CVIndependent

Mon05272019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Marylee Pangman

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.

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.

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.

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.

The high season, the off season, the “shoulder season”—there are many ways we talk about the seasons in the desert. With the sun shining 354 days a year on average, it can be a gardener’s delight.

The shoulder season for the hospitality industry is late April through the end of May, and then again in late September and October. Temperatures can still get high (80s and above) in these months, but the nights start to cool down to the mid-50s and 60s. (See the chart below.)

Our desert potted gardens are the most frustrating to deal with during the shoulder season, as noted in the chart above in green. As I’ve discussed all month, we may want to plant for the next season, but the flowers are not ready.

This is, however, a great time to plant some vegetables and herbs, as they do well in containers. Make sure your containers are large enough, i.e. with an interior diameter of at least 20 inches.

The more soil you have, the cooler you will keep the roots.

I suggest you buy 4-inch pots of plants at a nursery rather than a big-box store, and use plants, not seeds; it will be easier to get them going. Water in the morning, before 7 a.m., so the plants have water for the day. You can still plant sweet basil as well as parsley, chives, oregano, sage, rosemary and thyme. You can also get a jump start on young tomato plants—as long as you keep them in afternoon shade.

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. She 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.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert. Get a free copy of Ten Top Tips to Desert Potted Garden Success by visiting www.potteddesert.com/m.

This month, I have been talking about the upcoming “shoulder season” between summer and winter. This time period in other parts of the country is considered fall. Depending on our temperatures each year, we may or not have a fall.

This is the time of year when our summer flowers are failing, but it’s too warm to grow winter flowers yet. As I’ve discussed previously, my go-to list of shoulder-season annuals includes:

  • Alyssum
  • Dianthus
  • Dusty miller (complementary plant)
  • Geraniums (best in morning sun only; no sun in summer)
  • Marigolds
  • Osteospermum
  • Petunias
  • Snapdragons

When you get to the nursery in September or early October, there are a few other plants you might come across that will serve your decorative needs just fine until the temperatures mercifully drop below 70 degrees at night.

The first is the Mexican blanket, or gaillardia, as pictured above. Actually a perennial, this plant may survive all year long with a good pruning when it takes a break from blooming. The bright orange/red flower attracts butterflies and is a good cut flower to bring inside your home.

Another plant to add to this list is the ever-popular chrysanthemum. Another perennial, these plants can often be found in the early fall in nurseries. In kinder climates, “Mums” can be kept in pots or in the ground year-round but will only flower in the fall. If you are looking for a great plant with many color choices to spruce up your home before Thanksgiving, Chrysanthemums are a sure bet. However, unless you are a diehard “saver” of your plants, I would send it to the compost heap when it is done flowering. Being of the immediate (and continual) gratification generation, I don’t want to look at a green plant nine to 10 months of the year. I’d rather use that space in my pots for bloomers.

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. She 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.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert. Get a free copy of Ten Top Tips to Desert Potted Garden Success by visiting www.potteddesert.com/m.

As we approach “fall” here in the desert, the picture above may look familiar. I don’t need to tell you how challenging our summer is for any garden (except for perhaps gardens solely consisting of desert cactus). But true gardeners keeping trying—right?

Of course, we should not be planting our winter pots in our Palm Springs gardens until late October. I can just hear you replying, “Oh my! I cannot wait until then!”

Don’t give up yet, though. Remember, I am the person who continually says I expect to have color 365 days a year in my potted gardens!

Here are a few tips on how to approach your pots if they look like those above:

1. See if you can find new growth (healthy green sprouts) coming from the center of the plant. If you do, prune the plants back to that new growth. However, you must provide shade for this tender new growth. Either move the pots into the shade, under a dense tree or into a spot with only very early morning sun. You can also use a 70-plus-percent shade cloth. With this protection, the sun will not burn the new growth coming from the plants.

2. If you don’t see new growth, discard the baked plants. They will not rejuvenate, and it’s better to replace them with some new plants.

3. Go to the nursery early in the morning. If they don’t grow their own annuals, try to go on the day the nursery gets in fresh plants. Buy quart- or gallon-sized plants in order to have the greatest root ball and root mass, which will protect and support the plants in our continuing heat. Refer to last week’s column.

4. When planting new plants, add some fresh time-release fertilizer to the soil. If you have existing plants in the pot, don’t put in as much as recommended on the package: You do not want to burn the roots. Make sure your soil is damp before fertilizing and planting. Add half-strength fertilizer, and tuck in your new plants where you have bare spaces. (See the photo to the right.)

With a little care, shade, water and patience, a well-planted September pot, such as the one shown below, will serve you into your low desert winter.

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. She 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.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert. Get a free copy of Ten Top Tips to Desert Potted Garden Success by visiting www.potteddesert.com/m.

Snowbirds will soon begin to return to the Coachella Valley. Once they arrive, they’ll be quickly reminded of their pre-summer departure, as they find empty pots around their home.

One of the first items on the agenda after unpacking: Planning new gardens!

We’ll soon enter one of those periods of time between winter and summer known in most regions as “fall.” The comfortable temperature months of September and April can try our patience as we seek out flowers to plant in our now-tired pots. Often, our selection is somewhat limited, considering it may not truly be time to plant yet.

These are what I call the “shoulder seasons” of desert gardening. We should hold off on planting some things until nighttime temperatures reach levels that are just a bit cooler. Growers cannot push out plants that will succumb to the heat too early: We need night temps to get out of the 60s to plant true winter flowers. Yes, it is the nighttime temperature that dictates our planting cycles: As long as the plants can be warm or cool enough at night (depending on the season), they can handle the days’ swings between 70 and 90.

