Category Archives: Potted Garden Design

Loving Volunteers in Our Garden

We’ve all had them. Plants that sprout up in places we never planted them. It’s not so hard to figure out — grass in the flower patch, dandelions in the lawn, clover in the vegetable garden. Most likely, in these cases, the plants would be called weeds.

Weeds – my definition of a weed is any plant that comes up in a place you don’t want it to grow. I probably learned that from another long-time gardener friend.

So even a popular plant such as an Oak tree that comes up in the middle of the groomed lawn of your front yard could be called a weed.

Now, if you want to grow an Oak tree, once the ‘weed’ has its second set of leaves, you can transplant it to a pot and later to the desired location in your yard. In that case, it is a perfect volunteer plant.

Seeds are spread by the wind, dropped by birds, carried in the compost pile or merely fall from plants last season. These unintended plants either add chores or whimsy to your garden. Even unplanned, a volunteer can add color, food or structure to your garden.

A Pain in the Neck

Large planting of purple Ruellia

Ruellia brittoniana – Mexican Petunias

I prefer focusing on the positive side of life, but I experienced the invasion of a plant I once put into a pot. Ruellia brittoniana ‘Purple Showers’ or Mexican Petunia.

I was drawn by the purple color of the flowers and the three-foot height that gave stature to the pot. Before I knew it, Ruellia plants were coming up all around the pot. We quickly removed them as they were unwanted.

But next season, there were Ruellia everywhere, and the neighboring beds became root bound with the deeply rooted plant. They already had taken hold of the soil and were miserable to deal with.

(Side note: I have recently heard that some new cultivars have been developed that are showing to be far less invasive. Look for Ruellia MayanTM)

The Positive Side of Volunteers

Self-Seeding Annual Flowers

Many volunteers are in the category of self-seeding annuals. These volunteer Alyssum is a familiar example and were a delightful and fragrant surprise one winter in Tucson.

The containers on the wall were full of the little flowers. Watered by irrigation, the runoff would drain onto the ground on the outside of the walled patio. Lit by a western sun, the seeds readily germinated and provided casual passersby a special show.

Volunteers Add Whimsy to your Garden

In this narrow garden of an urban townhome, the owner created a postage stamp garden where she could go out, feed the birds and enjoy nature and the peace it provided while living a hectic city life.

Volunteer flowers have popped up around the pots grabbing for the water provided by the pot irrigation runoff.

This creates a woodland retreat – all that is needed is a comfy chair.

How you look upon volunteer plants is up to you. They can be seen as a treasure or a gift from nature – such as a volunteer watermelon that springs up from the seed of an unharvested fruit of the previous season.

Once I had a volunteer snapdragon sprout in my hanging, succulent wreath. What a surprise! It stayed small due to the limited root space and low light. But there it was!


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Flower Beds in your Garden

A Raised Bed of Flowers in Scottsdale AZ in the winter
The Potted Desert Logo
The Potted Desert Logo

 Winter Blues and Yellows in a Raised Bed

Flower beds are great for all planting seasons no matter where you live.

But here in the desert, we can enjoy beautiful beds 365 days a year!

This winter bed is filled with Dusty Miller and White Allysum. The all-white bed shimmers in the morning dew when kissed by the sun.

The same bed in the spring with Yellow Daisies

Here is the same bed in the summer. Now filled with yellow daisies and burgundy Celosia, it dares the summer heat to interrupts its blooms.

Fast Tips for a Flower Bed

  1. Choose an area that gets the amount of sun that matches the types of flowers you prefer.
  2. Remember the sun shifts through the year – Pay Attention!
  3. Use quality soil that your local garden store recommends. If it is a small bed, use potting soil. If your bed is large, it will be costly to use potting soil. You can use garden soil for the base and add  4-6 inches of potting soil on top.
  4. Follow the same planting techniques I recommend for your pots.
  5. Plan how you will water your bed. If using drip irrigation, a landscape line will not provide the correct amount of water. You might be able to cheat off a grass line or put in a dedicated line for the bed. We have worked with the schedule of a pot line.
  6. Plan for critters! If you know they exist in your neighborhood, practice one (or all!) of these techniques:
    1.  Fence in the garden
    2. Use critter resistant plants
    3. Get a dog

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Coloring a Shady Entry for Your Holiday Potted Garden

Do you have a front door that is crying for some easy-care color? This pot arrangement might just do the trick, especially for your holiday potted garden. For instant gratification, as the nurseries should be spilling over with Cyclamen, Geraniums and Bacopa in the greenhouse.  

