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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Marylee Pangman

Color is the most prominent element in garden design, and typically the first one considered. Color is what draws us into a garden and is often what draws us out of the house and onto our patio.

When you’re driving down a road, and you approach a bed of flowers, what draws your eye in? Color! However, we’ve all had the experience of thinking a garden (or something else, for that matter) is “pretty” at first … but the more you look, something clicks in your mind that what you’re seeing is not working. What first is viewed as fun and exciting can become exhausting when you sit with your coffee or cocktail after a long day.

Why doesn’t it work? Often, the problem is too many colors in one garden!

Sometimes, we think a color combination will work when we choose the colors at the nursery, but once they are home and planted, we wonder … what did I do wrong?

At the store, the rainbow of colors and shades attracts our attention, and unless we have a “color agenda,” we don’t put the brakes on and try to coordinate our selections. We need to take a moment and step back to plan our potted gardens and, hence, our color selections.

I always suggest putting the plants that will go in one pot together on your shopping cart. Step back to look at them. The look needs to be long and hard. Stare at your combinations, and see if it works as you view it with your critical eye.

Here are some basic thoughts about combining color for your potted gardens this winter:

  • Start with two colors that you also use in a room inside your home—especially the room from which you have a view of your pots.
  • Add a contrasting color if you would like.

For instance, if your home is decorated in earth tones like rustic oranges, browns and greens, begin with an orange. Green will enter the picture with leaves and stems. Then add either purple or yellow, depending on how exciting or vibrant you want your color combination to be.

Another example: If your room is decorated in primary colors, choose something like blue and yellow, and then perhaps add red. The key is to put your plants together to see if you like the combination Try it! The beauty of using potted gardens is that you can easily change your mind, try new combinations and take out one plant and substitute another—without breaking the bank.

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 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.

Nothing beats fresh-cut flower arrangements—but why spend money on expensive arrangements? Why not start your very own cutting garden?

Your desert potted garden can serve two purposes when it comes to flowers: It can be a profuse garden to decorate your outside world, and it can fill your home with bountiful bouquets of living wonder! Your friends may remark: These all came from your pots!?

You need many flowers coming into bud and bloom at the same time in order to have enough for arrangements. You will not want to feel that you are depriving your outside garden of its splendor in order to have your flowers inside. Therefore, it’s best to get many plants of a few varieties.

As we move into the winter months, we have the advantage of thriving flowers that will inspire the creation of imaginative arrangements!

Great flowers for arrangements include:

  • Calendula
  • Celosia
  • Coriopsis
  • Cosmos
  • Day lillies
  • Dianthus/carnations (below)
  • Freesia
  • Gerbera daisies
  • Godetia
  • Marigolds
  • Miniature hollyhocks
  • Mums (fall)
  • Pansies
  • Poppies
  • Roses
  • Snapdragons
  • Sweet pea
  • Tobacco flower
  • Violas

Add some branches from your herbs, perennials, shrubs and trees such as:

  • Basil
  • Boxwoods
  • Coleus
  • Pines
  • Sage
  • Salvia

Tips to keep your cut flowers longer:

  • Cut flower stems at an angle to prevent the stems from resting on the bottom of the vase and sealing themselves over. Angular cuts also create a larger surface area for water uptake.
  • Strip any foliage from stems that would sit below water level in a vase, as these will decay, becoming slimy and smelly.
  • Use room-temperature water.
  • Add a splash of bleach to the water to inhibit bacterial growth and make your flowers last longer. You only need to add about a quarter-teaspoon per quart of water. You can also try adding a tablespoon of sugar, as this will help to nourish the flowers.
  • Keep your flowers in cooler areas of your home. The life of your cut flowers will be reduced if they are placed close to heat or direct sunlight.
  • Remove any dead or fading blooms to prevent bacteria damaging the healthy flowers.
  • Change the water every few days, refreshing any flower feed and preservatives at the same time.

