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04 Nov 2014

The Potted Desert Garden: Celebrate 365 Days of Desert Color in Your Outdoor Surroundings

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Give your pots layers with thrillers, chillers and spillers. Give your pots layers with thrillers, chillers and spillers.

We live in the desert.

It can be really hot.

However

We can grow wonderful plants all year long!

In our pots.

We moved here for a reason. For many of us, the weather was one of those reasons. It was for me, when I moved from upstate New York—away from the snow!

Even with the heat, we ought to have wonderful color in our landscapes every day of the year. Of course, I use pots to accomplish this. I plant backbone structural plants—and then I add my color, each and every season (which here means twice per year). When plants peter out in the heat, I find replacements.

Planting a backbone plant saves money, as we don't have to replace all of the plants each season. As the perennial, shrub or tree grows, only half of the pot will need to be replanted. For instance, in a 24-inch pot, I would need to plant a total of 17 to 20 4-inch annuals if that’s all there were in the pot. However, when I put a 1-gallon plant in the back of the pot, I only need 12-15 annuals. As the stature plant grows, that number will be reduced each season.

For me, those annuals are definitely about the color.

During my 18 years of living in the desert, I have developed many favorite combinations of flowers—but for my client, every design has been unique over the years. I worked on developing my plant and color palette as much as an artist would.

I also cultivated a repertoire of backbone plants. My first go-to plant was the butterfly iris. I wanted a grassy effect, but with a plant that would not need to be cut back every winter. Best in afternoon shade, its rich, dark-green blade leaves blow and bend in the wind, but stand up well to the heat—as long as the plant gets enough water.

I soon got bored with this as my mainstay, though, and began looking for other options. I tried evergreen perennials, shrubs, trees and often tall annuals (especially for my snowbird clients).

Salvias, artichokes, red yucca, plumbago, yellow bells, myrtles of all shapes and sizes, herbs and numerous other plants and shrubs found their way into my pots. This was all done to support my desire for color in what resources like HGTV and Better Homes and Gardens have called “thrillers, chillers and spillers.” That’s your backbone structural plants, mid-height colors, and trailing plants.

We are finally at or near the time when we can plant our winter annuals, so check out local nurseries for new colors, hybrids and trusted familiar plants. You can choose from old standards like pansies, petunias, geraniums, cyclamen, alyssum, lobelia, calendula, sweet peas, ornamental kale and snapdragons. I also recommend spreading your wings a little with diascia, nemesia, candytuft, African daisies and gerbera daisies.

This list does not exhaust the possibilities, so check out what’s available—and make sure you have fun while doing so!

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 is available for digital consultations, and you can email her with comments and questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert.

Below: The butterfly iris can be used as a lovely backbone plant.

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