Choose a pot that is at least 18” in diameter. I prefer you go up another 2-4” but see what you like that you want to use for the holidays. Fill the bottom of the pot with your favorite potting soil (after making sure you have a good drainage hole and that you cover it with a screen or coffee filter) and add some time-released fertilizer. 

Decide if the pot will be seen just from one side or all around and plant in the following order back to front, or center out.  

The Thriller

First, take the Butterfly Iris out of its nursery container and be sure to loosen up the roots as they are usually packed. A Fortnight lily will work just as well but as the plant matures, the leaves become much broader and I prefer the “grassy” appearance of the Iris. Plant the Iris in the back or center of the pot. 

The Filler

Look for Cyclamen or Geraniums in gallon containers that are already eight inches tall. Decide if you want all red or a mixture of red and white. If you buy gallon plants, you will need three. If quart or 4” plants, buy a total of 5. 

Plant the Cyclamen (if planting front to back you only may need three) closely around the Iris. 

The Spiller

Variegated Vinca (either gallon or six packs is what you will most likely find.) is a ground cover but works especially well in pots as a trailing plant. You will need to remove stubborn stems that insist on growing vertically but soon you will have a nice cascading effect for your pot.  

Another option for warmer areas is Bacopa (Bridal’s Wreath). I recommend you get the equivalent of two 1-gallon plants. This would be three 4” or on the off chance you find the Vinca in six-paks, get one but just plant three individual plants.  

Then take your Vinca or Bacopa, keeping the trailers on the outside of the pot and fill in between the Cyclamen.  

Add soil as needed to snug up and the plants and water in well. 


These plants do nicely with a strong hose spray to keep problems of powdery mildew and insects at bay. Also, spray with a water-soluble fertilizer every two weeks for nice growth. Cyclamen do not like their feet continually wet so be sure to not overwater. 

Place the pot outside your front door if it is in the shade or on a shady covered patio in front of your window to enjoy indoors and out! It would look very nice on a stand or table to raise it closer to eye level. You will find you only need to water the pot every few days as all of these plants have low to moderate water needs once established. 

If you feel in a decorating mood, you can add some holiday décor on stakes to the pot, put some glass beads around the base with some blue gray river rock or add a couple more smaller pots with some white or red cyclamen in them. If you find you have any dirt showing around your plants, add some sphagnum moss to cover it and dress the pot up more. 

Each of these plants are perennials however, if it gets cold in your area, the Bacopa may need to be treated as an annual. I have Bacopa growing in my carport yard year-round and some has lasted for three years now! The cyclamen will stop flowering when it gets hot but you can plant something else around it in the summer and then spice up the fertilizer in the fall to get it to start flowering again. Eventually your iris will need to be divided – probably in two years. Then you can add it to another pot. 

If you are having a holiday party, feel free to bring the pot in but be sure to get it back outside soon. You don’t want to leave it inside more than a day.  

Enjoy! Keep this pot going and it will work for Valentine’s Day also! 

Happy Holidays!!

ps. It’s not too late to get a copy of my book! Click on my picture above and it will take you to the link.

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Getting Potted for the Holidays (potted GARDENS that is!!)

Life in the desert is grand. Having the benefit of year-round gardening, we can plant as little or as much as we want. As the holidays are upon us, with a bit of imagination, we can add to our home’s celebration by sprucing up our container gardens to our heart’s content. Another excuse to ‘play’ outside in our gorgeous weather! 

You have many options to add to the holiday luster in your pots. Let’s explore some ideas, and you can mix and match as you please. 

Seasonal plantings that last all winter – perfect for the holidays

Whether you lean towards permanent plantings in your pots such as shrubs or trees or if you mix it up with perennials or only have annuals, you can plant your holiday color scheme now and your gardens with the right care will last until the heat of the early summer returns. 