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 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 sensual joy of being able to plant year-round in our desert gardens is immeasurable. Our patios treat us to a wonderful visual display. The sounds of birds, perhaps water from a fountain, a harmonious wind chime and leaves rustling in the wind add to the acoustic value of our peaceful garden.

How about adding a few varieties of fragrant flowers so that your guests are quick to remark: "What is that delightful scent as I come up to your home?"

Unfortunately, many plants are no longer fragrant. They have been hybridized to improve their growth, develop resistance to new threats of pests and disease, and/or to increase their blooming cycles. All of these so-called improvements have come at a big price: the loss of scent.

However, you can still find many plants that will perfume your garden through the year. Be sure to place them strategically to enjoy them thoroughly. Some flowers have a light scent and need to be close by to be appreciated. Ideal planting locations include along a pathway to your front door; by a patio; or near a window that’s often open.

Use many plants of the same kind together for the strongest impact. Fragrant annuals including flowering tobacco, nasturtium, calendula, stock, sweet pea, dianthus, alyssum and wallflower are all readily available this winter in nurseries.

You can also select plants with fragrant leaves, like herbs and scented geraniums. Herbs for the winter months include mint (keep this in a separate pot as it will take over anything else!), rosemary, thyme and lavender (do not overwater).

Don't forget vines with fragrant flowers such as jasmine (confederate, night-blooming and star) and honeysuckle, as well as roses and citrus trees. Many shrubs will also perfume the air. My favorite for the shade is the gardenia. This is another plant that you will not want to overwater, as it will drop its buds after they turn brown for no apparent reason if you do.

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 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.

We live in the desert.

It can be really hot.

However

We can grow wonderful plants all year long!

In our pots.

We moved here for a reason. For many of us, the weather was one of those reasons. It was for me, when I moved from upstate New York—away from the snow!

Even with the heat, we ought to have wonderful color in our landscapes every day of the year. Of course, I use pots to accomplish this. I plant backbone structural plants—and then I add my color, each and every season (which here means twice per year). When plants peter out in the heat, I find replacements.

Planting a backbone plant saves money, as we don't have to replace all of the plants each season. As the perennial, shrub or tree grows, only half of the pot will need to be replanted. For instance, in a 24-inch pot, I would need to plant a total of 17 to 20 4-inch annuals if that’s all there were in the pot. However, when I put a 1-gallon plant in the back of the pot, I only need 12-15 annuals. As the stature plant grows, that number will be reduced each season.

For me, those annuals are definitely about the color.

During my 18 years of living in the desert, I have developed many favorite combinations of flowers—but for my client, every design has been unique over the years. I worked on developing my plant and color palette as much as an artist would.

I also cultivated a repertoire of backbone plants. My first go-to plant was the butterfly iris. I wanted a grassy effect, but with a plant that would not need to be cut back every winter. Best in afternoon shade, its rich, dark-green blade leaves blow and bend in the wind, but stand up well to the heat—as long as the plant gets enough water.

I soon got bored with this as my mainstay, though, and began looking for other options. I tried evergreen perennials, shrubs, trees and often tall annuals (especially for my snowbird clients).

Salvias, artichokes, red yucca, plumbago, yellow bells, myrtles of all shapes and sizes, herbs and numerous other plants and shrubs found their way into my pots. This was all done to support my desire for color in what resources like HGTV and Better Homes and Gardens have called “thrillers, chillers and spillers.” That’s your backbone structural plants, mid-height colors, and trailing plants.

We are finally at or near the time when we can plant our winter annuals, so check out local nurseries for new colors, hybrids and trusted familiar plants. You can choose from old standards like pansies, petunias, geraniums, cyclamen, alyssum, lobelia, calendula, sweet peas, ornamental kale and snapdragons. I also recommend spreading your wings a little with diascia, nemesia, candytuft, African daisies and gerbera daisies.

This list does not exhaust the possibilities, so check out what’s available—and make sure you have fun while doing so!

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

Below: The butterfly iris can be used as a lovely backbone plant.

Since I love flowers and their flamboyant glory, I often plant them under my stature plants. I call that process “underplanting.”

