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Desert Gardening: Showstopping Containers

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Want to create attention-grabbing container gardens for your Desert Southwest yard? Here’s how.

A pot loaded with succulents and cacti

By Scott Calhoun

Making show-stopping containers is one of my favorite garden jobs. There are endless ways to design eye-catching containers in our desert region — we have no shortage of bold or downright unusual plants to choose from. Below, I detail two of my favorite approaches.

Remember to always use containers with drainage holes. If you have a ceramic pot without a hole, you can drill one using a ceramic drill bit. For containers with succulents and cacti, use a cactus and succulent potting soil, which drains quickly enough for the plants to thrive.

Go big and cram the pot. Just as you would when planting a container of annual flowers, you can plant succulents quite close to give the pot a full look right away. You also can use the same design formula suggested for annual containers: “thriller, filler, and spiller.” That is, one bold upright specimen, one medium-sized filler, and one cascading plant. Make sure the succulents have compatible water and light needs. As the photo above illustrates, similarly colored plants look great together, and tend to have similar light and watering requirements.

Snow pole cactus in large pot.

Go minimal with one showstopper. Having only one species in a pot shows off the plant without the distraction of other plants. In the photo at right, a snow pole cactus in bloom becomes the focal point of a patio. When choosing a specimen, make sure to purchase one that’s large enough for the pot. Bigger is usually better in these containers; a slow-growing succulent or cactus can take years to fill in. Cover any visible soil with gravel mulch, river rock, or smooth Mexican beach pebbles.

Tuxedo spine purple prickly pear flanked by pillars.

Use tough plants for harsh conditions. Even for succulents, exposures that deliver full sun and/or reflected heat can be tough on plants. As the photo illustrates, when you have this kind of exposure, use plants that can hack it. In this case, the homeowner has employed tuxedo spine prickly pear cactus (Opuntia macrocentra), which takes strong light and heat. Unless you can commit to a very frequent watering schedule, cactus are best for superhot or hard-to-get places.

Elephant food on a porch.

Remember shady plants. For deep patios and places that don’t receive direct sunlight, the opposite is true. Stay away from cactus because they tend to stretch out and become sickly when they don’t get enough sun. Luckily, lots of succulents like these exposures. Try plants with these genus names: Crassula, Gasteria, Haworthia, Portulacaria, and Sansevieria. The photo at right features a bushy elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra) with a trailing burro’s tail (Sedum morganianum). It is on a porch and receives no direct light yet still thrives.

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