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Potted Desert Garden

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.

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