One of the landscape designers I used to work with heard me use this term, and thought I was saying “underpants”—and wondered why in the world I would say that! It became our joke, and on properties where we worked together, any pots with flowers under the tree or perennial had on its “underpants”!

Most perennials, shrubs and trees do great with plants added to the soil around the edge of the pot. I often harp on the importance of using large pots for almost everything we plant in our desert gardens—and the ability to underplant is yet another reason to use these bigger containers!

Choosing Your “Underpants”

  • If your stature plant has a trunk, choose low-growing flowers or plants, so that you don’t hide the trunk.
  • If your stature plant is multi-stemmed, plant in graduated heights in front or around it.
  • In the case of a tall succulent, I recommend trailing succulents such as the “ghost” plant, hens and chicks, sedums or other sprawling succulents.

Planting Your Pot

  • Plant your tree as you normally would, bring the new potting soil to the original soil line of the root ball. Pack the soil in as you build the base of soil.
  • Dig little holes for each of your flowers or plants, and plant them. Make sure that as you fill in the soil around them, you pack it in, and do not bury the plant’s original root ball or soil below more soil.
  • Water in thoroughly.

Maintaining Your “Underplanted Pot”

  • Be sure you are meeting the water needs of all plants. The tree’s deep root ball must be kept moist. The shallow roots of the flowers will tend to dry out sooner than the tree. Make sure you water the flowers in-between deep waterings.
  • Succulent pots can be watered deeply as normal.

Another Idea

Put rigid one-gallon pots around the ball of the tree so that seasonal color flourishes without root competition from the tree. Add quart cans to the one-gallon pots each new season. The one gallon pot stays in place when the color is changed.

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 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.

When it comes to dressing up your patio with furnishings, a barbecue or plants, it is a good idea to pay attention to how the sun moves.

In the above picture, the patio is facing south. This means that in the summer, much of the patio will be in the shade—a good thing. In the winter, as the sun moves toward the south, only the deepest part of the patio will be in the shade, but since the winter sun is much less direct, many plants will be able to handle sun’s direct hit.

If the patio is oriented to the north, the opposite is true—making plants that are on the edge of the patio susceptible to summer burn. This is true, too, of west-facing patios. The fringes of the patio are hot all year long. Keep this in mind for your seating areas, your barbecue and any other items you have on your covered patio.

Three of my favorite shade-loving plants are pictured below: the Madagascar palm (first below), the sego palm (which is really a cycad; second below) and the ficus tree (third below). Each adds a lush, green, tropical element to your patio ambiance.

The two palms are low-water plants, and need only a deep soaking twice a week in the summer, and every five to seven days in the winter. Do not overwater the Madagascar, though. Periodic palm food (as directed by the package label) and a small amount of dead-leaf trimming are the only other requirements. Both can handle the morning sun, but then will do very well in the shady corners of the patio. They can both get rather large, so I would start them off in a 24-inch pot, if not a larger pot.

The ficus is best suited to a shady corner. It needs bright light but will burn in direct sun. Ficus trees are pretty fussy and do not like being moved, so expect leaf drop when you first plant—and try to keep the tree where you originally place it. Also, do not let the root ball dry out. You will need to water it more often than the other two trees mentioned. I also recommend feeding your ficus a balanced all-purpose liquid fertilizer, such as 8-8-8, during the growing season, at half-strength. The ficus tree does tend to grow very quickly, so don’t encourage it too much: Feed it once per month, and then discontinue in the fall.

As long as the temperatures at your home stay above freezing, these plants will do well in your patio garden. The Madagascar will most likely lose its leaves if it gets chilly, and the ficus is the most frost-sensitive.

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 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.

Desert-dwellers often wonder which trees they can plant in pots in the sun. Last week, I gave you a list of many varieties, and today, I want to share with you three of my favorites—which provide three distinct additions to the sunny areas of your desert landscape.

Citrus trees, such as the Mexican lime tree (above), are the most requested, because they bear fruit. Citrus trees also have lush evergreen leaves and fragrant blooms in the early spring, making them attractive. The Mexican lime and some kumquats will bloom more than once a year, which means they will bear fruit more than once!

