Do You Have Container-Gardening Tips for Desert Gardeners?

“I live in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, so I have to garden in containers that can be moved when it gets hot. What is the best thing I can do for plants that are confined in containers in a hot climate like this?” Question from Jacqueline of Casa Grande, Arizona

Answer: Aside from choosing more drought-tolerant plants to grow, there are several other things that you can do to protect your outdoor container plants from the harsh, dry desert weather. Moving them from exposed hot spots into more protected, shaded locations indoors or outdoors is very smart. A similar tactic would be to place them in a spot that affords them shade during the hottest times of the day and protection from desert winds and nighttime cold snaps.

Water-Holding Pots

You can also do a lot to protect your plants by choosing appropriate pots of the right size filled with a potting mix that holds water very well. Larger, thick-walled ceramic pots that are glazed hold moisture in quite well and tend to stay cooler. Always choose containers that are light in color, which reflect the heat of the sun. Pots must also drain well and have a saucer or basin to capture excess water. Also, keep plants in larger-than-average pots with plenty of space for root growth; don’t ever let your plants become pot-bound as this causes plant roots and soil to dry out more quickly.

Water-Holding Mix

When choosing your soil, make sure it holds water well but also drains well. Desert gardeners should consider either Black Gold® Waterhold Cocoblend for organic growing or Black Gold® Moisture Supreme Container Mix for ornamental gardening. Both of these products really hold onto water well but also provide excellent drainage.

I hope that these tips help. There are MANY more excellent growing tips for desert gardeners in the Black Gold articles below.

High-Desert Vegetable Gardening with Maureen Gilmer

What are the Best Raised Bed Plants for High-Desert Gardens?

Grey and Silver Garden Plants for Arid Gardens with Maureen Gilmer

What Are the Best Hanging Basket Flowers For the High Desert?

Happy Gardening!

Jessie Keith

Desert Gold Poppy: Create a Superbloom in Your Backyard

Desert poppies stay low on windy hilltops.

In the wave of Superbloom in California, a rare wildflower is making a massive appearance.  Desert gold poppy (Eschscholzia glyptosperma) is a smaller cousin of the famous California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) because it grows only in the desert. Virtually every aspect of the plant is dwarfed, a natural mechanism for greater efficiency in a very harsh, dry climate.

This year the gold poppies made their appearance upon the burned over hills of the desert, in golden swaths of color.  They clustered on the steepest hillsides, the most rugged ridge tops.  Here they are never disturbed, so seed quantity can accumulate and lay wait for years before enough rain falls to create a visible patch.  To see them close you must get up and out, perhaps do some hiking, but this year photos show their character and suitability for sowing onto very dry properties of the desert Southwest and Great Basin.

Siting Desert Gold Poppy

These poppies are in a sheltered location at the bottom of a slope.

Desert gold poppy prefers alluvial fans and dry stream beds, which are easy to duplicate in desert gardens.  It is tiny compared to its famous California poppy cousinBoth show equally well en masse but are rarely found together.

Microclimates define the desert poppy.  It is delicate and prefers to stay out of the wind by hunkering down into dry washes or clustering on lee sides of landforms.  Where it is windier, the desert poppy adjusts its height by shortening flower stems.  This drops blooms below the prevailing winds.  Big patches thrive where large yuccas provide windbreaks. Their low height also protects pollinating bees from winds.

This provides a clue to where to sow the desert poppy in home gardens. Choose a site where it’s likely to germinate and hopefully naturalize into a colony.  In most gardens scenarios the plant is twice as tall, and more widely spaced.

When sown in the fall, poppies have time overwinter, grow roots and flower by spring.  when sown in the spring, they sprout and then wither.  Some can perform as biennials or even short-lived perennials, depending on growing conditions.

Sowing Desert Gold Poppy

Poppy seed gradually filled this whole ravine resulting in a Superbloom.

Poppy seed is tiny and difficult to sow evenly.  The best way to be efficient with your introduction of poppies to your property is to blend them into a delivery material such as Black Gold®Earthworm Castings Blend.  This helps distribute the seed and provide a little organic matter to protect the seed once sown. Seeding is best done before a rain in the fall or early winter

First find a wide, shallow container and fill it half full with worm castings.  Next, sprinkle your poppy seed over the top, like you would add sprinkles to a white cake, striving for even coverage.  Once in place, use your bare hands to gently toss the castings as you would a salad, slowly blending in the seed.  Immediately sow this blend where you want it, otherwise, it will settle and lose its fluffy quality.

The more disturbed the ground, the better the poppies will row.  They don’t like competition either.  Fast-draining grainy soil, sand, or steep slopes with extreme runoff are this plant’s preference.  Open soils allow the tiny seed rootlets to easily penetrate the ground quickly after germination.

Sowing desert gold poppies will bring an annual Superbloom to your own backyard, farm, ranch, or rural cabin. Such natives will either sink or swim after the first year.  If they like your digs they’ll stay, have babies, and take up residence.  But for others, unless it’s an epic rain year, they may never return.

High Desert Vegetable Gardening

Successful vegetable gardening in the high desert takes effort but is rewarding.

Growing food in the high deserts of the American West is a challenge until you learn how to modify your microclimate. Not only is the high desert incredibly dry, it’s often windy, which can be a larger problem than drought. Hot or cold dry winds draw moisture out of leaves faster than the roots can replace it. If you don’t resolve the wind problem, you’ll find little success.


