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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Marylee Pangman

What kinds of pots are best in the desert sun? This question is asked in every class I teach.

Before I answer, let’s break that question down further: What pots should you not use? And what size pots do you need?

Followers of this column know I often extol the virtues of large pots. In the sun, you don’t want a pot with less than an 18-inch interior diameter. You need a solid volume of soil, ample moisture protection and insulation of the plants’ roots.

I do not recommend metal or plastic pots. I also recommend skipping black pots (unless they’re ceramic); definitely do not leave your plants in the black nursery cans. They just retain too much heat.

Consider these types of pots:

Terra cotta, clay and Mexican pots: These pots tend to be less expensive than other styles; many are fired at lower temperatures, making them less durable to high-salt water and heat. Some Italian and Chinese clay pots are “high-fired,” however, which means they will stand up to our harsh climates much better.

Since some clay pots are of the “old world” style, they fit Mediterranean-style homes. Mexican pots are happy in a hacienda-style home.

To make them last longer, use a lawn-and-leaf garbage bag with a hole in the bottom—for drainage, to protect the pot from fast deterioration, and to help with water retention.

Glazed pots: All glazed pots are high-fired, making them well-suited to the desert climate. They will retain moisture, stand up to the heat and sun, and outlast most of our lifetimes. There are many beautiful shapes, colors, textures and styles. I plant 90 percent of my gardens in one type of glazed pot or another. I’d rather spend extra money on a quality pot once rather than replace a pot and repot a plant after just a couple of years.

High-gloss pots: With a huge array of colors and shapes, high-gloss pots stand out. Use rimmed pots for a more traditional-style home, and rimless pots for a contemporary look. Pots are finished in all colors.

Rustic glazed pots: Rustic glazed pots are much more organic in their style. They will fit into a natural desert landscape, complementing the design rather then popping out. The colors usually reflect those found naturally in the desert. These pots can always be counted on to hold up to the heat, and their weight will make sure they stay in place despite the wind.

Talavera pots: People often ask if these pots are suitable for the desert sun. The answer: As long as they have been made by reputable potters, and the colors are glazed rather than painted on, these pots will do well in our desert landscapes. They, too, are high-fired, and their superb color and design will add a lot to a Hacienda-style décor. Just don’t go overboard and combine too many of them in one spot. Use them with monotone colors, and have the Talavera pot as the focal point.

What about your small pots? Choose your favorites, and plant them with shade plants, especially soft succulents. Group them in a shady area on a baker’s rack, table or other shelving unit to create a work of living art.

February Care in Your Desert Potted Garden

In order to keep your winter flowers blooming into May, provide them with regular attention. Take a morning coffee break with your garden a couple of times a week so that you can enjoy your labors for several more months!

  • Deadhead your flowers weekly. Be sure to pinch them back to the originating stem, not just the flower. This will support continual bloom.
  • Cut back ornamental grasses to just above ground level.
  • Fertilize your potted plants every two weeks with a water-soluble fertilizer, best applied with a hose applicator.
  • Fertilize any potted citrus or other fruit trees around Valentine’s Day.
  • Plant color annuals such as pansies, petunias, larkspur, primrose, poppy, stock, violas, alyssum, snapdragon and marigolds.
  • Watch shallow-rooted newly planted annuals, which can quickly dry out with spring winds.
  • Adjust your watering schedule according to winter rains, if there are any.

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.

Do you tend to spread yourself too thin? Maybe your patio hardscapes are suffering from the same problem.

We often make large outdoor party areas at our desert homes to enjoy during the non-scorching months. If we want to soften the look with plants, we are restricted to using pots. We know containers need to be large to fill the area, but many of us tend to jam all pots against long walls, rather than filling underused areas with a collection of pots.

If you look at the before picture below, you will notice the area to the right of the stairs. This platform could only fit one chair—and that chair will usually be in the full sun. So unless you are a recluse and want to toast by yourself, this area will serve a better purpose as a lush garden featuring of three 24-inch pots, as you can see above.

In that winter garden pictured above, there is a collection of pansies, violas and other hardy bloomers that will perform throughout winter in our desert climate. Regular deadheading and a biweekly water-soluble fertilizer is all that will be needed besides water to keep these bloomers happy until May!

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.

Check out the pesky raised-bed garden above. This is what I call a “collection area”—a shady spot, a place close to a door, or any other convenient place to drop items on the way to or from the house.

These garden areas tend to become places for collections of things we’ve abandoned. We intend to leave something for just a few minutes. I'll come right back. I'll have the kids clean up, etc. However, the reality is that we don't come back to get the things that have found their way to this natural collection basket.

A typical cause of this scenario is a failed garden. Since the space is so ugly, what harm will a few errant items do?

