Feb 05 2018Share

Free City Classes Brighten Large And Small Spaces

By Warren Tenney

Container gardens of cactus and succulents can add color and dimension to a yard, drama to a small patio, and life to an apartment balcony. They also can be frustrating and leave you with dead and dying stumps and withered leaves in dirt pots. A few tips can take the mystery out of maintaining potted plants. The City of Avondale’s free class about the dos and don’ts of container gardening is just one of dozens of free classes that AMWUA cities are offering right now and throughout the planting season. Avondale’s classes include Mantenimiento de plantas - riego y poda (a Spanish language course about Plant Maintenance, Irrigation and Pruning), Landscape and Gardening Q & A, and Growing Fruit Trees in the Desert. 

Landscape and irrigation professionals teach the cities’ free classes. Jonathan Manning of Elgin Tree Farm and Nursery will teach the Avondale class about container gardens. Here are just a few container gardening tips from experts at the AMWUA cities and the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

Plants: Choose plants from a local nursery that are raised in the Valley's desert. Some garden stores import desert plants that are raised in California nurseries, where they become accustomed to more humidity and cooler temperatures. You may not even need to buy plants. Offspring from your desert-adapted plants in your yard (or a friend’s yard) can easily make the transition from ground to container. Desert adapted aloes (mainly succulents with soft leaves), agaves (mainly succulents with leathery leaves) and most cactus do well in containers. 

Containers: Don’t underestimate the size of the pot you’ll need. Your plants will want room to grow, whether you are planting one agave or designing a collection of smaller plants in one container. Make sure the pots you use drain well so the roots don’t rot. It’s best not to use saucers under your pots. If you must use saucers, empty them within an hour of watering. Arizona’s water is highly alkaline and salts also can build in the soil and harm plant roots. 

Soil: Mix half potting soil and half pumice or pearlite for a soil with good drainage. Mix in fertilizer, such as the type available in time released capsules. Sprinkle fertilizer on top of your pots three times a year: Valentine’s Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day.

Design: This is the rule when designing several plants within one large pot: a stick, a triangle and a circle. In other words, use one tall thin plant, such as a Totem Pole cactus (Pachycereus schottii monstrosus) with a triangular-shaped plant, such as Parry’s Agave (Agave parryi) and a round plant, such as a Compass Barrel (Ferocactus cylindraceus). Don’t plant in rows and group plants in odd numbers. 

Care: Your watering schedule depends on what you plant, but the rule is the same for a desert-adapted garden: less is more. Watering once a month in the winter is plenty and that’s only if it hasn’t rained. When temperatures rise around April begin to water once a week. In June, when temperatures soar and there is very low humidity, water twice a week. Cut back again when the monsoon season raises the humidity and it rains. 

Here is a sample of the free classes available in other AMWUA cities.  

City of Chandler: Smart Irrigation Controllers and Back Yard Makeovers

Town of Gilbert: Maximize Your Irrigation System and Sprinkler Design and Installation

City of Glendale: Vegetable Gardening in the Low Desert and A Xeriscape Garden Walk and Talk (The setting is the city’s Xeriscape Demonstration Garden.) 

City of Phoenix: Rain Gardens and Landscape Watering 

City of Scottsdale: Finding and Fixing Leaks and Garden Walk (The Scottsdale Xeriscape Garden’s caretaker leads the tour.) 

City of Tempe: Rainwater Harvesting and Xeriscape Landscape Conversion

There are more classes available about designing desert landscapes, watering lawns efficiently, and unraveling the mysteries of your irrigation system. A little knowledge can lead to beautiful and water-efficient outdoor spaces. You can find the time, date, location and description of AMWUA cities’ free landscape classes at

For 49 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit

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