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Last updateSun, 30 Aug 2015 2pm

Potted Desert Garden

The heat of the Coachella Valley will always hold its gardening challenges—but we’re not alone. Gardeners the world over are inspired to bend the rules and try to navigate uncharted waters, no matter where they live.

We have much more control over the environment around our desert homes when we garden in pots. We can use appropriate soils, provide targeted watering and give the plants the light—in other words, the sun—they need.

This winter is a great time to try different types of gardens, including some plants that might just make it all summer long. Remember as you read on to keep in mind the portability factor of pots. Use some of these ideas in pots that you can move to a shaded patio, under a tree or under a carport.

We can create small gardens or many things in miniature. We can create topiaries. We can even invite fairies into our gardens. For the most dedicated gardener, bonsai might be something worth playing with, although I am not sure that any bonsai enthusiast would ever use the word “play.”

I have always been drawn to small things—you know, kittens, puppies, dollhouses and model trains. There has been a growing interest and popularity in miniature or fairy gardens over the last four to five years.

I have always loved walking around a nursery and finding what may fit in the scale of a small garden. Many herbs will work. Thyme is great ground cover. There are a few basil varieties such as “windowbox” basil that have small leaves perfect for any small themed garden. Other good choices in greenery include Mexican heather and parlor palm (Neanthe bella)—a slow-growing upright palm. When purchased in a 3-4 inch pot, it is a very nice tropical addition to a miniature garden. You can often find other plants in small sizes that, if kept trimmed, will grow into nice shrubs or miniature trees.

Flowers including alyssum and lobelia can be added to the miniature garden during our winter months, while dianthus can be added pretty much year-round. Options for spring and summer include sea thrift, miniature daisies and Dahlberg daisies.

If you prefer the low-water route, there are many small-leafed succulents that can be used for a miniature garden. Rosettes of hens and chicks, small-leafed “shrubs” of elephant food, very young ponytail palms and many varieties of sedums and sempervivums are available in our desert nurseries.

Another fun garden technique to try in your desert container garden is the art of topiaries. Now, you don’t have to go crazy creating full-sized elephants, but choosing a nicely formed shrub to shape into a tree form or ball shape may just feed your creative soul. The simple repetition of potted topiaries, such as the privet pictured below, will also serve well in your midcentury modern design—perfect for Modernism Week!

If placed in a series of white columnar pots, perhaps along a walkway, they will provide a very nice accompaniment to your modern décor.

Monthly To-Do List:

1. Keep your eye on shallow-rooted, newly planted annuals, which dry out in early spring winds.

2. Deadhead faithfully and selectively prune longer branches, especially in petunias.

3. Use your water-soluble fertilizer every two weeks with a hose applicator.

4. Plant another set of greens for ongoing salads.

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’s book, Getting Potted in the Desert, is now available. Buy it online at potteddesert.com. 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 Potted Desert Garden now appears monthly.

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