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Life in the desert is grand! Since we can enjoy gardening year-round, we can plant as little or as much as we want without worrying too much about the timing.

But now is the time, as the holiday season is upon us, to add to our home’s celebration by sprucing up our container gardens to our heart’s content. It’s yet another excuse to ‘play’ outside in our gorgeous fall weather!

You have many options to add to the holiday luster in your pots. Let’s explore some ideas; mix and match as you please.

Seasonal plantings that last all winter: Whether you lean toward permanent plantings, such as shrubs or trees; you mix it up with perennials; or you only have annuals, you can plant your holiday color scheme now. Your gardens, with the right care, will last until the heat of the early summer.

For in-sun plantings, red and white annual possibilities include:

• Petunias

• Million Bells

• Stock

• Dianthus (try the newer variety of Amazon or other super-tall dianthus)

• Geraniums (they’re part-shade, too)

• Diascia

• Nemesia

• Snapdragons (whites and burgundy; no red)

• Alyssum

• Lobelia

• Pansies and Viola (whites and burgundy; no red)

As for shade plantings, primrose and cyclamen are your best bets in full shade. Filtered sun is a great place for geraniums.

Paper whites, amaryllis and, of course, poinsettias are great nursery plants that you can use in pots during the holidays. If there is a dip in temperatures to 40 degrees or below, you will want to bring them inside.

Permanent plantings: Your existing shrubs or trees can stand alone as holiday décor. Heavenly bamboo leaves will turn red. The red-tipped photinia’s new growth is red, so if you fertilize it now, you might force it into growth, resulting in showy leaves just in time for the holidays. Pyracantha and English holly have red berries that show off right in time for your parties. Burgundy cordyline is another plant that can bring holiday cheer when decorated with other plants or objects.

Speaking of objects: Take some of your decorations, and embellish the plants. Use small holiday lights, bows, garlands, ornaments, pine cones or anything that catches your eye as you deck the halls!

Combining your ideas: You also have the opportunity to plant annuals under or around your potted permanent plants. You can simply place a potted plant (or several) on top of the soil of the larger plant and dress it with potted ivy, garland, pine boughs or anything else you have to finish it off. This is a great way to use those tender nursery plants that you might need to bring inside.

Pots on your patio or near your front door are a great place to add candles (maybe of the flameless variety) inside chimneys among the plantings. This would be a great addition when you are expecting guests!

No matter how much or how little you do, allow your child’s eye to create the look you want for the holidays. I have kept within the traditional red-and-white color spectrum here, but if you want to work with blues, all-whites, golds or silvers, look for those colors when you visit the nursery. I know you will find something that just tickles you!

Have a great holiday season. Be safe in your garden and in your celebrations.

Marylee is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. She has become known as the Desert’s Potted Garden Expert. E-mail her with comments and questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and follow The Potted Desert on Facebook.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

We get more than 360 days of sun in the desert, so we don’t often have gray skies—but there are some great gray- or silver-leafed plants that can jazz up our potted winter bouquets.

Almost any color scheme has space for silver. It is a contrasting color that plays a supporting role to bright jewel-tone colors, and it makes pastels pop more than they might on their own. Silver can also look like dew drops in the winter morning sun. Most silver-leafed plants can take our sun and will also thrive in the shade. I especially enjoy using gray foliage with shades of blue and purple.

Readily accessible gray or silver-leafed plants include the dusty miller; the gopher plant; and lamb’s ear. These plants not only have stunning appearances; many are also drought-tolerant.

One of my favorites is artemisia, which is a perennial of the Asteraceae family. Valued for its beautiful, slender, gray-to-silver leaves on tall arching stems or low mounds, it is pleasantly soft to the touch and critter-resistant, and it responds well to pruning.

With its soft, silvery leaves, dusty miller is typically grown as an annual foliage plant—despite the fact that it’s actually a perennial that will flower after the first year.

Your typical bedding plant of dusty miller has yellow flowers. I do not let mine complete the flowering process, because it weakens the plant in our desert heat. However, in recent years, I have found another variety of dusty miller, Velvet Centaurea, that has beautiful artichoke-like purple flowers.

Since the dusty miller truly is a perennial, you might want to see how long you can maintain it in your potted garden. Trim it to shape, and enjoy the role it plays with your flowers.

Marylee is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. She has become known as the Desert’s Potted Garden Expert. E-mail her with comments and questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and follow The Potted Desert on Facebook.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: You should “blast” your flowers and potted plants with a jet spray of water on a regular basis.

Many people in my potted-gardening classes have looked at me funny when I tell them to do this. Why do I push this activity so much?

Well, a jet spray applied to the structure of your potted plants, flowers, roses and even cactus will do several things: It will blow off pests. It aerates the plants, proactively deterring pests and disease. A healthy plant is more resistant to disease, such as powdery mildew, and pests, such as spider mites and aphids.

