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Last updateWed, 27 Aug 2014 10am

Potted Desert Garden

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.

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