eye away from the wall.
But sometimes, we just don’t want to put more things in the ground—or perhaps we don’t have the ground to put plants in, if there is a solid “floor” of pavers, bricks, flagstone, concrete or tile.
Well … container gardens can come to the rescue!
When your home has a wide backyard with a wall or, as is the case in the two pictures below, a metal fence, you can add potted plants to serve any purpose you want.
If you have a view beyond the barrier, you do not want to block it—instead, you want to lead the eye beyond it. With the large pots as a backdrop to the pool, the viewer is encouraged to look from the front pots, to the pool, on to the back pots, and then off to the distant mountain view. If a guest visiting this home in the “after” picture were asked whether there was a wall or fence around the yard … that guest might not even remember!
Not all of us have wide backyards, of course. Smaller homes often come with diminutive yards, patios or courtyards. In community developments, these spaces are always bounded by walls of some sort. These walls can give you a boxed in feeling—a feeling that does not make you want to spend a lot of time in these outdoor living areas.
Once again, you can use a container garden to soften the setting, as well as create a small living feature that will attract birds—especially when you add a water feature. People often think that they need a water source to have a fountain. However, you only need power and a way to fill the fountain, which is easily accomplished with a hose or bucket. Be sure you don’t let the pump run dry, though.
Notice in the picture above how the shadows of a nearby tree cast interesting effects on the wall. As the tree moves in the desert breezes, these shadows will cool the area and provide a tropical feel.
Also, some of us have “seat walls” that are so long that we’ll never have enough guests to fill them. Many builders use these seat-height walls as dividers to create different “rooms” on a patio. Well, I’ll bet we can come up with even more ways to put them to good use.
Some seat walls are built into an outdoor “room.” I once worked on an al fresco dining area enclosed by full and half walls in a U-shape, with a large barbecue on one side. Between the dining table and chairs as well as the banco, this corner was not missed when the planters were added.
Sometimes all it takes to change up your viewpoints is to look at what you already have. You do not always have to go shopping for new pots and plants. Think about adding some metal art; hanging pots from the wall in shadier areas; or even painting the wall. A little creativity and imagination is all it takes. Just be sure though to make necessary adjustments for the desert. We are not going to put a wax candle on a sconce in the sun … right?
Your May To-Do List
1. Plant summer flowers in pots and beds.
2. Monitor irrigation and watering as heat rises, especially with newly added plants.
3. Place shade cloth over tender vegetables and herbs, like tomatoes and basil, especially in the low desert.
4. Fertilize citrus trees around Mother’s Day. Water in thoroughly.
Have you ever looked at a picture of a stunning garden and wished you could have someone create it in your home … right now?
Living in the desert, we do have some limitations regarding what we can achieve, but not so many that we should stop trying to create lovely gardens for ourselves. For both newcomers and experienced desert gardeners, it sometimes pays to begin with a few new pots—and a little success will give you the confidence and motivation to go for more.
One way to achieve an enjoyable container-garden landscape at your home is to think in terms of small spaces. Divide your property into separate areas based on the following:
- Home entries (front door, front gate, front courtyard)
- Other doorways, gates and sliding doors
- Back patio
- Pool area
- Shade structures
- Shady areas (under/around trees)
- Bordering walls
- Key viewpoints from inside your home, where you look out
- Viewpoints from your most-used sitting areas
- Your favorite sitting area outside
- The path you use the most in moving from one side of your home to another outside
After looking at this list, I may have your mind spinning: You see so many places where you would love to do something different, and you don’t know where to begin! Well, take a moment and unwind as you finish reading this column. In fact, take the paper outside, and enjoy your coffee or tea as you proceed with these garden ideas.
Go out onto your patio, and sit down in your favorite spot. Don’t have a chair? Find something you can put there on which to rest for a while, and just look around. Give yourself some time to breathe in your surroundings. Think about how the sun moves. Think about what you see as you slowly turn your head. Think about how your patio could include various different sitting areas; imagine areas with different functions. You might want a dining area, a conversation-seating area and a quiet sitting spot just for you.
Some of our homes have long, running patios that span the width of the house. The patio roof serves as a shade for our windows—and that provides us with another area we can utilize for our long outdoor seasons.