Protect Beds with Straw Bales


Potatoes thriving in high-desert soils boosted with lots of organic-rich amendments.

These dry climates allow bales of straw to remain intact for years. That’s why I use them around the perimeter of my high desert vegetable garden to block ground level winds. They are stable and strong enough to remain in place during our worst storm-driving winds and Santa Anas (strong, dry down-slope winds that originate inland and affect coastal southern  and northern California). Bales can also be placed in the growing area to create mini windbreaks for rows or sensitive plants. They can be stacked two or three high into a wall on the windward side of the garden to add even more protection.

While winters are cold in the high desert, there is tremendous UV exposure due to the thin dry air. During the summer this exposure soars to such an extent that some plants just can’t take it. I use wire field fencing rolled into tubes in lieu of tomato towers. They’re perfect for another solution, using shade cloth attached with clothes pins to the west side of each wire tube. This helps plants during July and August when very hot afternoons can be tough on food plants.


Amend Your Soil


Protective fencing is needed to keep plants safe from animal pests.

High desert soils often lack organic matter, and that’s where Black Gold soil amendments can transform sandy gravel into fertile ground. Among the best choices for amending lean soils is Black Gold Compost Blend and Black Gold Garden Soil. These soils also need  microbes which can be introduced using Black Gold Earthworm Castings that are naturally rich in these organisms so crucial to plant growth and soil health.

Building fertile ground takes time, so be sure to add more organic matter and nutrients every year at planting time. May 1st is the most universal date of the last frost, then the growing season is fast for the first month or two, until it slows down in the depths of summer. During August your plants may rest in the heat, then take off again in September growing rapidly until frost. Be sure to feed your garden at summer’s end with a tomato and vegetable fertilizer to help them flourish in this “second season”.

Feed Your Vegetables


Finally, select food plant varieties that are desert adapted. I’ve found many great candidates for this tough climate at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds because they tell you where each variety comes from. That’s where I found ‘Abu Rawan’, a tomato from Iraq that’s adapted to desert conditions. Choose these in lieu of heirlooms developed for ripening in the cool climates of northern Europe. Another great source is Native Seed/SEARCH, a seed vendor dedicated to the preservation of vegetable plants traditionally grown by the Southwest Pueblo Indian tribes.

Gardening in the high desert is easy once you solve the problems of wind, sun and very lean soils. But with a few straw bales and a load of Black Gold soil amendments, you’ll be all set to get started.
(To learn more about gardening in the high desert, read Raised Beds in Dry Country.)

Fix Troubled Garden Soils with Coir

My desert garden after lots of amendment with Black Gold products high in organic matter.

My soil has never resembled that perfect loamy ground in Martha Stewart’s garden or a posh garden show. The first plot I cultivated for 18 years was dense clay too filled with rocks to resemble the soft soil all gardeners dream about. My second garden here in the desert is just the opposite. It’s sand and decomposed granite so porous it won’t make a clod. My two yards are probably more like yours: a battleground where I’ve fought to improve less than ideal soil structure. But one product has helped above others and that’s coir.

Organic matter is the one thing that solves both sandy and clay soil structural problems. Finely ground organic matter mixed into clay helps keep the tiny soil particles separated. The separation creates gaps that allow water, air, fertilizer and roots to penetrate more easily. Likewise, organic matter helps sandy soils better retain needed moisture and nutrients. Coir is an excellent supplier of organic matter for both these situations–better than even common organic additives like composted manure.

Clay-rich soil is surprisingly fertile, with high microbe populations that count it among our most productive agricultural soils. It’s just it’s high density that’s problematic. When I added truckloads of composted manure to that first garden, plants in it grew like gangbusters, but then all the amendment seemed to disappear by the next season. The high population of soil microbes literally ate the manure, and they’ll do the same in your soil too. (If only I’d had Black Gold’s Just Coir, which provides more prolonged, better structure to clay soils—especially when combined with compost.) Desert gardens soils have similar problems for different reasons.

In desert soil, organic matter serves a very different purpose because sand just won’t hold water in the root zone long enough for plants to absorb it. Every tiny bit of organic matter added to this soil acts as a miniature sponge to absorb water and nutrients to keep them handy for plants. It’s also important for creating an environment suited to microbes, which are few and need loads of compost and coir for healthy populations.

In the past, manures and compost were the corrective organic matter for troubled soils. But coir has gained popularity because it works. This byproduct of the coconut industry is proving to be a far more long-lasting soil conditioning material. It resists the quick decomposition of compost, ensuring an enduring benefit. That’s why it’s a component in many Black Gold soil amendments.

To improve your soil structure, Just Coir is a great solution for overly porous or dense ground. It’s a soft, finely ground amendment that is easy to mix in, holds water wonderfully and lasts longer than anything else.

To create a superior garden this year, mix in Black Gold All Purpose (5-5-5) OMRI Listed fertilizer into the soil with Just Coir to improve both structure and fertility of porous soils. Another option for clay soils is to blend Just Coir with Black Gold Worm Castings and fertilizer to feed the enormous microbe population as they go to work breaking down the organic matter.

Adding soil amendments before planting isn’t just a one-time thing, but an annual or bi-annual thing. It is an ongoing process that will gradually solve problems with soil structure, increases biotic activity and increase fertility. With Just Coir and a little time, gardeners can achieve great garden soils that may just verge on Martha-Stewart-perfect garden soil.