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Fri10242014

Last updateWed, 27 Aug 2014 10am

Potted Desert Garden

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.

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