Get Potted in a Desert Cottage Garden

Cottage Garden photo by 2sometravel on Unsplash Monets House and Garden

Do you like cottage gardens? Have you ever grown one? … in the desert?

Cottage gardens are an informal design style with dense plantings using floral, foliage and even edible plants. I would not say it is my style – a little too wild and unorganized for me and my more linear brain. However, the more time I spend reading about gardens and watching British gardening shows on TV, I find myself drawn to the style and wondering how we can create the cottage look in the desert. Don’t be looking for any hydrangeas, though!

 A cottage garden’s rambling style can be daunting for many gardeners, and this style of gardening takes a lot of space, time, and plants. I want color 365 days a year, and perennials are typically used in these gardens. Therefore, I am not drawn to them due to their off-season lack of blooms and ho-hum seasonal luster.

 I advocate for simplicity for gardeners, not so much in design but in the effort, it takes to create and maintain them. I remember my younger years when my team and I were creating and caring for thousands of pots for homeowners. In fact, the first three years I was on my own. But I learned to be efficient in the work even when an installation was 10-50 pots, all of which satisfied my 20″ size rule. I learned how to delegate and use the delivery services of local vendors. My best friend was Cesar, who had a moving company and became a specialist in pot delivery!

Desert Cottage Garden by Barbara Wirth

A longtime follower of Marylee’s teachings, Barbara Wirth has created a cottage-type garden at her desert home and has practiced and fine-tuned her style for two decades. Here is Barbara’s story in her own words.

 “When we moved to Tucson twenty years ago, I remember wanting to see color out my kitchen window. The window looked out onto a paved patio, and I decided to take one row of pavers out and plant flowers. The next thing I knew, I was taking out another row of pavers until I eventually took them all out. Ahh, dirt!!  

I didn’t want to sit on the dirt to plant, so I started buying Talavera pots, filling them with flowers of all kinds. I put the pots close together to look like a cottage flower garden. The pots seemed to disappear as the flowers grew. I didn’t have a plan. I just wanted a circus of colors.

I started realizing I was creating a micro-environment the flowers liked. They were shading each other and providing humidity, making them less likely to dry out.

Hand watering was important to me so I could check on each pot and ensure it was getting the proper water. This gardening style might not appeal to many because it requires more attention with so many pots. It became my hobby, and I enjoy everything from selecting the plants at the nursery to potting and daily maintenance.

After many years of gardening this way, I have come to like the tiered effect, large pots in the back, then medium, then smaller pots. When a plant needs to be replaced, it is easy for me to pick it up, take it to my potting bench and repot.

When I look out my window, I see color all year around. After taking Marylee Pangman’s container garden classes, I know which flowers to plant at the proper time.”

Barbie's Cottage "Circus" Garden in pots
Photos of Barbara's potted gardens and specific plants

When Barbara and I started to get to know each other, I questioned her style of desert container gardening. We agreed we had a different planting style in pot size, color combinations and arrangement. Her love of pink is immediately clear, and while I do not prefer pink, I respect its value in gardens and would never tell anyone not to use pink.

Barbara’s garden success made me think about my rule of using pots larger than 18-20″ wide. However, when I say that, I do add, “in full sun.” The house shades Barbara’s pots by 1 pm in the summer. I would suggest an awning or ramada to help with the late morning heat, but Barbara is diligent with watering twice a day when needed, contributing to her success.

With these conditions, I tell desert container gardeners to stretch my rules and see what works for them.

Loving potted gardens because, like Barbara, I don’t want to dig in the ground; I like the elevation pots provide. She uses a little garden scooter to move from pot to pot. I have always used some type of seat, my favorite being a five-gallon bucket seat because it stores my tools, and wheels don’t work in many of my past gardens. The bucket is easier to move from one pot collection to another.

I recently saw an article about cottage gardens in a magazine whose design was relatively simple. My immediate reaction was that we could do this garden in pots, and given the proper sun exposure, smaller, tiered pots make it simpler to care for each plant and pot. 

Create Your Own Cottage Garden with Pots!

Choose a space

  • Decide where you want to place your cottage garden. It could be along a walkway, as many are border gardens, and it could be part of a defined patio space like Barbara’s.
  • Think about the sun exposure you want to have. It will be easier on you and the plants if you can choose a location with afternoon shade.
  • Decide on the size of garden you want to start. A four to five-foot area would be a generous size to begin, enough to create the “cottage” effect and not too much to care for in your first attempt. You can enlarge the area down the line if you decide you love it and have the time and energy to expand the garden.

 Create the garden

  • Create tiers from sturdy boards on cement blocks, upside-down pots, pot stands or anything else your imagination inspires.
  • I recommend committing one plant or type of flower to each pot. This will give you the bounty you want from each plant and make it easier to grab that pot and take it to your planting table to repot.
  • You can use any plants I advocate for our desert pots (my book has lists for each season.)



  • ·        Speaking of grabbing a pot – I always recommend using glazed ceramic clay pots. However, with the filtered or morning sun conditions, you certainly can use double-walled resin pots, considerably lightening your burden.
  • ·         When you think of easing the overall weight of a planted pot, please do not shortchange the soil. These smaller pots (under 18″) need a whole volume of soil to give the plants adequate room to grow and hold moisture and nutrients.