The Right Plant for the Right Place and Time

How to Choose Flowers and Plants for your Desert Pots

The biggest challenge for new and experienced gardeners alike is in the desert’s harsh climate and knowing what plants to use in your garden pots. You must select suitable plants for your climate in the right season for your specific situation.

Duh – obviously, correct?

That’s a lot in itself. Much of what you learn is by trial and error. You will also learn more by talking to other gardeners, asking at the nursery, and reading more.

Before Going Shopping, Consider This

When planting in pots, planters or raised beds, your first decision is what type of garden you want to create; what are you trying to accomplish?

Desert annuals thrive from fall through winter in this large pot by the Potted Desert

My primary love is color, so I looked for flowers when I started gardening in the desert. Coming from New York State, I understood four seasons, but winter is not for gardening. Here in the desert, I quickly understood our hard soil (caliche) cactus and a few landscape plants, but I wanted color. And I did not want to try digging in the ground. Therefore, I started with three pots near our pool.

When you are starting as a new desert gardener, moving into a new home, or not having the type of garden success you want, answer these questions.

  • What do You want to Accomplish – what do you want from your garden?
  • How much Sun will they receive in different seasons?
  • What amount of Water will the plants need?
  • How much Room will they need to grow?
  • What is their Rate of Growth – can they be in pots?

In my example, I want color. I want evergreen plants, and I want immediate gratification each time I plant a pot.

Therefore, when I go to the nursery, I will look for annuals in full bloom with lots of buds, annuals, perennials, and shrubs with foliage color and those that grow more slowly. I can provide 5-8 hours of sun, targeted water and since I garden in LARGE pots (24″ diameter and larger), they will have enough room to grow.

So now, when I go shopping, I have some idea of what I am looking for and can check the plant label to see if it meets my criteria

Shopping at a local nursery pays off

Plant Tags and Signage

>> Local nurseries will usually have signs near each type of plant. These signs should tell you the following:

  • The common and botanical name of the plant
  • A description that will mention if it is an annual, perennial, shrub, tree, etc.
  • The expected size of the plant at full growth
  • The rate of growth
  • Water requirements
  • RecommendedsSun exposure

You will gain a wealth of information at local nurseries by walking around and reading the signs. Take a picture of the plant and the sign for future reference. This is how I started learning about plants for my desert container gardens.

>> However, don’t assume all plant tags are correct. Plant tags that arrive with flowers in the big box stores are often from a nursery with a different climate or sun intensity. Something marked part sun may need to be in filtered sun here in the desert. If something you purchase starts to wilt or burn immediately, get it into the shade fast!

> Always remember that sun considerations are your most important concerns when choosing plants.

> If you are looking for plants that need less water, make that be a top priority for your selections. The plant tags and staff will help you with your choices.

Four Ways to Get It Right the First time

1.    Every Nursery Locates Plants in Light Best for the Variety

Note the difference in shade covering in this desert nursery

Inside this desert nursery, the sun is gently filtered where the blue sky shows. The white area will cover the shade-loving plants

When you go to the nursery, plants are usually separated by Annual, Perennial, Veggies and Herbs, Cacti and Succulents, Trees, and Shrubs. Then, each category will also be located based on its sun/shade needs. They are moved to the optimal location for their freeze tolerance in the winter.

These conditions can make it challenging to shop, so it is wise to walk around the nursery before grabbing the shopping cart!

Sun-loving plants will be out in the full sun or a greenhouse with minimal light restriction.

Shade Plants will be under trees, ramadas or greenhouses protected with shade cloth best suited to each type of plant.

Be careful, though. I once saw a plant that I thought had to be in the shade here in the desert. After scrutinizing the location, I realized that it was positioned so it would receive afternoon shade from the plants placed on its west side.

Feel free to ask the nursery staff about plants. Tell them your situation – how much sun the desired location gets, including the time of day. They will be accommodating in recommending your best choices.

2.    Read local articles and books that are specifically for your climate.Marylee's Book, Getting Potted in the Desert

Local Home and Garden magazines specific to your locale are great resources for garden plants. Also, your local newspaper, water company and garden-related businesses may publish newsletters, blogs and website pages with more information.

Don’t forget my book, Getting Potted in the Desert! The appendix is filled with plant lists. Bring the book with you to the nursery and ask for help locating the flowers.

3.    Talk to your Neighbors, Garden Club members, and the Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners.

Don’t be shy! Ask questions of those who are gardening in your town. Everyone was a beginner, and we are notorious for wanting to share (even brag) about our successful plantings. We also will tell you about our failures.

Your local Master Gardener program is a tremendous resource. You can often send questions online, and many programs offer free gardening classes. This is a volunteer program and is free to the public. They also may have demonstration gardens, a home tour, plant sales and even publications. Use this LINK to find a Master Gardener Program near you.

4.    Trial and Error

At some point, we need to buy something and plant it. If you are not sure if a plant will work at your home, don’t break the bank on the variety. Get one or two and try them out. Be sure you are placing it in your best guess location, planting it correctly in the correct type of potting mix and water. You can read more about these topics in my other articles.

It’s not just by chance that I created the pots shown in my articles, classes, books and social media.

The Right Plants in the Right Place at the Right Time

yes You Can have flowers 365 days a year in the Potted Desert