Smaller fruit citrus, such as limes, tangelos and lemons, are the best for pots, as their leaves are better-suited to work with the proportions of the pot. All citrus, except for kumquats, should be put in pots that are at least 26 inches in width. These larger pots will allow trees to stay in them for years (with a root trim every three years or so). Kumquats can go into 18-inch pots if they are purchased when small.

Grapefruit trees should not be planted in pots, due to their larger size and need for more root room. Caution is needed for the improved meyer lemon, as it is a fast grower and can outsize a pot very quickly.

Make sure your citrus tree receives at least six hours of sun, if possible with afternoon shade. Try to place it where it is protected from harsh winds.

If you are interested in a beautiful flowering tree that performs all summer long, look for the crape myrtle (above right). I find it amazing to think that such a delicate flower can withstand our heat and bloom with such vibrant colors—yet it does! These trees should also be placed in 24-inch-wide or larger pots.

Unfortunately, at least in my view, crape myrtles are deciduous and will lose their leaves in the winter. They are susceptible to freeze, which should not be much of a problem here in the Palm Springs area, but if you happen to live in a colder region, be careful.

The robellini palm (below) is my third choice. This tree will give you a tropical feeling when placed in pots around your patio, pool or barbecue area. You may also know this tree as the pygmy date palm or the Phoenix robellini. Since this plant does not like temps dipping much below 50 degrees, it is perfect for the low desert. Planted in warm zones with some protection, it will do well in mid-desert regions, too. These beautiful trees are easy to grow, take an average amount of water, and will provide many years of satisfaction when added to your overall landscape plan.

These three trees will provide you with fruit, flowers and lushness with minimal concern. Just be sure to add water and food!

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 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.

Blank spaces and easy care are great reasons to consider getting some potted trees, or plants pruned into tree forms. Once potted, the proper trees need only consistent water, fertilizer and occasional pruning to thrive in your desert garden.

Potted trees bring a vertical element to a patio corner or wall, creating a focal point at a spot in your landscape—or perhaps providing a screen to unsightly elements. They can also offer a background to pots with flowers—and possible shade. Finally, potted trees offer a sense of permanence in your garden, especially during our long summer months.

You will want to choose trees that stay small or are slow-growing. Many tree varieties do not grow to full size when their roots are constricted in a container. Most trees will do best in larger containers, of course.

Look for trees that are evergreen so they maintain their contribution to your landscape or patio all year long. Some trees bring additional benefits—seasonal blooms, berries or even fruit! In the low desert areas where winter temperatures rarely hit freezing, many trees that show frost damage in other warm climates will excel year-round.

If you live in an area that does experience colder winter temperatures, you can cover the plants or move containers to a protected area during freezes and near-freezes. Of course, you’ll want to use pots that fit on rollers or dollies.

Citrus trees best suited for pots

  • Improved Meyer lemon
  • Mexican lime
  • Bearss lime
  • Kumquats (my personal favorite is Meiwa)
  • Tangelos
  • Clementines

Conifers

  • Dwarf Alberta spruce
  • Fern pine
  • Juniper
  • Yew pine

Palms

  • Canary Island date palm
  • Mediterranean fan palm
  • Phoenix roebelenii (below)
  • Pygmy date palm
  • Pindo palm
  • Sago palm (actually a cycad; poisonous to some pets)
  • Windmill palm

Landscape plants that will do well in pots

  • Acacia (many varieties)
  • Bamboo
  • Bottlebrush
  • Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus)
  • Crepe myrtle
  • Oleander (poisonous to many pets—and therefore critter-resistant)
  • Pineapple guava
  • Texas mountain laurel

Succulents

  • Aloe in tree form
  • Elephant’s food
  • Madagascar palm
  • Pencil cactus (sap is toxic)
  • Ponytail palms
  • Spanish dagger (green and variegated)
  • Yucca

“Houseplants”

I put this in quotes, because houseplants are really tropical plants that people grow inside when living in climates with a true winter. However, in low desert communities where winter temps rarely get below freezing, most plants can live-year round on a protected patio. If an unusually cold spell arises, the plants can be covered or brought inside.