One of two things cause the demise of most of our desert plantings. First is the incorrect selection of plants for the area. Our harsh desert climate does not allow us much room for error. Second involves inappropriate watering. Too much, too little—if we don't get it right, especially in the first two weeks of the young planting, the plants will begin to weaken, opening the door for all kinds of diseases or pests. We then throw our hands up in the air and say, “Forget it.” Hence the result pictured above.

Wouldn't it be grand to instead have a garden such as the one pictured below? This garden will thrive in the desert shade from spring through fall; depending the winter temperatures, some plants will coast through the coldest months, too. Included in this bed are coleus, caladiums, begonia (not flowering at the time of the picture) and variegated vinca major. Black decorative stone added as mulch will keep the ground not only moist, but attractive around these well-deserving showpieces.

So, go and fix your garden’s collecting spot. Don’t settle for ugly!

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.

Patio homes, apartments and loft spaces often include small balconies or terraces. Perhaps they’re used for storage, or maybe the balcony includes a table and chairs. In any case, these small spaces can quickly become monotonous.

But they don’t need to become monotonous. Instead, you can turn your outdoor living area into your own tropical paradise, and extend your home to the outdoors!

Break your long narrow space into two spaces by using pots, with or without trellises. Even a pot encroaching into a normal pathway will serve as a divider, of sorts. Then you can decorate each “room” with furnishings and plantings that provide you with the atmosphere you are looking to create. Perhaps you can create a dining area with a living room … or a hideaway and public space. Even consider an outdoor office with a kitchenette (featuring a barbecue).

Choose plants with height and “staying” power for the corners and, if used, dividers. Lower pots are perfect for the front edges of your space, perhaps filled with color that reflects your cushions and decor. Don't forget to use fragrant plants that can envelope you with lush smells that make you want to stay!

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.

Our desert weather is very inviting now. Palm Springs streets are filled with snowbirds, and restaurants are booked to the max.

Why not take advantage of this chaos and stay home? Go out onto your patio for your morning brew, a casual lunch shared with a friend, or an evening barbecue. Now is the time to enjoy your desert home.

While you are at it, take some quiet time to sit and reflect on your successes (and challenges!) in your potted garden, and consider writing a garden journal.

If you are reading this column, you must have at least one green digit (aka thumb). You have poked around with different plants and flowers in an effort to create a beautiful garden in this challenging desert climate. Why not record what you have tried, making note of what has succeeded—and perhaps exceeded your expectations?

You can use a bound journal, your tablet, your computer or even a loose-leaf binder. It’s up to you—whatever tickles your fancy. Think about what will drive you to add entries each week. Do you want to add pictures of your successful pots? Some people tote around pictures of their grandchildren, so why not your garden?

Here are four ideas on how to use your garden journal.

We “transplants” from non-desert climates like to try plants that we grew “back home.” Your garden journal is a great place to record how each new plant did. Perhaps you want to make a page for each new plant and list the information from the plant tag. Record your memories of the plant, and document how it is doing in your desert garden.

Have a page just for the first and last frost dates in your yard. Even though you can find the first and last frost dates for your area, your particular yard has its own micro-climate, and various parts of your yard will have their own micro-climates. While you are at it, make notes of weather patterns—has this been an exceptionally wet or (more likely) dry season?

List the types of plants you’ve used, the combinations you’ve created, location/sun exposures, and the containers you’ve used. How did they do? Were there specific watering requirements? Be sure to take a picture of each.

Write about your failures. Did you try a new technique or plant that was a disaster? Write about your surprises and absolutely about your successes. This will be invaluable to use in your future gardens and to share information with your friends—especially when they come over to join you on your patio and enjoy your garden.

What to do in your desert potted garden this month:

Be sure to keep up with your fertilizing schedule in all floral pots. Use a water-soluble fertilizer every two weeks.

Keep up with your deadheading of spent flowers, and prune back to keep plants in a nice shape. Pay special attention to petunias, so you can keep them from getting leggy.

January is the month to do a full pruning of your roses. Cut back to a third, and trim out dead and crossing branches. Clean up all debris after deleafing the plants entirely.

If your yard did not get any substantial rain in December, water your potted succulents and cactus.

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.

There is no such thing as small vegetation on Kauai.

I’m fortunate enough to be on vacation here in Hawaii. You know all those house plants I have been talking about? Here, those same plants are gigantic. There are pothos leaves the size of full-grown turkeys. Crotons almost two stories high. (See the picture!) And the summer sweet-potato vine, pictured in a water feature, grows all year long—and if not contained, it would take over the entire yard.

