Many avid gardeners and enthusiasts have a large number of pots. At my high point, I counted more than 55 around my home; the majority of them were planted with colorful floral bouquets. Even though I love the desert and the colors related to it, I wanted more gemstone shades around—up close and personal. Potted gardens allow me to do that easily—there’s no digging in the ground!
But when it came time to change out the annual color in all those pots twice a year, it was costly. My first step in fixing this was to combine a central plant—a perennial plant, shrub or tree that I enjoy—in some pots along with seasonal plantings. Getting smarter still, I filled some pots with succulents, which led to savings both in the cost of replacement plants and water needs, as the succulents do not need to be on an irrigation drip line.
Well, the fall and winter season is upon us, so it’s one of those two times per year when we must improve our potted gardens. We want to refresh some pots with flowers, enrich the soil for all plantings, and create living art. For snowbirds returning: Now is the time to create a reason why you leave your snow-covered grass to come to the Coachella Valley.
Because we’ll often experience nighttime lows of 30 to 45 degrees (or even lower), you need to keep these chilly temps in mind when you make your choices for plantings. Also consider the sun: It shifts from a northern angle in the summer to a more southerly angle now, so plants that were getting a lot of sun will not get as much in the winter—and plantings on the northern side of the home may be in complete shade. You need to note where your winter sun is so that plants that do well in the shade are not blasted with the desert rays, and vice versa.
We are lucky, though: We have enough warmth in the Coachella Valley that we do not (often) risk the severe frosts that some of our desert relatives experience.
Winter annual flowers supply brilliant color, grow quickly and offer a “wow” factor to your desert landscape. Add annuals to pots that have an established central plant, and fill smaller pots with bouquets of your favorites to give you a garden that will thrill you all winter long. (See a list of appropriate plants below.)
Here are the steps to take while replanting. (If you have pots in which you’re not putting any new plants, be sure to add fertilizer, and water thoroughly with the application.)
Step 1: Remove all dead plants, dying plants or past-their-prime plants. Be sure to get out all old roots and anything that does not seem healthy—and be somewhat careful around the roots of the central plant.
Step 2: Add fresh potting soil and a handful of time-release fertilizer; mix it in with the old soil as much as possible. If the old soil is entirely root-bound, you are going to need to remove the central plant, discard the soil and start with fresh soil.
Step 3: Plant your new plants, leaving an inch or two between plants.
Step 4: Pack additional soil in around the plants, making sure you do not bury the stems deeper than they were originally planted in their nursery containers.
Step 5: Water thoroughly with a gentle shower.
Be careful while shopping for those new flowers at the nursery. Grab an empty flat or carton; place your selections on the flat; and then step back. Look at it hard and long, and be sure the flowers sit right with you.
A 24-inch pot with one central planting will need approximately 14 4-inch plants. If you select any gallon plants, they can replace or four smaller ones. I urge you to use 4-inch plants and not six-packs.
When you go shopping and bring your plants home, water them well, and plant as soon as possible—as in the same day. If you need to wait until the next morning, place them in the shade to rest.
Marylee is the founder and former owner of Tucson’s The Contained Gardener, and she has become known as the Desert’s Potted Garden Expert. Email her with comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow the Potted Desert on Facebook.
Good Winter Flowers for the Potted Desert Garden
Carnation (Dianthus family)
Delphinium (late winter)
Dianthus (look for the Amazon variety)
Dusty Miller (a gray-leafed plant for contrast)
Foxglove (late winter)
Gerbera Daisies (afternoon shade)
Hollyhock (late winter)
Larkspur (late winter)
Osteospermum (related to African Daisy)
Ranunculus (afternoon shade)
Schizanthus (Be sure to ask for this winner!)
Sweet Peas (fragrant!)