For your Sun Plantings, add Red and White Annuals such as: 

  • Petunias 
  • Million Bells 
  • Stock 
  • Dianthus – try the newer variety of Amazon, a supertall Dianthus) 
  • Geraniums (part shade too) 
  • Diaiscia 
  • Nemesia 
  • Snapdragons (Whites and Burgundy – no red) 
  • Alyssum 
  • Lobelia 
  • Pansies and Viola (Whites and Burgundy – no red) 

Shade Plantings – Red and White Annuals: 

  • Primrose and Cyclamen are your best bets in full shade. Filtered sun is an excellent place for geraniums.  
  • Paper Whites, Poinsettias and Amaryllis are great nursery plants that you can use in pots during the holidays. If there is a dip in temperatures to 40° or below, you will want to bring them inside.

Advice for flower shopping:

Grab a cart at the nursery and an empty flat or carton and place your selections on the flat and then step back and look at it. Look at it hard and long and be sure it sits right with you. A 24” pot with one central planting will need approximately fourteen (14) “4” inch” plants. If you select any gallon plants, they can replace 3-4 smaller ones. I urge you to use 4” plants and not six-packs. 

 Important: When you go shopping and bring your plants home, water them in well and plant as soon as possible – as in the same day. If you have to wait until the next morning, place them in the shade to rest until the morning.

Permanent plantings 

Your existing shrubs or trees can stand alone as holiday décor. Heavenly bamboo leaves will turn red. Red-tipped Photinia’s new growth is red so if you fertilize it now, you might force it into growth resulting in those showy leaves just in time for the holidays.

Pyracantha and English Holly have red berries showing off right in time for your parties. Burgundy cordyline is another plant that can bring holiday cheer when decorated with other plants or objects.

Speaking of objects, take some of your decorations and embellish the plants. Use small holiday lights, bows, garlands, ornaments, pine cones or anything that catches your eye as you ‘deck the halls!’  

A Perfect Gift for the Holidays for any Gardener

A few members of our online community told me how they love my book, Getting Potted in the Desert. Get Marylee's Book, Getting Potted in the Desert Today!They have given the book as a gift to family members, the person who watered their plants while they were on vacation, their hair stylist who loves to garden and their friend who insists she has a black thumb. I’ve also had designers and realtors give my book to clients who are new to the desert or just are avid gardeners! I am blown away by the interest that continues for my book.

You still have time to order your copy or pick up a copy in Tucson or Albuquerque. Click on this link for the information. And Thank YOU. There is no better praise for an author than another book sells.Facebooktwitterlinkedinmailby feather

Using Color in Your Desert Potted Garden

Desert Patio Garden with Blues and Yellows

Receive these free tips in your Inbox – Fill out the box in the column to the right and receive Marylee’s Top Tips to Desert Potted Garden Success!


Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder… sometimes 

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

When driving down the boulevard and you approach a bed of flowers, what draws your eye in? Color!! What I have experienced is that the first image of that bed is described as pretty. But when stopped in traffic and I have the time to really look at the garden, something clicks in my mind that this is just not working. What first is viewed as fun and exciting, can become exhausting when you sit with your coffee or cocktail ready to relax after a long day. 


Too many colors makes a potted garden too busy

Why doesn’t it work? Too many colors in one garden! 

Purple Osteospernums, Red Dianthus, Blue Pansies, White Allysum, and more – Oh My!

In choosing color combinations, we know what we like when we see it. However, sometimes we think a color combination will work when we choose the flower colors at the nursery but once they are home and planted, we wonder – what did I do wrong? 

We tend to buy what we like in 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.

What not to do in your pots – Yellow Violas, Orange/Burgundy & White Snaps, Purple, Purple/White, Burgundy, Orange Pansies, White Allysum

Take a Moment

Step back to plan your potted gardens.  

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

Ahhhh, such a difference. Yellow in Calendula, Violas and Nemesia, Blue in Pansies and White in Kale. With a Burgundy/Yellow Center Diascia.