We went to an inner-island golf course where there is a Japanese garden and found a full-bloom poinsettia tucked in with other trees. Yes—it was a tree itself! I am sure no one stuck it in a closet for four months to try to get it to bloom again.

Every year, we come here for the holidays, and I’m amazed not just by the beauty of the green, but by how quickly the plants and flowers grow. I hope to come back in the spring sometime, as I am sure that we will see more plants in bloom. There are hedges of bromeliads along the roadways, like we see red yuccas in our desert communities. They are not in bloom now, but the red/green/burgundy leaves are stunning by themselves.

What is our take-away regarding our own gorgeous desert? For me it is two-fold: We need to treasure the desert climate and the natural gardens that exist there. And as a true gardener, we need to continue to try to stretch the limits of what we can plant and grow successfully, to bring in some of the tropic ambience. Our plants may never be as large as they are on the islands, but they will be the perfect size for my diminutive patio.

Aloha!

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.

If you feel like taking on a rewarding project, the creation of a succulent wreath might be right up your alley! The end result can be used as a table centerpiece, a hanging on a shaded wall, or an adornment on the gate to your garden.

Trust me: This project is not for the faint of heart. You need patience and persistence—but we desert gardeners already have those traits due to our challenging climate! It will take about two weeks to complete your wreath.

Materials

  • A moss wreath, 12 to 16 inches
  • Floral wire or fishing wire
  • Floral pins
  • Succulent clippings or small succulent plants (see bottom)
  • A bowl, saucer or pan large enough in which to lay the completed wreath for watering

Preparing Your Plants

  • Take succulent cuttings several days prior to creating your wreath.
  • Cut stem sections 1 to 2 inches long.
  • Remove lower leaves from the bottom half-inch of the stem.
  • Allow cuttings to sit overnight on a tray to let the cut end form a scab.

Preparing Your Wreath Form

  • Wear gloves when working with moss or peat moss.
  • Submerge a mesh-covered moss wreath form (pictured to the right) in water.
  • Keep the form in water until it is fully saturated (30-60 minutes).
  • Place flat on a table to drain.

Set Out Your Plants

  • On a flat surface, lay out cuttings by plant type.

Plant Your Wreath

  • Make a hole in the moss using a pointed object, such as large nail, a pencil or a screwdriver.
  • Place the stem of your first cutting into the hole. Secure with a floral pin, being careful to not puncture the succulent’s stem.
  • Continue to arrange your cuttings around your wreath. For a fuller wreath, plant on the inner as well as the outer edges.
  • After planting, you'll see some moss between cuttings; as succulents grow, they'll hide the moss.

Let It Rest

After planting, place the wreath on a table out of the sun. You are waiting for the cuttings to send roots into the moss in order to secure their footing.

Ongoing Care

Soak the wreath in a container of water for at least one hour when it is only slightly moist. You can tell by feeling inside the back of the frame. The wreath will be very light when it dries out.

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.

Why am I talking about summer foliage in December?

You might find some of these plants in local nurseries now, and because of our mild winters, many of these summer plants can survive here year-round. You might consider experimenting with these choices, thereby easing your planting woes next spring when it starts getting hot, and you do not want to be outside as much!

Annual summer foliage is a great way to add attention-grabbing textures while subduing bold flower colors in your summer potted gardens. Purple Heart is often used as a ground cover plant. It has elongated leaves and subtle lavender flowers. It is rated as a full-sun plant, but in our desert sun, it will do much better in dappled shade or morning sun. Yes, it will still flower in the lower light conditions. Purple Heart can stand well on its own or will do nicely when paired with one other color.

If you find plants spouting pepper-shaped objects in purple, orange, yellow and red—all on the same plant—you have stumbled onto ornamental peppers. These are a unique, specialty type plant typically sold in the late summer; they have appealing features such as colorful berries and foliage. Look for the purple-black leaves such as the “Black Pearl,” and don’t miss the varieties that have variegated leaves.

Coleus is one of my absolute favorites, and it has really come into stardom over the last decade. When I first started gardening in the desert, you could only find the “Wizard” coleus mix, and it needed to be kept in full shade. Over the years, more and more varieties have been developed, with some able to handle almost full sun, even in the summer. If you do plant some in full sun, and the color washes out, move it to morning sun only. (Ah, the benefit of planting in pots!) The darker leaf coleus plants will do better in full sun. However, jumbo-large leafed varieties such as “King Kong” will also do better in the shade, as the large leaves have too much surface area to try to keep cool.

Another shade plant found is the massive-leafed Caladium. It’s a wonderfully fun plant with an array of variegation in the leaves from white to pink to red. Be sure not to overwater your shade plants. Most like to be slightly dryer before watering again—they do not like being soaking wet day after day. If they get too much water, they will suffer from root rot, eventually killing the plant.