Even though some nurseries may have winter flowers on offer such as pansies, violas and ornamental kale, if we plant them too soon, they will struggle to survive, often succumbing to the constant heat in September and early October. Pansies get leggy and weak. Kale bolts early.

However, if we are patient and use flowers that can withstand the challenges of our long summer, we will be rewarded with stunning potted gardens.

To help desert residents enjoy potted color 365 days a year, I have created a short list of flowers and complementary plants that will thrive during the shoulder season—and often make it through much of the following season, too. Many of these flowers are becoming increasingly available during all seasons. Under the right conditions, they might hang on longer and longer. The “right” conditions typically mean receiving afternoon shade or filtered sun during the eight to nine warmer months. They will certainly stand up to the low desert’s cooler temperatures in the winter:

  • Alyssum
  • Bacopa (shade perennial)
  • Dianthus
  • Dusty miller (complementary plant)
  • Geraniums (best in morning sun only; no sun in the summer)
  • Marigolds
  • Osteospermum
  • Petunias
  • Snapdragons

You can see some attractive combinations in the accompanying pictures. Using the taller varieties such as osteos and snapdragons as center or backbone plants will give you some great height to start your arrangement. Dianthus also comes in some newer hybrids, including “Amazon,” where heights far exceed the standard 8-to-10 inches of older varieties.

Next in your pot should be mid-height plants such as the dusty miller, marigolds and petunias. As you know, petunias will also trail, so don’t put anything between them and the pot’s edge.

Lastly, alyssum and bacopa are your true trailers. Bacopa will not tolerate the strong desert sun, so keep it in the shade or on the shady side of the pot.

Follow along at CVIndependent.com this month as I share more information with you about the coming shoulder season in the desert!

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. She 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.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert. Get a free copy of Ten Top Tips to Desert Potted Garden Success by visiting www.potteddesert.com/m. The Potted Desert Garden appears Tuesdays at CVIndependent.com. Below: Snapdragons, petunias and dusty miller; geraniums, alyssum and bacopa.

California residents are dealing with unprecedented water restrictions due to our record-breaking drought.

Those of us who garden have a choice: Either we can simply comply with these limitations, or we can morally commit to reacting in a way that will help our state achieve sustainability. I, for one, believe we must take control of our water usage.

Water restrictions vary from agency to agency. Palm Springs’ Desert Water Agency, for example, restricts landscape irrigation to Monday, Wednesday and Friday during overnight hours. Fortunately, most desert landscape gardens do not need three days of water. (Please don’t get me started on grass in the desert. Artificial turf is beautiful, and lawns do not belong here.)

Of course, container gardens offer flexibility regarding placement and size—and, therefore, water usage. Here are some tips to embrace sooner rather than later. (Although I am writing about pots, many of these tips can translate to raised beds, landscapes and bedding plants.)

1. Take a pail into your shower, and fill it with the water that comes out before the water reaches your desired temperature. Use the bucket to water thirsty plants.

2. When rain is in the forecast (rare, but it happens … hopefully), put out buckets and barrels to gather as much water as possible. Rainwater has many beneficial micronutrients that your plants will appreciate.

3. If you are gone a lot, don't plant water-hungry plants and flowers. After all, you won’t be around to enjoy them.

4. Plant fewer flowers and more succulents—and consider leaving some pots empty.

5. Use large pots (greater than 20 inches wide and deep). Once new plantings are established, they will need to be watered less. You can add more water to thirstier pots from rainwater and your shower.

6. Make sure none of your irrigation emitters are over-spraying into areas with no plants.

7. Check for dripping hose bibs and leaks in your irrigation.

8. Shorten your irrigation run times. If you can cut the time by 25 percent, you will be doing more than your part. If you have your pots on a dedicated line with adjustable emitters, they should only run for five to 10 minutes—and cutting the time by 25 percent will bring those times down to four to seven minutes. As long as the plants are established, that’ll probably be enough water. If it isn’t, you always have that shower water!

9. Never irrigate your cactus and succulents. Even in the Coachella Valley, they really only need water once a week—and that is only if they are in full sun. Succulents in the shade will probably get by with watering every other week.

I am a huge proponent of setting up a dedicated irrigation line to your containers. The watering-schedule settings are very specific and not as subject to human error or forgetfulness. Irrigation lines also save water over hand-watering. I suggest you use an adjustable emitter. Be absolutely certain that you have a dedicated line for pots, because if you add pots to the landscape line, you will be over-watering your potted plants—and wasting hundreds of gallons of water.

Water is a necessity for every living thing. Save some of this precious resource while continuing to enjoy your garden.

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. She 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.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert. Get a free copy of Ten Top Tips to Desert Potted Garden Success by visiting www.potteddesert.com/m.

Below: Low-water flowers and cactus are good to plant during the drought.

We all need respite from the heat—and I recently received one, thanks to my high school and college reunions.

Luckily for me, they happened on the same weekend, and I wound up splitting my time between two different towns in upstate New York. I visited some tourist spots—and checked out some flowering pots that we just happened to find. I found many of the same flowers that we grow in our desert gardens—although we tend to grow these plants in the winter and surrounding seasons rather than in the summer.

The upstate New York window box shown below is filled with petunias, bacopa plants, marigolds and, in the center back, some flax. This arrangement would do very well in the fall and early spring here in our low desert climate—but most of the plants would succumb to the summer heat. (You might be able to keep the bacopa going in the shade, with ample water.)

On a previous visit to New York state, I went to Niagara Falls for the first time in probably 40 years! It was in July, and the flower beds were filled with similar plants. What a different world I used to live in. However, I don’t miss the snow!

Think about your favorite gardens from “back home.” Have you been able to replicate them here in the desert? Feel free to share some of your photos by emailing me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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. She 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.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert. Get a free copy of Ten Top Tips to Desert Potted Garden Success by visiting www.potteddesert.com/m.