Combining Color in your Desert Pots this Winter 

  1. Start with two colors that you also use in the room inside your home. Choose the room that also has a view of your pots.
  2. Add a contrasting color if you would like.

For instance, if your home is decorated in earth tones of rustic oranges, browns and green, 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 the blue and yellow and perhaps add red as shown in the lead photo above. 

The key is to put your plants together and if you like them – try it!  

The beauty of using potted gardens is that you can easily change your mind, try new combinations or take out one plant and substitute another without breaking the bank. Keep your money out of the compost heap – Happy Potting! … Marylee

I hope you stay in touch with me!

Feel free to send me your questions.

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Designing with a King in Your Potted Garden

This summer I have been showing off the “Silver King” Euonymus, a member of the Boxleaf family and very container-friendly and perfect for your potted garden. If you missed the previous column on the “King”, click here to check it out.

Designing for the “King” with a Court of Odd Fellows 

Too many colors in our potted garden will create havoc or confusion in our weary, heat-laden minds. Let’s return to this month’s theme of the rule of three and limit our choice in color combinations to odd numbers, and in this case the magic 3! 

 The picture above, featuring our plant of the month, the ‘Silver King’ Euonymus was already established in the pot. The silvery white and green glossy leaves stands out in our combination but the green is static in our combination and we will not count it as one of the three colors. With the white, I added strong contrasting colors including purple of Nierembergia ‘Purple Robe’ with the almost black leaf of the Black Pearl Ornamental pepper plant. The white is repeated in white ‘Profusion’ Zinnias as the bookends of the potted garden design.  

You can substitute purple Scaevola or Fan Flower for the Nierembergia. This will hold up better in the desert full sun. You can also use white Vinca for your white. You could also substitute yellow for the white – with either the Profusion Zinnias or Purslane. 

 Shopping for your Potted Garden Plants

As I always recommend, group your plants on a cart at the nursery and step back from them to see if you like them. You will be tempted to buy many other plants and flowers for your potted garden but keep in mind the heat and keep it simple. You can always go back another day! 



Happy Potting! … Marylee



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Hot Container Garden – Plant of the Month “Silver King”

“Silver King” can take any role in your summer desert pots 

To best survive the summer furnace in your desert container garden, I harp about the size of our desert garden pots. To support our illustrious hot garden plant of the month, your pot should be at least 24” wide. This width and similar depth will provide the structural support as well as insulation of the soil volume and subsequently, the root system of the plant.

To substantially fill this size pot, especially in the summer, I recommend looking at the Box Leaf family of Euonymus and this month, specifically, the Silver King Euonymus 

Silver Leaf CloseupThe ‘Silver King’ has eye-catching, silvery white edges with glossy green leaves that add uniquecolor and texture to your landscape.   

Variegated forms of the Box Leaf family are the most popular and are among the few shrubs to maintain their variegated leaf color in full sun in our hot summer climates.  The silver tones mix easily with other desert landscape plant materials and add a unique color and texture to your garden. The plant can serve as a stand-alone focal point or be surrounded by almost any contrasting color for instant beauty. With its upright growth habit, several pots can be grouped to form a low screen as demonstrated in this illustration photo with the “Silver King’ supported


Note in this illustration, that I also represented three pots of the ‘Silver King’ to demonstrate the screening ability of the plant.  These are underplanted with ‘Pacifica’ Vinca.

The theme for this summer is working your designs in odd numbers

– Hence a combination of three. If you were to pull the three pots apart, you could still maintain the odd number by having a single pot, splitting the pots in a group of two with a separation of the third, or group the three loosely. They do not all have to be planted the same, and probably should not be. We would not want our “King” to get bored with his royal court now, would we? 

Potted with Strawberry Fields Gomphrena, Deep Red Pentas, Red ‘Pacifica’ Vinca, and Orange ‘Profustion’ Zinnia.

Care of the ‘Silver King’ 

Tolerating any region with a dry summer heat is a challenge to all living things, but for your potted desert gardens, the Box Leaf shrubs (Euonymus) are a good bet. The plants will enjoy good potting soil but tolerate less rich soils and moderate watering. Since the shrub is easily pruned, it can serve as an excellent topiary specimen and if it has a solid center trunk, can be shaped up into a small tree over a couple of years.  