I have often heard homeowners express their frustration over this type of patio, referring to it as a bowling alley! Well, you can divide your patio into the areas you were just dreaming about a moment ago—using your furnishings and pots to do so!
Think of drawing imaginary “walls” for each area, and consider placing a pot in each corner of those adjoining walls. Once planted, perhaps with large leafy plants, your mind will understand that this is actually a divider, and will be happy to come into the “room” for whatever purpose you have in mind.
Consider a Bench
A bench is an easy accessory to add to a front entry, a back patio or any sitting area of your property. In fact, adding a bench is a simple solution for many vacant spots around your home. You may have one under a big tree, along an empty wall or at your front door. I always think a bench is a message to your guests that you want them to come to your home and rest a while. It is also a very convenient place for your delivery driver to leave your packages.
However, a bench on its own is … well, just a bench. By adding a couple of striking plantings, at one or both ends, it becomes an inviting vignette—to experience both as a seat and as living art.
Soften a Patio Corner
Patio floors are made up of what we refer to as “hardscape materials”: Concrete, tile and flagstone are all hard materials and typically create a floor with square corners. Well, you can always use pots to soften or break up those rigid shapes and surfaces!
You can place a single yet sizeable pot at the corner or add a grouping of three pots. We use the same odd-numbered design philosophy—the rule of three—when it comes to pots as we do in our interior decorating. You can replace one of the three with an art piece or statue. (I really hate calling those animal statues or gnomes “art”!) You can even use a post that might be part of the corner roof structure as one of the three.
Just be sure you put the pots up on toes, stands or something else to get the drainage hole above the patio floor. If you use saucers, you’ll still need to raise the pot above the plate. You can also use small tiles or pieces of flagstone. The reason for this is to get air circulating under the pot and an additional source of oxygen into the soil. For desert areas where the water is alkaline or salty, raising the pot means it is not sitting in the water and reabsorbing the salts back up into the root zone.
For more on container gardens for your home, be sure to sign up for my free e-newsletter, Potted View at www.potteddesert.com/m.
Your April To-Do List
1. Watch for spring winds, and secure loose garden items. Water your pots well to add weight and protect them from toppling.
2. Monitor irrigation and watering as heat rises and winds dry out plants.
3. Plant summer flowers late in the month.
4. Continue to harvest veggies and herbs in the morning.
When faced with the pending summer warm-up of their desert homes, people often ask: How should I water my potted gardens as the days grow hotter? As we leave winter’s slightly cooler months, we need to be prepared to adjust our watering each day, until we settle into consistent temperatures as spring blasts into summer.
I say this, because the temperatures could be in the mild 70s one week—and then get pumped into the upper 80s or even 90s in a day’s time. As we enjoy our wonderful winter flowers, we hope to get a couple more months of splendor from them, so we need to make sure they are moist enough to make it through the hotter days—but not overly wet when it cools off.
If you are hand-watering or have your pots on an irrigation system, adjustments are not hard to make, as long as you are mindful. Being mindful means exploring your garden on a regular basis, especially as the seasons change. Take your coffee or tea out in the mornings, and check your pots to make sure they are each doing well.
Our plants have the greatest chance of survival if they are healthy before the heat hits. Proper water and regular feeding (every two weeks with a water-soluble fertilizer) will provide them with the best conditions possible for this challenge.
With fully grown winter flowers and plants now shading the soil, I would expect you are watering your larger pots (greater than 22 inches, that is) every other day in the morning. Check your pots on the non-watering day to make sure the top 6 inches of soil have not dried out. The roots of flowers planted in the fall should be at least this deep, so that is where you want them damp. They should be OK if the top soil line is a little dry.
A water meter is a handy tool to have; otherwise, just insert a pencil. If the pencil comes out with soil clinging to it, the soil is moist. The water-meter reading will be between medium and dry before water is needed. If you do find them dry that far down, be sure to give them a good soak—meaning that water flows out of the drain hole in the bottom of the pot. The general guide for hand-watering is 30 seconds for each 18 inches of soil diameter, with your hose set to a gentle-shower setting.
Irrigation run times will depend on your system and emitters. A dedicated pot line is typically set for five to 10 minutes each day of operation. I have seen some systems running only three minutes, with ample water delivered to the soil. As I said, it depends on your water-delivery methods. You must make sure you understand how to run the system and make adjustments as needed. They best way to learn is to practice making changes every day until you are so comfortable with its operation that you could coach someone over the phone.
