Container gardening a blooming different to planting in tough desert soil – VIDEO
Searing summer heat. Tiny annual rainfall. Almost no humidity. Dry soil that is cement rather than dirt in many places. No wonder even the most seasoned local gardeners compare southern Nevada to Mars when it comes to inhospitable places for plants to grow.
“When the NASA rover beamed back the first images of the surface of Mars, a friend of mine joked that it looked like her backyard,” said ML Robinson, who has lived in the Las Vegas Valley for 20 years.
Clusters of cacti, agaves and other small desert plants together form an attractive and easy-care container garden. (Benjamin Hager / Las Vegas Review-Journal) @benjaminhphoto
To call Robinson a gardener is a huge understatement. Garden guru would be more accurate. As an environmental gardener at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, he has spent decades teaching others how to master the challenges of gardening in the Mojave Desert.
The simplest solution: grow your plants in containers.
“Container gardening gives people a lot of control over desert conditions that otherwise can quickly kill many flowering annuals, perennials, and vegetables,” said Robinson.
In fact, containers have become creative vessels for gardeners across southern Nevada. From petunias and pansies to artichokes and dwarf lemon trees, anything can thrive in pots. Containers can also highlight the sculptural beauty of desert dwellers like cacti and succulents, grown as individual specimens for visual impact or clustered in bowl gardens to showcase their complementary colors, textures, and blooms.
Other advantages of container gardens: You can grow them almost anywhere, even in confined spaces such as balconies and small patios. Use them to liven up pool decks and visually break up other boring swaths of hardscape in your home. If a plant isn’t thriving in one place, you can easily move it to another place where the light and microclimate may be more nourishing.
Reservations about container cultivation
And don’t overlook the design appeal that containers themselves can add to your landscape. Garden pots come in all shapes and sizes and made from different materials. Choose what you like best, from glossy glazed ceramics, for example, to rustic whiskey barrels made of wood.
“Pot gardening is a fun way for people to let their imaginations run wild,” said Robinson. “And it’s a lot cheaper than therapy.”
Flowers pop each spring from a succulent commonly known as the powder puff cactus. Cacti and succulents can comfortably grow in containers for years. (Benjamin Hager / Las Vegas Review-Journal) @benjaminhphoto
There are reservations about container cultivation. You need the right soil, which differs depending on the growing area. Proper watering is a must; Some plants are naturally more thirsty than others, especially when the humidity is close to zero. Then there’s the sun and heat – too much can spoil plants, especially non-native species.
While there is a lot to learn about growing plants in pots, Paul Noe – aka Dr. Q, the resident horticultural expert at Star Nursery, advises budding green fingers to simply follow their instincts when starting out.
“Start with something that catches your eye,” he said. “It can be a specific plant or an attractive pot. It is important that you enjoy the experience of container gardening. “
Follow these basic tips from some of the most skilled gardeners in southern Nevada for the best long-term success.
Choose the right floor
“Never use native soil,” says Robinson. Our hard, rocky soil doesn’t contain enough nutrients to feed most plants. In addition, the soil is so compacted in many places that it hardly absorbs any water.
Commercial pot mixes contain nutrients needed for flowering annuals and vegetables. (Benjamin Hager / Las Vegas Review-Journal) @benjaminhphoto
The right soil recipe will vary depending on what you want to plant.
For ornamental plants such as flowering annuals and perennials, use potting mixes available from your local nursery or box gardening department. They contain the organic nutrients plants need, and their fluffy texture has a tendency to hold back water.
Vegetables, herbs and fruit trees need even more organic matter to thrive. Look for commercial soil mixes specially labeled for fruits and vegetables. Or create your own mix by combining potting soil with compost, manure or peat.
Cacti and succulents are naturally used to more desert-like soils. Local gardeners sell special recipes for cacti and succulents, which generally include equal parts potting soil and sand, with some pebbles thrown in for proper drainage.
A bunch of flowering annuals fills a weathered stone pot. (Maurice “ML” Robinson)
Choose the right pot
Any container that holds water and allows drainage is a potential home for plants. Terracotta pots, glazed ceramics, and artificial stone urns are evident and common. Less obvious, but just as effective: old buckets, metal wash tubs, and bird baths. As an alternative to building raised beds, Robinson recommends horse drinking troughs for growing vegetables.
Whichever vessel you choose, make sure it has holes in the bottom to drain off excess water. Root rot is a common killer of container plants.
When it comes to pot size, bigger is generally better.
“Plants need space to grow and their roots to spread,” says Karin Bell, general manager at Cactus Joe’s Blue Diamond Nursery. Large pots do not dry out as quickly as smaller ones, which reduces the work of watering.
Transplanting is another chore that you can avoid by using larger pots. With enough space, cacti and succulents can comfortably grow in containers for years.
Know when to water
Too much or too little water is the most common reason container plants fail. The key to success is knowing the specific irrigation needs of the people you choose.
Annuals in flowering and colorful perennials like geraniums and coleus can be heavy drinkers. A 1-inch layer of bark or mulch can help these plants retain water.
Succulents show their sculptural beauty in containers. (Maurice “ML” Robinson)
Vegetables and fruit trees need soil that is constantly moist, but not muddy. Given our seasonal extremes, this means you may need to water these plants twice a day in summer while they may only need to be watered twice a week in winter.
Compare these to desert dwellers like aloe and agave, which thrive in arid conditions. Do not water cacti and succulents in winter when they are dormant. In the summer, make sure the desert dwellers dry out between waterings.
The easiest tool to tell if your container needs water is a moisture meter. Insert this inexpensive probe ($ 7 to $ 15 in most kindergartens) into your container and reach down about three-quarters. The display tells you whether the floor is wet, dry or in between.