Once newly planted gardens are well-rooted and show signs of new growth, it is safe to begin the jet-blast spraying. New buds and blossoms will not break off unless they are not well-tethered to their stem. Also, you do not need to worry about wetting the leaves in the sun. Recent research shows that the water droplets do not stay long enough on the plant to create a magnification of the sun on the leaves.

Here are the steps to take:

• Before applying water to the plants, be sure the water coming out of your hose is cool. In order to not waste this first, over-warm water, spray it into a bucket, and let it cool off before using; spray it into your pool; or set the nozzle on the shower setting, and spray it through the air, allowing the cooled water to gently fall on a vegetated area.

• Jet-spray your plants in the early morning hours.

• Do this daily in the summer, and every few days in the winter. I suggest only spraying off cactus once a month.

• Set your hose nozzle to the jet-spray setting.

• Stand back three to four feet from the plants.

• Spray across the structure of the plants—NOT into the soil—and move the hose around so you are hitting the plant from all sides. Each pot will only need about 10 to 15 seconds of spraying.

• When you are done, be sure to turn off the hose at the spigot and run the final water out of the hose by opening up the nozzle for a last spray.

You will find that your plants will be much happier and healthier with this treatment. It is a pleasant way to start your day with a cup of tea or coffee in one hand, and your trusty hose in the other.

If you only have 20 minutes in your desert potted garden this week: Jet-blast your potted plants, of course!

Marylee is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. She has become known as the Desert’s Potted Garden Expert. E-mail her with comments and questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and follow The Potted Desert on Facebook.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

Most gardeners are familiar with annual flowers such as pansies, violas, snapdragons and petunias. Midwesterners and northern-state residents plant them in the summer—but here in the desert, they can be part of our winter mix, and hold up well in potted gardens and flower beds alike.

Beyond these old favorites, I enjoy exploring lesser-known plants and mixing them up in my container gardens. I love it when guests ask: “What’s that plant?”

Nemesia is a fascinating cool-season annual with little snapdragon-shape flowers that bloom in a wide range of colors. It does best during our desert winters—though I had a nice surprise this summer, when my nemesia continued to grow and flower throughout! It did get some afternoon shade and regular water, so I am sure that helped.

The nemesia, originally from South Africa, prefers moist, well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter. The plant can grow from 1 to 2 feet tall, but they tend to stay smaller in our heat. You will want to deadhead regularly to prolong the bloom, as is the case with most of our annual flowers. When flowers do start to decline, cut the plant back to stimulate new growth, and expect your plants’ performance to slow down as the weather heats up.

Since the nemesia has such a small flower, and its flower clusters will never fill a bed with color, I recommend using the plant in pots that are closer to areas where people sit or walk. Good locations are near a patio seating area, or close to a window you pass by frequently—and make it a location that gets six hours of sun each day.

The flowers bloom in large clusters at the top of the branching stems. There's a wide color range, including yellow, orange, pink, red and lavender-blue. I team up the plants with strong bloomers and mix in other larger flowers at the mid-height range so the nemesia is a delicate surprise, popping out among the color.

If you only have 20 minutes in your desert potted garden this week: Deadhead your flowers. Cut back to new growth or the base of the stem.

Marylee is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. She has become known as the Desert’s Potted Garden Expert. E-mail 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., and follow The Potted Desert on Facebook.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

October brings us a fifth Tuesday—and, therefore, a fifth column by yours truly!

Whenever I have a fifth day of the week in a month, I see it as a freebie. Few recurring meetings or events are scheduled on fifth days, so these days are often commitment-free—meaning there is more time to garden!

It seems the key word is free. What is free in our gardens? Well, there are always “volunteer plants”! We often get plant surprises that shoot up after our monsoon rains and cooling temperatures. The plants can come from previous plantings, seeds carried in by the wind, and even bird droppings.

Cacti propagate readily—through “pups” and seeds. One year, I had a hanging succulent wreath on my gate, and a snapdragon “volunteer” popped up inside of it. I did not even know that such a thing was possible.

Above and below are a few of my recent “freebies.”

If you only have 20 minutes in your desert potted garden this week: Plant! If you haven’t started already, start now. Don’t overdo it; buy what is manageable, and go back and get more next week. You can plant all fall and winter, so go at the pace that’s best for yourself and your garden!

Marylee is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. She has become known as the Desert’s Potted Garden Expert. E-mail her with comments and questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and follow The Potted Desert on Facebook.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

A large pot—one that is greater than 28 inches in diameter—offers a tremendous opportunity to express yourself in living color. With our temperate Palm Springs climate, we can enjoy winter seasonal color for a long time. What we plant in late October or early November will probably last long into the spring … or is that early summer?

When combining colors in this large of a pot, you can almost treat it like a flower bed. However, you do not want to combine every color in the flower spectrum in one pot or one area. Too many colors, although they may be pretty at first glance, quickly become too busy: The eye does not know where to rest, and the brain becomes overwhelmed.

Before deciding on your color palette for a pot, there are a few things to consider:

  • The color of the pot itself.
  • Your colors of your décor.
  • Other plantings in the area, and the colors of nearby flowers that will bloom during the same period of time.
  • Personal preferences.