  • Aralia palm
  • Arborea
  • Dracaena
  • Ficus
  • Fig

Standards

Shrubs that have been formed to look and act like trees are called standards. Their lower branches are removed to form a trunk. If you want to try forming one on your own, look for a shrub with a single strong center stem.

  • Boxwood
  • Gardenia
  • Hibiscus
  • Mexican bird of paradise (Caesalpinia Mexicana)
  • Myrtles
  • Roses
  • Purple potato bush
  • Yellow bells
  • Duranta family plants (like Tecoma stans; skyflower)
  • Pyracantha

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 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.

Here we go again with a fifth Tuesday, on this last day of September.

For you, it’s another chance to consider your potted desert garden. For me, it’s an opportunity to share more of my personal side.

At the end of July, I told you about my move to a new home, and going from 45-plus pots to a mere seven large pots, with four small succulent pails hanging in our mesquite tree. We have had a few cooler mornings, and this enticed me to do some work outside—not in the garden, but in my swinging hammock chair on my iPad. Nice!

This leads me to my first idea as temperatures allow you to venture outside, at least in the early morning hours: Drink your morning beverage outside, and contemplate even cooler days to come. What are your plans? Is there anything different you want to do in your pots this winter?

But before you go outside, get some healthy air inside! This is idea No. 2. There are many reasons to open the windows. First and foremost: It feels and smells good! But there are some other reasons to get those windows open!

  • It will help rid your home of toxic fumes.
  • It’s free! Turn off your air conditioning for a couple hours, and let your home soak up those cool breezes.
  • Your indoor plants will love you for it!
  • You will hear the birds and other sounds of nature.
  • Experts say that opening windows will improve your overall health.

And while we are talking about feeling good, consider idea No. 3—reduce some of the clutter that might have accumulated in your yard over the past year(s). If you are not using some pots, donate them to a community or school garden. Have old soil and fertilizer, broken tools, things you have collected over time and don’t want/need them anymore? Find new homes for them by donating them, or toss what is of no value.

Finally. idea No. 4—consider adding a new accent pot or piece of art to your favorite area. A new, cooler season might inspire you to treat yourself to something bright and cheery.

Now is the time to dream a little and make some fun decisions about what’s next for your garden as cooler days approach.

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 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.

I love potted gardens for so many reasons. They are versatile in their uses, and flexible in their placement and plantings—plus, you don’t have to dig in the ground!

Many yards have no delineated areas. To change that, homeowners will build ramadas, patios, gazebos and even outdoor kitchens. All of these add to the hardscape of your property—and add HEAT!

I came to the realization years ago that pots can give yards structure.

In my first Tucson home, we had a long walkway down the side of the house to the backyard. Because the area was shaded by the neighbor’s oleanders, we created sitting areas down this path and separated it with a trellis, as well as pots with vines that grew up the angled trellis.

In another case: A restaurant client of mine had a patio facing a parking lot. We created side-by-side concrete planters filled with Robellini palms and Mexican lime trees, and then underplanted with cascading flowers and herbs to be used by the chef.

Above, you can see another example of how to enclose a patio area to make a “room” out of it. The door leads out to the outside “dining room,” which is encircled by pots with plenty of walking space to move out into the rest of the patio and backyard.

To the above right is a cool idea for a roundabout driveway that has a drop off if you don’t make the corner. The contractor put up a standard double-railing to warn drivers, but it looked industrial. The planters are 48-inch wire frame hayracks with coco-fiber liners. Then we welded on decorative braces to assist in the planters’ stability.

The two photos below show how screening with plants can be accomplished for other areas of a home. One marks the steps to an above ground spa. The other shows plants masking a wall of the home—where all the electrical components are hanging.

As you can see, there are myriad ways you can use pots. They allow you to work with a smaller budget and provide tremendous flexibility when we change our minds—as many of us tend to do.

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 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.