Rather you are a new or experienced gardener, it’s always good to come back to the basics. I wrote this article with new desert gardeners in mind, but everyone will benefit from these tips.
When first starting a new garden, my advice is to keep it simple and grow from there. As soon as we overcomplicate something, we tend to get overwhelmed. When that happens, we often throw our hands up in the air and STOP.
The best chance of success is to take on a smaller project and complete one step at a time relatively quickly. This success will provide the satisfaction of something growing and pleasing to the eye along with our senses of smell, touch and sounds.
“The day you plant the seed is not the day you eat the fruit.”
(Thrive and Grow Gardens)
Wise words. Gardening is not instant gratification. Instead, it teaches you patience, observing small change, how the natural world works, tend and nurture, and, ultimately, gratitude as you reflect on all the steps that led you up to the day you eat the fruit of your labor.
Now, this is sage advice. However, in my world of ornamental container gardens, I have always said that I am of the generation of immediate gratification. I want my flowers to look fabulous as soon as I plant them!
Without rambling on for hours, let’s get you started on your container garden.
Location, Location, Location
The beauty of pots is that they are moveable. Well, that is if the containers are lighter than concrete.
Study how the sun moves in your yard and consider how it will change as the sun moves through the seasons.
I suggest you create your first potted garden area in a spot that will get 5 to 6 hours of sun a day all year long. For example, they could get eight hours during the cooler months and then only get four to five hours in the summer heat.
Secondly, choose an area that you will see regularly. You want to enjoy the view from inside your home as well as outside. For example, if a frequently used room, like the family room, looks out to the patio and onto the yard, these viewpoints would be perfect for your pots.
Know your Zone
In many areas, elevation will play a big part in your temperatures. So that is one important thing to know, along with your hardiness zone. Find out your hardiness zone.
The hardiness zone will guide you in selecting plants that grow within that zone. However, if you are in a community that is Zone 9 and you are at a higher elevation than the majority of that zone, you will be colder. I suggest you talk with your local Cooperative Extension Master Gardener program and local nurseries to see what to expect.
Starting to see the importance of your local nursery? Remember that!
Consider the Water Source
In the vein of keeping it simple, what is the easiest way to water your new pots once installed? If you are considering adding irrigation, be sure there is a route from the current or future valve placement before finalizing the location.
If you have to run a new irrigation line and it needs to go under a driveway or patio deck, you might want to rethink either where you place the containers or how you water them. For example, you could decide to first go with succulents so that hand watering is not difficult. Then, later as you add irrigation, you can switch over to flowers and other ornamentals.
Speaking of hand watering, this is always an option. Therefore locate your pots close enough to a hose bib, so you are running a hose no more than 50-100 feet. Also, in this case, group your pots closely together to make watering easier. The last thing you want to do is to drag a watering can around to your pots.
When you use large pots, each one during the hot seasons may demand a can of water. Ten pots, therefore, equals ten trips to refill the watering can. And FYI, 5 gallons of water weighs over 40 pounds, so you will be able to give up your gym membership in this scenario.
Start with great soil.
Strictly speaking, a container planting mix has no dirt. Good potting “soil” contains a mixture of peat moss, composted bark, compost, earthworm castings, perlite, and pumice. It smells rich and earthy, never “poopy” or like manure. When you grab a handful, it is moist but does not clump and certainly does not fall away like sand.
I used to use and recommend the brand Black Gold® All Purpose Potting Mix. In most situations, this is still my go-to choice. However, over the last few years, local nurseries have developed their unique mix, and a trusted nursery should be, well… trusted. Make sure they know you are planting in containers and not in the ground. They have developed these products understanding the needs of planting in the desert climate and the high pH value of the water.
Many manufacturers, as well as local nurseries, are adding fertilizer to their mix. I prefer adding my own fertilizers, but if that is your only choice when buying a good brand, be it.
You will not find these specific soils in a big box store, and they will cost more than many soils they carry. So please spend the money and get the good stuff. It is the most important element in creating a good foundation for your garden.
Choose the right plants.
This is probably the biggest challenge for new gardeners and those moving to a harsh climate such as the desert. It’s imperative that you select plants that are right for your climate and your situation.
The key points to selecting the right plants include the amount of sun they will receive, how much water they need, how much room they need to grow, and their growth rate.
I won’t get into this all now, but the most critical decision is to make sure you choose plants that need similar amounts of sun and water when placing them together in a pot and grouping them in your yard. With the correct choices, you will have an easier time taking care of the plants when watering, fertilizing and grooming them.
Learn your earliest and latest freeze dates.
Not being prepared for a freeze in your area will spell disaster for your garden investment. However, there are times when it is safe to plant, prune and bring tender plants inside. Check out your average freeze dates by this link. Adjust for your elevation and microclimates.
Water and Feed Plants Consistently
You will find that I harp on watering. And I do mean, A LOT! You never want the soil to dry out in your pots. Check out this checklist on Consistent Watering if you want the information now.
If you are in a rush to get going, go out and buy a water meter and check your moisture level regularly every morning before you water. Once you get a handle on how much water your pots need, you can follow your set routine. Be sure to adjust the frequency as temperatures rise and fall.
Each time you plant new flowers, edibles, and other plants in pots, use a time-release fertilizer. Once you see signs of new growth, start using a water-soluble fertilizer every two weeks. This is more often than recommended by most experts, but they are often talking about ground plantings.
In pots, in harsh climates, nutrients are expended quickly. Following the bi-weekly routine will ensure your plants have enough food to keep them thriving. Healthy plants mean they will also be better able to defend themselves against pests and diseases.
To Your Success