While you are out there being mindful, take time to smell the flowers!
Planning for a Delightful Year-Round Pot
I have often talked about planting trees in pots—but a tree I have left off my list, at least until now, is the pineapple guava (pictured below). It’s actually a shrub, but this plant is often grown as a patio tree, keeping its size in a pot to 6 feet. We won’t necessarily see flowers or fruit on the tree due to the absence of the chilling time required to produce fruit, but the gray-green leaves with silvery-white undersides bring a striking and unique hue to your yard. They’re similar in color to the leaves of an olive tree.
Pineapple guavas, like all potted trees, should be put into a pot at least 26 inches in interior diameter. This will give the roots enough soil to stretch out and provide the plant with the moisture and nutrients it needs to thrive. They are not fast-growers, so I suggest you select a plant in a 5-gallon nursery container.
Plant them in a good potting soil that drains well. Similar to Mediterranean plants, pineapple guavas do not like wet feet. They can take full sun, but they will look better if given some afternoon summer shade.
Don’t be fooled by the drought-tolerant listing: You do not want the tree to dry out. If it does get too dry, the leaves will let you know by dropping off the plant. (Remember my “be mindful” mantra!)
The pineapple guava is frost-tender in mid-desert regions, but in the low desert, it will be rather comfortable all winter long. If we happen to get down to 35 degrees or lower, it would not mind a little jacket, in the form of a light blanket. Take it off the next morning after the sun is up.
As seen in the accompanying picture, the Guava can be underplanted with seasonal flowers—making for pure beauty when supported by the perfect pot.
Your March To-Do List
- Monitor irrigation and watering. Be Mindful!
- Deadhead faithfully, and selectively prune longer branches, especially in petunias.
- Use your water-soluble fertilizer every two weeks with a hose applicator.
- Clean up plant debris, including dead leaves and broken succulent stems.
- Begin fertilizing roses.
The heat of the Coachella Valley will always hold its gardening challenges—but we’re not alone. Gardeners the world over are inspired to bend the rules and try to navigate uncharted waters, no matter where they live.
We have much more control over the environment around our desert homes when we garden in pots. We can use appropriate soils, provide targeted watering and give the plants the light—in other words, the sun—they need.
This winter is a great time to try different types of gardens, including some plants that might just make it all summer long. Remember as you read on to keep in mind the portability factor of pots. Use some of these ideas in pots that you can move to a shaded patio, under a tree or under a carport.
We can create small gardens or many things in miniature. We can create topiaries. We can even invite fairies into our gardens. For the most dedicated gardener, bonsai might be something worth playing with, although I am not sure that any bonsai enthusiast would ever use the word “play.”
I have always been drawn to small things—you know, kittens, puppies, dollhouses and model trains. There has been a growing interest and popularity in miniature or fairy gardens over the last four to five years.
I have always loved walking around a nursery and finding what may fit in the scale of a small garden. Many herbs will work. Thyme is great ground cover. There are a few basil varieties such as “windowbox” basil that have small leaves perfect for any small themed garden. Other good choices in greenery include Mexican heather and parlor palm (Neanthe bella)—a slow-growing upright palm. When purchased in a 3-4 inch pot, it is a very nice tropical addition to a miniature garden. You can often find other plants in small sizes that, if kept trimmed, will grow into nice shrubs or miniature trees.
Flowers including alyssum and lobelia can be added to the miniature garden during our winter months, while dianthus can be added pretty much year-round. Options for spring and summer include sea thrift, miniature daisies and Dahlberg daisies.
If you prefer the low-water route, there are many small-leafed succulents that can be used for a miniature garden. Rosettes of hens and chicks, small-leafed “shrubs” of elephant food, very young ponytail palms and many varieties of sedums and sempervivums are available in our desert nurseries.
Another fun garden technique to try in your desert container garden is the art of topiaries. Now, you don’t have to go crazy creating full-sized elephants, but choosing a nicely formed shrub to shape into a tree form or ball shape may just feed your creative soul. The simple repetition of potted topiaries, such as the privet pictured below, will also serve well in your midcentury modern design—perfect for Modernism Week!