If you have any questions about these or other plants for your desert potted gardens, shoot me an email, and I will get right back to you.

I wish you a wonderful holiday season.

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.

The desert boasts a year-round growing season, and during the winter, you can create an easy-to-do but colorful garden by only having one plant type—yet you can go crazy by purchasing various varieties of that one plant type.

Take ornamental kale, for example, as seen in the photo above. More and more varieties are available in nurseries, each with different color variations, textures and growth structures, ranging from very short (up to 6 inches) and wide (up to 12 inches) to tall with a rose-like stem.

Plants you typically think of as house plants are actually tropical plants. Many have pleasing trailers and will supplement a pot arrangement with a strong spilling element. Variegated needlepoint ivy (right) creates a formal look in any pot. It is cold-tender, but in the low desert, protected under a needed shade cover, it will do very well all winter long. If it’s in absolutely no sun, it will thrive year-round.

Those in the mid and high desert regions will need to protect all tropical plants when temperatures drop below 40 degrees.

Other trailers for desert shade with great color include the ground cover vinca (periwinkle), which comes in many varieties: green, variegated major, and minor (which is a smaller-leafed dwarf variety), as well as vinca “illuminations.’ Another gray-leafed trailer is the licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare), or “small leaf helichrysum.”

A magnificent plant that is well-suited for full sun with stunning year-round beauty is in the duranta family and is a variegated variety of the skyflower. Pictured in the photo below, this plant, like so many others, is cold-tender, but here in the Palm Springs area, where winters are very mild, it will do very well.

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.

Fast. Fabulous. FOLIAGE!

Get immediate gratification in your desert container garden by showcasing plants with gorgeous, leafy color. Follow us this month each week as we discuss foliage plants that are worth adding to your seasonal desert container gardens.

Prolific bloomers need to be plucked and pruned and fed—and then we worry about the blooms bursting in time (and not too much before) our big party. If too soon or too late, off to the nursery we go, for more blooming plants. However … what if our star performers were spectacular leafy plants, bursting with rock-star color that isn’t fickle in its bloom cycle?

I’m not saying we should totally give up on our glorious flowers, of course. The moral of today’s story is diversity: Flowering plants and non-bloomers can thrive side by side, and a clever mix of the two offers the best of all worlds.

Let’s explore a few of my favorite foliage plants that hold up in our desert climate.

Dusty Miller (above)

When I came upon this bed of “flowers” dew-kissed on a cool winter morning, my immediate reaction was: There must be frost on the plants! I never thought my design for this flower bed would create such a refreshing break: Pairing Dusty Miller with white Alyssum created a surprisingly fun entry to this restaurant.

No matter where you are from, and no matter the climate, you may have used Dusty Miller in your garden. This sultry white/gray plant with a hint of green tolerates lower-water conditions, making it a perfect addition to your desert potted garden. Dusty Miller can enhance a full white garden or add to bold colors, making them seem to lunge in your direction.

Cordyline (below)

Cordyline is another of my favorites for desert winter gardens. Many flowing, colorful, upright plants will burn up in the desert—even if placed in the shade. As growers continue to hybridize varieties of these plants to tolerate more heat (if not more sun), we’ll begin to see an increasing number in our nurseries.

Planted in a cream-colored vertical pot, the combination pictured here interrupts the long wall behind this barbecue patio. The Cordyline was originally planted in the late fall, and in this summer shot, it shows how well the plant has acclimated to full sun exposure. In the low desert, it will do better if it gets that desired afternoon shade. Underplanted with white Vinca with a red center, the Cordyline stands on its own against the pale wall.

Dwarf Pampas Grass (above right)

I was looking for something to blow in the summer breeze, next to a pool. I wanted a plant that would hold up to the intense heat and strong winds, and that could be planted in a pot that’s unlikely to blow over. The 24-inch low-bowl pot gave me an opportunity for a grass experiment. Looking for something with interesting plumes, I found Dwarf Pampas Grass.

All grasses should be treated like annuals, because you do not want to have a pot full of nothing when the grass needs to be cut back!

Follow us every Tuesday this month as I share information on other desert-loving foliage plants!

What to do in your desert potted garden this month:

  • Continue successive plantings of lettuce, spinach, chard and other fast-maturing winter greens.
  • Snip petunias to encourage them to branch and spread. Cut the ends off of stems to encourage side-branching. This will promote abundant flowering and more compact plants.
  • Remove old blooms from geranium, cyclamen, calendula and other winter flowers as they fade, by cutting them off with sharp scissors or hand pruners. This will also increase flower production.
  • Use a biweekly spray application of a water-soluble fertilizer on all flowering plants to encourage growth and a continual show of flowers.

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.