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Desert Gardening: Pots for Spring

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Enjoy some fun and practical ideas for spring container gardening.

colorful succulents in containers

By Scott Calhoun

With the arrival of spring and the fading chances for frost, desert gardeners can become adventurous with their plant choices, particularly in containers.

Annual flowers are the most common category of plants for pots, but consider other options: You can dive into the palette of California-grown succulents (like the euphorbias and kalanchoes shown in the photo above), experiment with bold palms, create full pots with woody shrubs, and dazzle with sculptural cactus.


Sago palm and other plants on a shaded patio

Palms and Other Porch Specimens

Homes in the Southwest often feature deeply recessed porches as retreats from the sun. These porches are great for people but can be a challenge for gardeners because of the exposure, and extensive paving that doesn’t allow for in-ground planting. Below are a few good container plants for these situations.

  • Sago palm (Cycas revoluta), featured in the photo above, has big, glossy foliage and takes some sun.
  • Ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) is a graceful, drooping palm with an attractive swollen base. It forms a trunk and can reach over 10 feet high with time.
  • Beaked yucca (Yucca rostrata) is a good choice if your yard gets six or more hours of sun a day. This trunk-forming plant with blue leaves is great for hotter spots on or adjacent to porches.


Plumbago blooming with totem pole cactus

Using Shrubs in Pots

Woody plants (a.k.a. shrubs) are generally much tougher in pots than annuals, especially when it comes to watering. Potted shrubs can go longer between waterings and avoid the catastrophic results than can come from forgetting to water some potted annuals. Below are three good candidates for pot culture. All three are medium to large plants, so if you group pots together, put these at the rear of the arrangement and give them a bit of room to spread.

  • Coral fountain (Rusellia equisetiformis). Cascading red blooms favored by hummingbirds along with trailing needlelike foliage distinguish this fine shrub, which in a pot grows to around 3 feet high and wide. 
  • Cape plumbago (Plumbago auriculata). A drooping shrub with pale-blue blossoms (shown above), it appreciates warmer locations but is not picky about soil. It stays evergreen in frost-free or nearly frost-free locations.
  • Yellow bells (Tecoma stans). Covered with yellow blooms in spring and summer, it brightens up a sunny arrangement of pots. Can be winter-deciduous in cooler microclimates.


Potted snow pole cactus in bloom

Potting Cactus

For low care and architectural impact, nothing beats cacti. Make sure to locate potted specimens away from areas where children might bump them, but don’t fear them too much. The three columnar varieties below are generally patio friendly and are focal points of garden interest. These varieties are particularly upright and suited for placement near pillars, entryways, or against walls. Make sure to pot them in a cactus and succulent soil mix with good drainage.

  • Old man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis). Characterized by its long, white hairs and lack of spines, this is an excellent patio specimen. In the wild it reaches up to 45 feet high—but it grows slowly and stays a much more manageable size in a pot. Because of its absence of true spines, it is friendly to the touch, and good for gardens with children and animals.
  • Mexican fence post (Pachycereus marginatus). Deep-green flesh and white stripes of spines give it a neat, tailored look. It’s one of the most handsome upright growers and is suitable for a narrow pot.
  • Snow pole (Cleistocactus strausii). Like old man cactus, snow pole is covered with white hairs, but each spring it pulls a trick and blooms with pinkish-red flowers that stick out from the stem at 90 degrees, as seen in the photo above.

Gather your pots, trowels, soil, and sun hat, and get potting!

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