When you visit your nursery to select your plant, compare the size of a one-gallon plant versus a five-gallon plant in size. Be sure whichever you choose is well rooted. You should be able to see a few roots through the holes in the can. I suggest since they are not super-fast growers, you select the size that will give you satisfaction now!  

  1. Take the plant home and water it in well (so that water comes out through the holes in the can.) Prepare your pot by placing it its permanent location.  
  2. Fill your pot after covering the drainage hole with screening or a folded coffee filter. Bring the soil level up to about half way and then compress the soil.  
  3. Add a large handful of time-release fertilizer to the soil. Leave a cavity to place the root ball. 
  4. Carefully remove the plant from the can by turning it on its side, compress the can to loosen the root ball and then gently urge the entire plant out from the can being cautious to not tear the stems from the roots. 
  5. Loosen the root ball’s mass by opening it with your hands or a small trowel. You do not need to be overly cautious at this point. 
  6. Place the plant into the pot and add soil, making sure the result will place the top of the plant’s root ball about 2” below the top of the pot. 
  7. Add more soil and continue to pack it in around the root ball. Bring the new soil level up even with the top of the plant’s root ball. Do not bury the root ball under the new soil. Pack the entire mass firmly and water in thoroughly. 
  8. Be sure your newly planted shrub does not dry out. During the first two weeks, you may need to water daily and then, depending on sun exposure, heat levels, and wind, you might be able to drop back to every other day. 

Prune shrubs in spring after flowering (inconsequential) to maintain the desired shape and to remove green shoots that will sometimes pop up in this variegated variety. The proper way is to remove ¼ to 1/3 of the shrub each time it is pruned, forcing new growth to come from old wood deeper inside the canopy of the shrub.  This rejuvenates the shrub, adds more new growth to the canopy and keeps it young and vigorous.  

One of the main issues with this Euonymus is their tendency towards powdery mildew. Although it is less likely in the dry desert, reduce the chance by choosing a morning to mid-afternoon sun location with good air circulation and water the plant in the morning.  

Happy Potting!  …Marylee


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Why the Number 3 is Perfect for Desert Container Gardens


Does your designer often specify grouping objects in three’s even in your desert container gardens?  

Do you ever ask yourself why?  

It really comes down to our brain. We like to pair things up. When we look at a several items, we rationally try to put them together in two’s. When we create a group of three, the eye is trying to find the pair so it keeps moving. This movement creates a flow and continual motion of our designs. Hence in a garden where our ‘art’ is living and breathing, we want to enhance that movement. Creating an odd number of pots in a group does the trick! 

Two Pots Can Create a formal look at an entry to your home

Pots Have Their Place in your Desert Container Gardens

If we want a more formal or contemporary look, we will want to design in a symmetrical fashion. Even numbers, arranged as pairs will form the structure that comes across more strongly. Two pots placed on opposite sides of a front gate or entry will create the intent that you want of your guest focusing on the entrance rather than passing it by. 

How does the odd number of pots help in our desert landscape design? Long walls and square pots add to the linear look of a back yard wall.

These pots to the left are filled with a single Yellow Daisy Bush (Euryops) and Red Geraniums. The planting is very mature. The Daisy was planted in the fall and the geraniums in the early spring in Oro Valley Arizona. The Geraniums will ‘peter’ out in the heat of the summer and be replaced with true summer annual flowers. ~ Marylee

Two Pots Are out

Where 2 Does Not Cut It

These two pots obviously are just not right against this wall. They stop us dead in our tracks. By adding a third pot—round in shape—and twisting the squares to change the angles, the result is much more appealing. Now you see the garden rather than the wall. 

Your First Step 

When you are ready to redesign an area and want to decide about adding some pots, place some large objects out where you think you might like to position the pots. Trash cans, propane tanks and buckets will serve you well without breaking your back to get an idea of what you like. Once you think you have it, go pot shopping with my mantra –‘ bigger is better!’  If your pots are going to be in full desert summer sun, choose pots that are at least 22” in diameter. These pots are larger than they appear on this long wall. The homeowner is just getting started with a desert container garden and wanted to start small. My Motto is you can always add more!

