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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

As I mentioned last month, gardeners are typically rule-breakers. We bend the rules and seek out plants that we are told will definitely not make it in the desert. We try to grow our favorites, climate be damned, saying as we stomp our foot: “Yes I can!

Unfortunately, it’s proven a lot more difficult for potted desert gardeners to successfully break the rules this year. I have heard from a lot of desert gardeners recently who are trying to grow plumeria. While some fortunate souls may luck out, the recent high heat in the Southwest U.S. has been killing off these plants rapidly.

I cannot believe how many people I’ve heard from in the Coachella Valley complaining about the plants they are losing this year. Tropical plants just cannot live in our summer heat unless they are placed in an area that can be temperature-controlled.

Of course, as I also mentioned last month, there are constant gray areas within the rules for gardening in the desert. I almost always preface my gardening answers with, “That depends.”

One question I get asked often is: How often do I need to change the soil in my pots?

My answer? You guessed it: That depends!

Pots may need the soil replaced if:

• Water runs through very quickly.

• Plants are wilted even after watering.

• Large plants’ leaves are curling even after you water deeply a second time in the same day.

• Plants that are wilted in the heat of the afternoon are still wilted in the morning.

If you see one or more of these symptoms and decide that your pot needs new soil, what should you do? Well, first off … DON'T change the soil now, during the heat of the summer!

You want your potted plants to rest right now and get through this summer period. What you can do is keep them hydrated—but that does not mean adding even more water.

You should only water potted cactus plants every week or two. Potted shrubs and trees should be watered once or twice a week, while potted perennials and annual flowers need to be watered daily.

So how do you keep plants hydrated without watering more? You water smart: Be sure to water in the early morning so the plants go into the hottest periods moist. In the desert heat, that is going to be between 5 and 6 a.m. Don’t worry if plants wilt or droop during the heat of the day; that is what they do for self-preservation. They should bounce back once the sun has gone down.

If they are still struggling, cover plants in direct sun with shade cloth, or move the pots under a tree or under a roofed ramada.

Palm Springs has been even hotter than normal this year. Without the benefit of monsoon rains, you will need to be vigilant with your potted desert gardens—and it couldn’t hurt to cross your fingers.

As you go through the rest of this summer, closely observe your pots and your plants’ watering needs. Make a note which pots may need to have their soil replaced this coming fall—something that’s typically done during the October planting season. I will share more information on how to do this next month.

Your August To-Do List

1. Do not prune plants during the continuing August heat.

2. Deadhead your spent flowers.

3. Garden and water very early in the morning.

Marylee Pangman is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. With more than 18 years of experience, 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; it’s now available on Kindle. Email her with comments and questions, or requests for digital consultations, 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

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 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