If placed in a series of white columnar pots, perhaps along a walkway, they will provide a very nice accompaniment to your modern décor.
Monthly To-Do List:
1. Keep your eye on shallow-rooted, newly planted annuals, which dry out in early spring winds.
2. Deadhead faithfully and selectively prune longer branches, especially in petunias.
3. Use your water-soluble fertilizer every two weeks with a hose applicator.
4. Plant another set of greens for ongoing salads.
Bountiful color or elegant statements? Whichever you choose, these three beautiful, perennial, evergreen plants take less work, less water and less summer aggravation than many other garden options.
The boxwood, Texas mountain laurel and ponytail palm each can serve as a focal point on their own, while the boxwood and laurel can be under-planted in the cooler winter months with colorful annuals. During the summer months, add water—and they’ll live on. No pruning is needed during those hot months, because every branch on the plant serves itself with shade. Add a little fertilizer monthly to keep the plants healthy during those long summer days, and they should remain in fine form.
Pots to fit the plant
Because these plants are slow-growing, the roots will not take over the pot quickly, so you can plan on leaving the plants in their new homes for several years. However, you need to be sure you are planting them in the correct size container to begin with.
Purchase a five gallon plant. Since these plants are slow-growing, you don’t want to start with a miniscule plant and be waiting until your kids or grandkids are grown for it to amount to anything. A reputable, local nursery should be able to give you a hand in picking out an attractive plant.
The boxwood can go into a 20-24 inch pot, while I would put the mountain laurel or ponytail palm in a 24-inch pot to start. The reason: You can trim the roots of the boxwood as it approaches being root-bound, whereas the ponytail palm will be most happy if left in the same pot for a very long time. You may find the Texas mountain laurel in shrub or tree form, and in either case, with its stature, it deserves a larger pot, such a 24-inch one. However, you can decide depending on the size of the tree.
If you’re not planning to plant any flowers in these pots, choose pots that add to the décor—make them as special as your plant selection. The boxwood has a deep green leaf and no substantial flowers, so your pot could be a brighter color that the green complements.
The laurel flowers for a couple of weeks in the spring with clusters of purple, grape-jelly-scented flowers that will remind you of Wisteria. Although short-lived, you will want to keep the color of the flowers in mind when selecting your pot.
The ponytail palm is a very stately plant that just asks to be showcased in a pot whose width supports the breadth of the canopy of the tree form.
Caring for the plants
Plant the boxwood and Texas mountain laurel using quality potting soil, and add some fertilizer to the mix. Use cactus soil for the ponytail palm.
Be sure to plant each of these plants at the same soil height they had in the nursery can. Keep the ponytail palm high in the pot so it is positioned like it is on a stage: Keep that bulbous stem up and out of the moist soil so it is supported. Add some stone to finish the look and provide added protection to the stem.
Press the soil down firmly as you add each 12 inches to remove air pockets and reduce the risk of the soil level dropping. Once planted, water thoroughly so that the entire volume of soil is wet.
During the warmer and hot months, blast the plants with the jet setting on your hose nozzle from about four feet away to rid the plant of dust and pests. Do this once a week or more as you walk around your yard. This is really important to deter spider mites during the hot months.
The boxwood and Texas mountain laurel respond well to pruning. However, don’t prune off the seed pods of the laurel, because they are next spring’s flowers. The plants should be kept moist; never allow the soil to completely dry out.
If the plant becomes root-bound—you will know this is the case if water runs right through the roots immediately, and the plant is starting to look sad—you can prune the roots by a third and put it back in the same pot with fresh potting soil. This is more likely to happen with the boxwood as opposed to the laurel.
The ponytail palm is actually neither a palm nor a tree, but a succulent in the agave family. This plant only needs water when almost completely dry, as it stores water in the “bulb.” If the bulb looks shriveled, then give it a solid, long drink. Test the soil down low in the pot with a piece of metal or a 1-inch-diameter pole to see if the soil is moist.
This month is a great time to plant any of these. The winter climate of Coachella Valley will not put them at serious risk of any frost damage. However, those living in higher elevations will want to protect the ponytail palm if the nighttime temperatures approach freezing.
Enjoy these plants for years to come in your desert potted garden!