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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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.

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, is now available. Buy it online at potteddesert.com. Email her with comments and questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert. The Potted Desert Garden now appears monthly.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

This evergreen shrub plant with its many varieties is recognized by many name: Boxwood. Box-leaf. Winter creeper.

If you are daring, true gardener, you might simply say euonymus (yoo-on-uh-muhs).

Because of its diversity, the euonymus has many different uses; I love using these plants in containers. The full shrub works well as a stunning specimen plant, in a combination planting or an as attractive living screen.

In the landscape, it is often used as a hedge. Most euonymus plants grow well in either full sun or shady conditions; however, the variegated evergreen forms generally need more sun to develop and maintain their best color. They prefer moist, well-drained soil, especially when planted in pots.

Shopping for Euonymus

Varieties I have successfully used in pots are the following (in order of my favorites):

  • Golden euonymus, or “aureo-marginata,” has bright golden foliage (shown above).
  • “Silver king” has green leaves with silvery white edges (shown below).
  • “Silver queen” has green leaves with creamy white edges.
  • “Goldspot euonymus or “aureo-variegata” has leaves with yellow blotches and green edges.
  • Box-leaf euonymus, or “microphylla,” is a small-leafed, compact shrub, usually trimmed as a hedge. In pots, it can be trimmed into a nicely shaped topiary.

Growth, Care and Feeding

The euonymus is slow-growing. If you choose a variety with variegated leaves, it will add more to your garden than simply green. It will take the full sun, and is very hardy during our mild winters. Since it does grow slowly, you can keep the plant in the same pot for several years without a problem. I do suggest that you start the larger varieties in 22-to-24-inch (or bigger) pots. The smaller-leaved box-leaf can do well in a slightly smaller pot.

When the shrub becomes root-bound in its container, you do not have to up-size the pot. You can gently remove the plant from the pot and cut back the roots by up to one-third. Then re-pot the plant with fresh potting soil and some time-release fertilizer; water thoroughl,y and you are good to go. I would do this in the early fall or spring.

Each of these euonymus varieties can be trimmed to shape. You can surround them with flowers to make a beautiful, full-potted garden. As you fertilize your flowers bi-weekly with a water-soluble fertilizer, the shrub will be getting the added food it needs to thrive.

In more hot and humid climates, gardeners often complain of the propensity for the plant to attract scale insects. If you keep the plant from getting too compact with its strong branches by pruning out some of the center branches, and you blast the with water with your hose nozzle set to the “jet” setting, you will keep the plant healthy so it can resist a scale attack.

If you are lucky enough to find a young plant with a strong center stem, the euonymus will shape nicely into a small tree. Remember, though, that it is slow-growing, so you will need to exercise patience to gain substantial height of the topiary. It will max out around 3 to 4 feet. Starting with a five-gallon plant from the nursery will give you a good start!

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

Many of our homes have been built with a kiva—or fireplace—in the backyard.

This leads to a question: Why? For those long, cold winters? I think not! But we have them, so let’s put them to good use.

Fire or No Fire?

If you think you will use the fireplace in the winter, then you will want to place ceramic pots with low-water, high-heat-tolerant plants closest to the flames. Another option is to use a lightweight pot that can be moved when the heat is on. Either way, planning ahead will make life easier—and lessen the risk of losing plants to the fire’s heat.

Pots that are more distant from the fire can contain your favorite seasonal bouquets with annuals, as well as perennials, trees and shrubs. Use colors that coordinate with your kiva wall color and tiles. Keep it simple, as there is probably a lot already going on with the hardscape, seating areas and pots. Consider a white garden to reflect the firelight and moon light in the cool of the evening. (See an “after” pic above, with the “before” pic below.)

Prioritize your relaxation time

Crafting a small garden around your outdoor fireplace area will create another draw to get you out into your backyard. This is the No. 1 complaint that I hear from desert homeowners: Even with our wonderful, mild winters, they do not use their patios enough. We get caught up in the daily life of work, volunteering and our infamous to-do list. We forget to put some priority on motivating ourselves or even allowing ourselves time to spend outside, on the patio.

Well, with flowers and plants that need attention … we must go out to care for them. While we are there, let’s stay a while.

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

The desert heat is finally subsiding a bit, so it is time to listen to the call of your backyard—and go out to smell the flowers.

Clean off that bench, and make sure it is positioned in a shady spot so you actually will go out and sit. Take out your coffee, tea, wine or cocktail, as well as a favorite book, to just sit and be.

The main goal is to make your bench more than utilitarian. If your bench is hanging out there with nothing to keep it in your focus as a place to stop for a while, add a large pot to each side to “bookend” it as a full vignette. Fill those pots with colorful fragrant flowers—and you won’t be able to stay away.

Some flowers that meet the requisites of color and fragrance that do well in our warm winters include:

  • Alyssum
  • Dianthus
  • Nasturtiums
  • Stock
  • Sweet peas

You can find additional winter plants listed in my newly published book, Getting Potted in the Desert.

If your bench is colorful as the one in the picture to the right, use a simpler planting such as the yellow bells shrub and coral fountain perennial.

You can also repeat the colors of your bench’s cushions in the flowers as pictured below, with the red crepe myrtle trees and red cushions of this iron bench.

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert.

 

Published in Potted Desert Garden

A common architectural element of our desert dwellings is often an eyesore: The posts on the back patio which hold up the roof are necessary—while often ugly. Posts and pillars interrupt the flow of traffic, block your view and get in the way of your hose. There really is not much you can do—except make them disappear in your mind’s eye.

Patio pots are a perfect solution to this problem. Artfully arranged pots filled with abundant floral displays can detract from the not-so-pretty nature of the posts. Instead, you’ll primarily see the beautiful garden.

When placing pots around a post, you want to think of the viewpoints, i.e., the point from which you will be viewing the pots. You might see them from inside through a window, from the patio at your favorite chair, or farther out in the yard—either from your pool, your outdoor kitchen or a second seating area.

When designing most elements of your home, the rule of three is pretty standard: You can use three pots, or count the post as one element of the three. Your pots must be in proportion to the post. Your main pot, the largest of the three, should be at least 2 feet tall. When you add the plants, it will be 3 to 3 1/2 feet tall—a nice third of the height of the pillar. Don't make this into rocket science with the measurements; these are general guidelines for you to follow. Just avoid small, easy-to-carry, “cute” pots. These are much too small to minimize a post.

In the trio of pictures above, you see a large pillar at the end of the ramada. The group of three pots are only seen from the front of the column, so the grouping, including a trellised vine, faces the rest of the yard. One pot has a golden barrel cactus to remind us that we do live in the desert.

The photo below shows a standard 4-inch post in an upscale home. The concrete planters surround the post, as the potted collection is seen from all sides. With seasonal plantings, the homeowners enjoy the living color rather than a single post 365 days a year.

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

Anyone can throw a couple of pots together—but with some planning and a little open-mindedness, you can create a work of art with pot combinations and plantings.

The first thing I suggest you do is go out and get a sense of what’s available. Nurseries, pottery stores, home-furnishing establishments and botanical gardens all should have pots. See what colors and styles strike your fancy, and check prices to see what fits in your budget. Keep the decorating style and colors of your home in mind, especially the rooms that will have the focal points of your pots as you look out to your patio and yard. Remember, when it comes to pots here in the desert, bigger is better—larger than 18 inches, for sure. Actually, you will have much better success if you go for 22 inches and up! The bigger, the better.

In the photo above, you can see a grouping that’s definitely suited more to homes in the mid-century modern style. Of course, primary colors, as shown in the picture to the right, also work well in most mid-century modern homes. Bright and cheerful combinations will stand out in your yard and can bring a smile to your face each time you see them. The yellow pot pictured here holds a young bouquet of flowers, including profusion zinnias and pentas. This pot will need daily water during most of our year in the desert. However, the succulent planting next to it, in the orange 20-inch pot, requires only weekly water during our hottest months, and water every three to four weeks during the winter. The lady slipper (pedilanthus) is a great upright succulent which will flower with orange “lady slippers” that attract hummingbirds. The pot is “dressed” with Mexican river rock, which is used to retain moisture, keep water away from the base stem of the plant, and finish the look of the combination.

A more traditional-style home would be a perfect place for the combination shown in the first photo below, of burgundy and cream pots, with complementary color plants. Look carefully to see how the pot colors move from one to the other, starting with the 24-inch belly pot in Chinese red. This pot provides the foundation of the grouping. The taller cream-colored pot supports the tall burgundy plant (phormium) which will do well in the winter. The third pot ties it all together by uniting the red and cream of the larger pots with a coppery sheen that brings in the burgundy and the cream color.

Finally, the outdoor shower setting shown in the second photo below offers a perfect demonstration of matching colors. We were fortunate to find this trio of pots that united the shades of the shower, the side wall and even the honey-colored door. With the square vase-shaped lines of the pots, the contemporary theme holds true—and the simple low-water plantings will help keep the floor free of water buildup. A Texas mountain laurel tree is in the back pot. This slow-growing tree is perfect for pots, as it will not outgrow the pot for years. The low front pot includes a gopher plant, which in this partially shaded area will bloom in the spring. Succulents, including a health-conscious aloe, round out the plantings without a lot of fuss.

I mentioned open-mindedness at the beginning of this column. I say that, because you never know what pots and plants you will find when you go shopping. You might think you want a specific look, but the pots available might not fit your original vision. With an open mind, you may find something surprising that will totally satisfy you. Just have fun!

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

Let’s go for succulents and cactus! They’re easy-care, low-water and beautiful for any landscape. Plus, succulents and their sub-families are wonderful in pots. When you are frustrated with the struggles of Palm Springs’ constant heat, it can be a relief to have a strong plant to count on in your garden.

The three pots above demonstrate a sun-and-shade combination. The tall euphorbia in the back requires shade with no reflected light and heat. The two plants in the front lower pots—ponytail palm and firesticks—can take the sun, but will do better with afternoon shade in the summer. All of these plants are frost-tender, but that is a rare concern here, as long as the plants are placed on a somewhat covered patio.

If you still are longing for some added color throughout the heat, the two black pots in the first photo below offer one example of a low-water solution. The coordinated golden color of the golden variegated yucca marginata and golden barrels are set off by the bright blue recycled glass. The glass, instead of landscape rock, is a nice alternative.

The Spanish dagger, in the second picture below, is a show-stopper in a pot with a strong presence on its own. In green or, as shown, in the variegated variety, the dagger will have guests asking you what is it—and where did you get it? The gracefully bending fronds give your home a tropical feel without the water needs of true tropical plants.

A little extra care that will ensure the overall health of the plant:

• Place the plant in a mostly shady area with good air circulation.

• At least once a week, jet-spray the leaves, being sure to get into the cups that are formed where the leaves originate from the stem. This is a safe-haven for pesky bugs—unless you insist on their discomfort.

As we approach the heat relief of October, now is the perfect time to plant some succulents in pots. Planting now will give your plants plenty of time to acclimate to their new location and prepare for next summer. But let’s not talk about that yet! Let’s enjoy our beautiful weather all winter long!

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

There is not a clear-cut answer to any question regarding gardening—or budgeting! Therefore, you know that when you’re making a budget for a garden, there are all sorts of possibilities.

However, one thing is clear cut: You do have control over how much you spend on a potted garden.

The biggest benefit of gardening in the desert is that your largest expense—pots—will not freeze, so you do not have to worry about replacing them during a hard winter. In fact, if you spend money on really good pots, you should never have to replace them.

I am going to lay this out as if you are shopping at a local nursery, as there, I know your money is being well spent. However, at discount stores, consignment shops and yard sales, you might find real bargains that will cut this budget significantly.

  • Pots: For each grouping of three pots (18”, 22”, 24” interior diameter)—$475
  • Potting soil: Three or four 2-cubic-foot bags—$120
  • Specialty plants for largest pot—$45
  • Flowers and perennials: 32 4-inch plants—$75
  • Fertilizer (time-release fertilizer)—$20
  • Total: $735 plus tax

More larger pots will increase the price proportionately. Be sure to never short-change the soil or fertilizer. Also, be sure the plants you buy are appropriate for our desert climate.

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

Raised garden beds and planters offer another way to “contain” your desert gardens. They can provide a larger space to grow veggies and flowers.

One reason why I like raised planters is that, like pots, they are much easier on your back. If the raised planter is designed well, you can sit on the edge of the bed while planting and caring for your plants. The downside is you can’t move around a raised bed like you can pots.

To prepare a raised bed for planting, fill it with a quality potting soil. If the bed is large, this may be too expensive, and you may need to instead pick up a quality garden soil at the nursery. You want something that is sterile and smells earthy—there should be no hint of a manure smell.

As you add the soil to the bed, stop every 12 to 18 inches, and compress the soil with your hands to pack it down. Without packing the soil down, air pockets will cause the water to flow through, dropping the top soil level. However, take care not to pack the soil so intensely that there will not be any air left in the soil.

In the desert, I recommend you plant more gallon containers than 4-inch plants. To prepare for these gallon containers, fill the bed to the point approximately 10 inches below the top of the walls. Place your plants where you want them, about 8 inches apart (for gallon containers). Be sure to open the root ball before going on to the next step.

Add soil up the root balls, coming up about two inches short of the top of the plants’ soil line. Then add time-release fertilizer to the soil. Follow the directions on the container. Distribute the fertilizer throughout the top 2 inches of soil. You do not need to worry about mixing it in beyond this, as ongoing watering will continue to deliver the food down throughout the root structure.

Now you can add your 4-inch plants, opening the roots and adding soil up to the top of all of the plants’ root balls. Press down on each plant to seat it into its new home, and press down all soil areas.

Water all of the plants and soil with the shower setting on your hose nozzle, making sure the soil is wet all the way down through the root balls. To test it, use a metal rod or stick to push into the soil. It should consistently come out damp or with soil adhering to the stick. You will average about one minute of water for every square foot of space.

This same planting method can be used for containers or pots—everything above the ground.

Want more detail? Check out my new book.

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

It’s time to speak specifically to newcomers about gardening in the desert.

Of course, you are probably reading this when the mercury is still firmly wrestling with 100-plus degrees on a daily basis, and you’re saying, “Are you kidding me?”

Really: I do not jest. We can and do have wonderful gardens here in the low desert; we just have to be smart about it.

Many of us come from climates with beautiful, cooler summers—and with those summers come stunning gardens. I know that many of us yearn for a similar garden here in the desert, and I want to assure you that it can be done.

A note for the non-gardeners who may be reading this: Why not try your hand with a garden at your desert home? Perhaps you have caught yourself admiring other gardens in the valley, and you think to yourself, “Could I do it?”

Here are 15 reasons to consider a container garden in the desert:

1. Pots are a great place to try your hand at gardening.

2. You can make a small investment to get started—both in money and labor.

3. Pots are movable. Change your mind about a location? No problem!

4. Pots will fit anywhere, even if you have limited space outside.

5. There are only rare frosty conditions, so there is little risk of pots breaking in a freeze.

6. We have a long growing season for flowers, vegetables and herbs.

7. Succulents and cacti provide easy care options.

8. Targeted watering means you can have an oasis garden (on a small scale) and use little water.

9. Immediate gratification—plant it, and enjoy!

10. Almost no weeding!

11. Pots are easier to reach than ground plantings. This is great for bad backs, aging bodies and anyone who does not like to dig in the ground.

12. Pots are the only way to have plants on your hardscapes, i.e., patios, entries, etc.

13. Grow plants easily in the shade.

14. Kids of all ages love pots!

15. You can create a potted garden to coordinate with any style or color … and then change it whenever you desire!

There are two key priorities when creating a potted garden in the desert. The first is water: Everything is going to need water. The second is your pot. Let’s address the pot question first, since you need one to begin your garden.

The biggest mistake that homeowners make is to buy a pot that is too small. You need a good-sized pot, i.e., one that is 24 inches or greater in interior diameter at the rim, when planning to plant in the full sun. Pots need this volume in order for them to have enough soil and moisture to protect, insulate and care for the plant, regardless of what kind it is. When you are planning to plant in the shade, you can go a little bit smaller, but you never want to go below 20 inches—even if your pot gets no sun.

People always ask me what kind of pots I recommend. You want a pot where the entire wall is as thick as possible; clay pots are particularly good. I never recommend plastic pots, because the walls are too thin, offer no insulation, and will become brittle. A clay pot that has been high-fired is your best bet. It will cost you a little more money, but it will last you a lifetime.

The easiest way to get started in a container garden is to think about cactus and succulents. Your first decision is where you want to place your first pot. Look at your home’s outside areas, and decide where the place of honor will be: Near your entryway? At a focal point in the yard? On the patio? Will it be in the sun or in shade?

Go to a local nursery and talk to someone in the know about where you want to place your plant. Look at the choices; ask for one that is easy care; and make your selection. Get some help in choosing the right-size pot; grab some cactus soil and time-release fertilizer; and take it all home.

Online at CVIndependent.com all this month, I’ll continue with tips for newcomers—for example, how to plant your plants in containers.

The Potted Desert Garden appears Tuesdays. 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 potteddesert.com. Email her with comments and questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

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