This Spring Add Colorful Containers!

Whether you use containers for gardening in small spaces, to avoid poor conditions in the soil, to minimize vegetation near the home, or to create highlights and add changing artistic flare to your outdoor spaces, growing plants in containers is an excellent addition to any landscape. With varied plant selections that are appropriate to our region, some good planting mix, brightly colored or otherwise interesting pots, these mini-gardens can be a fun and beautiful addition to your patio and entry.

Selecting Pots

The bigger the better when it comes to growing in pots.  Use big pots but mix it up. Big pots have space for a combination of two or three plants to highlight and complement each other. Those that are wider than tall are great for succulents. If you do have some smaller pots you want to use, put just one flowering plant per pot; small pots can be clustered for more effect. Also look for mixture of shapes as well as colors.

Large containers have the greatest dramatic potential as well as the most room for plant roots to grow — we do not recommend that you use many containers smaller than 24” in diameter. Containers dry out and heat up quickly. Remember that plants in containers should have some shade at the hottest part of the day. With the exception of succulents, most will need daily water.


Planting Mixes

Many planting mixes are too “mulchy” to use alone; they either do not wet well, or retain too much moisture once they are wet. The potting soil should hold moisture but drain well. To accomplish this, blend the planting mix ½ and ½ with native soil if you have some available for use. Succulents need more drainage, and should be planted in mostly native soil unless it is high in clay content. A small amount of potting mix can be added if the soil is very poor. If native soil is not available, a mixture of half compost, one-quarter sand and one-quarter pumice fines (gritty crushed volcanic rock) will work well for most plants. Less compost and more sand and pumice work for cacti and most succulents. Amendments can also be added — polymer gel beads that release moisture slowly and time-release fertilizers. These can reduce day-to-day maintenance.


You can run a 1/2″ irrigation line underground or along the back of areas you plan to place pots.  The 1/4″ lines that connect to the 1/2″ line can be extended through the hole in each pot before you add the planting mix. If you are reusing pots that already have soil in them, these lines can run behind the pot and stay hidden from view. If pots are on a deck, this main line can be placed underneath the deck and the 1/4″ lines that go to each pot can be threaded through the decking.  Pot placement can also hide the main line.

Emitters will need to be selected for the sizes of pots and for the plants.  Choose from 1/2 gallon, 1 gallon or inline emitters, but make sure the whole root zone is wetted.  Try out some different options on different pots and plant clusters. The 1/2 line can be connected to simple, battery-run, irrigation timers – this makes having container plantings much easier!  If you have zones of pots, that is, some in shade and some in sun, you might want to create more than one watering system, on different timers.   In very hot times of the year pots should be watered daily or every two days.  Again, you will have to adjust this with trial and error at first.

Select your plants

Growing in the earth is of course the best situation for plants. Soil insulates so well that the roots of many plants are 10 to 20 degrees less cold hardy than the exposed tops. Even in the largest pots, plants’ roots are exposed to greater cold in winter and heat in summer than they would be in the ground. For this reason, in exposed areas, the plants should be at least one USDA zone more cold hardy than they would need to be if planted in the ground, and they should be selected to be very tolerant of summer heat as well.  Never select marginal species unless you plan to use them as annuals.

Note: Beware of shrubs, perennials, and succulents sold local at home improvement stores. Many do not survive our winter temperatures. Always check tags for winter temperature tolerance before purchasing.

Plant Suggestions

– Crimson Barberry – Berberis thumbergii
– Turpentine Bush – Ericameria laricifoliaIMG_0084
– Mahonia – Mahonia aquifolium ‘compacta’
– Shrubby Potentilla – Potentilla fruticosa
– Autumn Sage – Salvia greggii

– Chocolate Flower – Berlandiera lyrata
– Dyssodia (annuals are in 6 packs; native perennials are also available)
– Eupatorium
– Blue Flax – Linum lewesii
– Mexican Primrose – Oenothera berlandieri. Use in a bright colored pot, especially one that has blue, looks great with these cascades of pink flowers
– Pincushion flower – Scabiosa sp.

There are a variety of other colorful perennial species available at nurseries: Gaillardia, Coneflower, Delphinium, Snapdragons, Nasturtium, Verbena. Violas (for shade only), Yarrow, etc. These will all do well in pots with daily water.

Note: Buy succulent plants from reputable dealers only. Cacti are other succulents are protected in Arizona, and cannot be taken from the wild.

-Use cacti of any type. Check that those selected are tolerant of our winter temperatures because, as noted above, many available at home improvement stores are not.IMG_0736

– Smaller Agave such as Queen Victoria Agave, A. victoria- reginiae or Parry Agave, A.parryi
– Mormon Tea – Ephedra spp.
– Red Yucca – Hesperaloe parviflora (come in yellow or red) – squirrels do like to eat these, but they do better in a protected patio situation.
– Texas Beargrass – Nolina texanum-Yucca recurvifolia is not native, but it is tough, and has softer leaves & beautiful blooms in early June.
– Other smaller yuccas like New Mexico Yucca, Yucca neomexicana, do well and have a tight, pretty form
– Hens and chicks (in a low pot) mixed with a variety of small sedums are great in pots.

Blue Fescue grows beautifully in containers. Uniform blue mounds and delicate flower stalks provide an accent to other flowers. Nice used alone in a pretty pot.

Try other more upright grasses alone or mixed with flowers: side-oats grama works well this way.  The dramatic bull grass, with its attractive fall inflorescences can be used alone to soften a plant grouping in the summer and provide a spectacular bloom in the fall.

– Dwarf fruit trees can go in large containers, as can Mugho Pine.
– Plant bulbs in the fall – Daffodils, Tulips, and many others do well in containers.

Some cluster suggestions:

  • Surround and combine any flowers with oregano, English thyme, germander or other small herbs; annual Dyssodia always works well around the margins with any mix.
  • Any of the Salvias available at nurseries mixed together with Pincushion flower and annual Dyssodia.
  • Lavender and other perennial or annual herbs do great in containers. Rosemary and lavender will eventually get large and woody however.
  • Purple basil and pink flowered chives
  • Chocolate Flower together with a Lavender and creeping thyme
  • Perennial herbs and vegetable greens look pretty and you can eat them! Mix with Nasturtium for a fun food mix. Nasturtiums have bright color and a spicy flavor that is fun in salads.
  • Add small sedums (ground cover types) around the base of any yuccas or agave you use.

Experiment, change and have fun with your containers!  Notice how even a few additions brighten up your home landscape.

Nichole TrushellIMG_0391