In other words, you want to plan the colors in your pot in the same way you decorate your home.

The color of the pot: Organic colors— brown, umber, green and even matte blue—such as those of the desert can handle any color combination you may choose. These pots are purely the vessels that hold your bouquets.

Pots in bold colors need to have flower arrangements that complement the color of the pots. Bright blue pots might hold a combination of pinks, primary colors or pastels. These pots are strong enough in their own color that one might decide to plant only one color in the pot.

I find that the most difficult pot for which to choose colors is the Chinese Red pot. Red or pink flowers will not look good in them, but oranges, purples and yellows will work fine.

Your décor, your plantings and surrounding colors: If your pot is close to any decorated areas of your home, you will want to choose colors that complement the colors of your furnishings, cushions, umbrellas and walls. For example, if you decorate in earth tones, you probably will not choose a flower combination that includes pinks or blues, but instead, you’ll pick flowers that match the colors in your pillows or paintings—perhaps hues of orange, cranberry, purple, yellow or red.

Other plantings: The same principles apply to flowering plants that will be seen in the same view as the pot. If you have a lush bougainvillea against a wall, and the pot is in line with the bougie, I wouldn’t put a fire-engine-red plant in the same sight line—one of the colors is just going to lose the battle. However, white, yellow and purple would stand out nicely with fuchsia as the background.

Your personal preferences: We all have our color loves. The wonderful thing about annual flowers is that we can try something this year, and then do something different next season. I have designed container gardens for more than 15 years now, and I have never repeated the exact same design. There are too many flowers, colors and hues to choose from to be self-limiting—and each year, growers develop new hybrids and shades of flowers. Also, more and more flowers are being hybridized to become more tolerant of our desert climate.

If you only have 20 minutes in your desert potted garden this week: Plan what you want to plant in your winter potted garden. Next weekend will be a great time to start planting your winter flowers (and, if you are so inclined, vegetables and herbs).

Marylee is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. She has become known as the Desert’s Potted Garden Expert. E-mail her with comments and questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and follow The Potted Desert on Facebook.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and follow the Potted Desert on Facebook.

Good Winter Flowers for the Potted Desert Garden

African Daisy

Ageratum

Alyssum (fragrant!)

Arctotis

Calendula

Candytuft

Carnation (Dianthus family)

Cyclamen (shade)

Delphinium (late winter)

Dianthus (look for the Amazon variety)

Diascia

Dusty Miller (a gray-leafed plant for contrast)

Foxglove (late winter)

Geranium (frost-tender)

Gerbera Daisies (afternoon shade)

Hollyhock (late winter)

Larkspur (late winter)

Lobelia (frost-tender)

Nasturtiums (fragrant!)

Nemesia

Nierembergia

Ornamental Cabbage

Osteospermum (related to African Daisy)

Pansy

Petunia

Poppy (Iceland)

Primrose (shade)

Ranunculus (afternoon shade)

Schizanthus (Be sure to ask for this winner!)

Snapdragons

Stock (fragrant!)

Sweet Peas (fragrant!)

Viola

Published in Potted Desert Garden

Problem: You have a bare spot in your desert landscape; you travel often; and you want a strong focal point.

Solution: An architectural plant that’s very low-water and works perfectly in a large pot.

The giant hesperaloe, with its bold form, serves well as a dramatic focal point and accent plant in a desert landscape. It features stiff, 6-foot-long, deep-lime green leaves; curly white fibers that run along its edges add to its character. This hardy Chihuahuan Desert native handles full and reflected sun, making it a natural fit for a sun-drenched (i.e. hot) yard. The plant will shoot up a 12-to-15 foot stalk of creamy white lily-like flowers in the summer. Although neither plant is part of the yucca family, the giant hesperaloe (Herperaloe funifera) is related to the common hesperaloe, the red yucca.

Because of the open nature of the leaf clumps and the fact that the leaves are very stiff, when potted, the giant will not be a high tipping risk in the Palm Springs/Coachella Valley winds. I recommend that you use a pot that will be proportionate to the size of the plant. The one pictured above is in a 32-inch-diameter pot. Fill the entire pot with cactus soil, as it needs excellent drainage. Be sure the pot has a good hole—2 inches would be great, or several 1-inch holes will suffice. The only maintenance required is to cut the dead stalk at its base after it is done flowering.

Plant the “Giant” so that the base of the plant is only 3 to 4 inches from the top of the pot, so that the pot serves as a pedestal for the plant. You can also “dress” the top of the soil with rock. (See below). I like using 4-to-5 inch, straight-sided rock with sharp edges and angles, as it complements the strong lines of the plant.

If you only have 20 minutes in your desert potted garden this week: Water your potted cactus deeply with a water-soluble fertilizer at half-strength (of the recommended directions on the container).

Marylee is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. She has become known as the Desert’s Potted Garden Expert. E-mail her with comments and questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and follow The Potted Desert on Facebook.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

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