Water is a priority issue in this severe drought. You may wonder: Can we set up an oasis garden in our yard while restricting water usage?
You have choices. By using pots, you will use water more sparingly, as you are watering a very specific area. By being mindful about how much water you supply to your pots, you will average a gallon or two per day for each 20-to-24-inch pot with high water plants, such as flowers, planted in full sun. Medium-water thirsty plants will only need water every other day; low water plants need water every third day, perhaps even less often. Therefore, if you have 10 pots, the most water you use is 20 gallons a day—and that’s if all are planted with water-greedy plants in the full sun.
The average resident in the United States showers for eight minutes, using 17 gallons of water. If you consider some logic here, cutting your shower time in half will let you add four pots to your yard—and not use any more water!
As you would expect, the key to success in your hot desert pots is water. However, 95 percent of plant failures in the desert are caused by inappropriate watering. This includes TOO MUCH WATER! Don’t assume, as a newcomer to the desert that you have to water all of your pots all the time.
Where to Be Cautious With Water Use
Houseplants tend to be loved to death with water. In colder climates, even in the winter, you need to water indoor plants only weekly, and that’s due to dry heating systems. Most “houseplants” can be watered every three to four weeks.
Shaded patio plants also tend to be overwatered. Use a water meter to test how wet the soil is down in the root zone. Most homeowners use their finger to test the top inch, which may very well be dry. But the roots are 6-10 inches below the surface, and that area does not dry out as fast. The amount of wind the plants get will also dictate how fast the soil dries out. If the soil is damp, but the plant is struggling, try blasting the plant itself with water weekly, and misting the leaves now and then.
Potted succulents and cactuses during the hottest seasons may need water weekly; during the more pleasant months of the year, it’s every two weeks. I suggest you see how the plants do if you water even less often; after all, they are desert plants. Watch for wrinkling of the pads or stems to know if you need to increase water.
If you do have your potted plants on irrigation, watch out for plugged pots or errant emitters, as you may find your pot filled with water. If so, with a friend’s help, lean the pot over until you can stick a screwdriver up the drainage hole to relieve the block. The next time you are repotting, empty all of the soil out of that pot, and resolve the problem. It could be root growth from the plant, or a nearby ground plant with its roots growing up into the pot.
All pots do not have to be planted with high-water selections. Consider using plants from the Southwest, along with non-native but desert-friendly plants from the Mediterranean and Africa.
Blooming flowers from many of these plants will attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and grow together, creating lush landscapes that contradict stereotypes about the desert. Intermingle the occasional flowering annuals like those from “back home,” and regulate the water applied for each type of plants’ needs.
It is important to place plants with like needs together—both in respect to sun and water. Combining shade and sun plants in the same pot, and/or high- and low-water plants, will only result in disaster, perhaps leading you to become one of those newcomers who throws up your hands and says, “You cannot grow anything but cactus in the desert!” Not true—just look at the desert potted garden below.
If you water your pots with an irrigation system, set it to come on about 4 a.m., and water before the lines heat up in the sun. If you are watering by hand, water as close to sunrise as possible. Be sure the water coming out of the hose is not hot, and water pots until the water comes out of the drain hole.
However, only water your potted succulents and cacti when the soil is almost dry. Again, use a water meter to determine this.
Interested in being rewarded for reducing your grassy areas? The Desert Water Agency (DWA) has just relaunched its turf buy back program to encourage residents in the western valley to reduce the amount of living turf they have at homes and businesses. If you are interested in finding out more about this project, visit the DWA website.
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, has just been released. Buy it online at potteddesert.com. Email her with comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert.