Prepare Your Desert Pots Before You Leave for the Summer
Snowbirds or summer travelers – we all like to leave the desert heat for a while during our summers. By planning ahead, you will save money, time and anxiety over your treasured pots and plantings.
What Do You Have Planted?
Full Sun Cactus and Large Potted Shade Succulents
You can leave potted cactus and succulents be for the summer. It would be great if someone could soak them once a month if we have no significant rain, especially if we have a sweltering summer like the one in 2020. I would not hook them up to irrigation, even if they are in their zone. It is a waste of water and one more thing that can go wrong.
Upon Your Return
Check your cactus and see if they need a drink. Check the soil level and if the stem or roots are showing more than before, add some fresh cactus soil and mix it in with the old. You can also add some new time-release fertilizer to give the plants a boost. I would add a small handful of the fertilizer to 20″-24″ pots and mix it into the top layer of soil. Adjust the amount proportionately for smaller or larger pots.
Perennials and Shrubs in Pots
Potted perennials and shrubs will need to be on drip or hand-watered by a house sitter when left for the summer. If possible, shift them over to where they get some shade in the afternoon.
Adjust your irrigation clock a month before you leave so that you can make sure it is not drying out between watering. Set the timer so that the X-Large pots (24″ and up) receive a deep watering once a week. Smaller pots most likely will need deep watering twice a week.
Upon Your Return
Check the condition of your plants and soil. You are looking for it to be still a rich, brown potting mix and evenly moist. The edges of the soil along the pot rim might have dried out, and if so, remove the dry areas and add fresh potting mix and time-release fertilizer.
If needed, prune wild plants once the heat has diminished some. Depending on when you return to your desert home, you will want to wait to prune them when the temperatures are consistently below 100° and nights are touching the upper 60’s.
How Do I Know that My Planting Mix is OK?
Potting mix is made up of organic products that create what looks and smells like excellent rich soil. When you return, it still has these qualities. It’s not gray, and it doesn’t feel dry. It’s not a dry cake like a lightweight brick of old styrofoam. There is some moisture to it that you can tell by taking a handful and feel the rich consistency. If you doubt the quality of the soil, then I would either start over with a fresh potting mix.
Leave Empty, Irrigate or Plant?
The potting mix in pots without water during the desert summer for longer than two weeks will not be viable when you return. When it dries out, you will not be able to rehydrate the potting mix, and it is not worth your while trying. If you know this will be the case, I suggest you empty the pots and clean them out before leaving. This way, when you return home, you will only need to get new soil and enjoy getting your hands dirty with a fresh start, rather than having to get rid of the old stuff.
For those of you with large pots, you might decide to try to keep the soil healthy and put (or leave) them on the irrigation system for the summer. You will need to make sure the entire surface of the soil is receiving water so that the whole volume of the potting mix stays moist. Again, as I said above, get your irrigation system set up a few weeks before you leave so you can make sure it is successfully keeping them consistently moist between scheduled run-times.
>> One of our members asked about planting some drought-tolerant summer plants in her irrigated pots to give the soil a better chance of retaining moisture.
Planting your pots while you will be away for the summer is an excellent idea for two reasons. First, the plants will shade the soil, reducing the chance of drying out. Secondly, planting something like Lantana, Vinca or Salvia will also provide a ‘welcome home’ when you first see your yard. Yes, they may need some grooming, but how nice would that be to see something living with color!
Additionally, knowing that I recommend you wait to plant your winter flowers in late October or November, these plants will last beautifully until then.
Knowing these low-water summer plants will freeze or go dormant over the winter, you will need to decide if you can tolerate removing healthy plants. If you are anything like me, I doubt you want ugly or empty pots all winter long in your desert home.
Therefore, I recommend removing the summer low-water plants in November and planting them in the landscape or giving them away to a gardener friend. I know my garden helper always takes my giveaways!
The way I look at this is you spend what? $7-$10 on a plant for the pot? If you end up giving it away or throwing it in the compost heap – you would do that with cut flowers, right?
So, that’s what I would do—plant low-water plants in an irrigated pot to keep your soil healthier. When you return to your desert home, you will be thrilled to see full, blooming potted plantings instead of empty pots that are screaming to have new plants!
And you will respond to your lamenting pots,
“I’m tired. It’s been a long week getting ready to come home. I have to unpack. It’s hot. I don’t want to go and buy plants and soil and lug it all home….. But they look so sad. But it’s too early to even think about planting winter flowers!”
- Make sure you change the batteries in your timer before you leave
- Try to put pots on your ground or stones, not on the patio. You could end up coming back to a massive mess if there is substantial water run-off or a clogged pot.
- Get everything set up several weeks before you leave – Don’t leave it to the last day.
- Have someone come and check your property at least once a month.
Leave your desert home knowing you have done everything possible to have your soil and low-water plants last through the summer. When you return, I hope you will have an easier time getting your pots up to ‘snuff’ without having to do it the first week you are back.