3 Pots break up the long wall

3 Pots break up the long wall

Same Pots after 3 weeks of growing

Same Pots 3 Weeks Later







The larger pots of this trio have pale yellow Petunias, a dot of red from a Pacifica Vinca and chartreuse Sweet Potato Vine. The shorter pot has red and white Vinca, purple Summer Snaps (Angelonia and Convolvulus (a type of Morning Glory) trailing in the front. This was planted in the late summer when flower choices become more difficult in the desert heat. However, all the plants will do well through the fall until temperatures go below 45. The Sweet Potato Vine will be the first to succumb to the cold. ~ Marylee


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Dramatic Seasonal Changes with Just 3 Pots… even in the desert


Would you believe something as simple as three pots could make a remarkable story in your desert garden?

And that you can change on a whim?
Now is a perfect time to plan for your living color garden in your hot, dry climate.
Start with just three pots and have 365 days of color.


Pictured here is a blank slate of a common, albeit boring fence in a desert backyard. It borders a grassy area adjacent to a rocked space that is the view from the back door and kitchen crying for the ‘right something’ to be added.

Enter – a collection of three pots and two perpetual kids playing. This combination quickly became a fun garden ‘play area’ and a view from the house and the outdoor garden room.

If you look behind the pots, there is a lower level room that will look up to the massive display of color!

This winter combination includes complementary colors of yellow, blue and burgundy, planted merely with Pansies and two varieties of Lobelia.

Next, we come to summer – desert style! As you can see from this picture, the trees on the east side of the pots now provide some intermittent shade to the pots.

The Vinca, Salvia and Chartreuse and Blackie Sweet Potato Vine (SPV) are all sun-loving plants, but anything will do better with some respite from the intense summer sun.

Notice our ballplayers tucked in the leaves of the two shades of the SPV. It seems as though they have not given up their game as they know to stay in the shade!



Back to another winter season and the out-of-the-picture eastern tree has grown to provide even more shade for the pots. A long-living perennial (Butterfly Iris) and a shrub, Golden Euonymus have been added as permanent stature plants in the back two pots. The front pot is filled with cold-loving Cyclamen that will survive most desert frosts.


This last picture brings us back the full circle to another summer. You can now see the golden colors of the Euonymus as it reflects the early morning sun.

Since the pots are continuing to be protected from the sun by the mature tree, more shade plants have been added including Begonia, Bacopa, and Geraniums.

The hottest pot is the back yellow pot where Calibrachoa and Dusty Miller are added for some bold contrasting shades. The back two pots will also shade the front pot in the later afternoon sun.

You can find ways to create shade by calculated alignment of the pots in relation to the movement of the sun.

Just as our two kids playing ball have their own story to tell, as you start out with just three pots,
be part of creating your memories in your garden.


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Bringing the Tropics Home to Your Desert Oasis

January is the perfect time to start planning a desert oasis in a new area of your  container garden. The ideas listed below will also work in areas of dry climates, reasonably mild winters and hot, dry summers. What better way to create an oasis garden than to look at our patios for the magical setting for morning coffee or afternoon cocktails.

With freezing nights typical during desert winters, we can stretch our plant choices a little further, if we provide most of the plants with heavily filtered sun, afternoon shade and cold protection starting at 45 degrees.

Many plants that we have come to know as ‘house plants” are actually tropical plants that cannot survive the cold temperatures that most of the United States experiences. We are familiar with names like Pothos, Dracaena, Crotons, Philodendrum and other common house plants. In full shade and with cold protection if the temperatures go below 40, these are tropical wonders for our patio oasis.

Pictured below are a Multi-Trunked Draceana, a Golden Xanadu and a Fiddle Leaf Ficus. All of these plants need good cold weather protection with more than just frost cloths. Heat lamps, moving into a garage, an Arizona room or even into the house for the winter will help protect these tropical plants.

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Getting Potted In
The De
sert Book

Marylee Pangman shares her wealth of information gained from 20 + years creating successful Potted Gardens in the Desert