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Portable Plants

Want to garden? Consider giving pots and other containers a chance

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Each spring, I visit a garden center near my house and load up on portulacas, verbenas and marigolds. Then I spend an hour or so plugging them into the pots that are spread around my yard. And then I spend the rest of the growing season moving the pots around in search of topographical perfection—a state which I never quite seem to attain.

I've relied on this three-fold delegation of nomadic blooms for years, but now that I've read Hot Pots: Container Gardening in the Arid Southwest, I've come to realize that in the area of vegetation vessels, I've been a bit of an underachiever. However, thanks to this highly informative, beautifully photographed introduction to the abundant world of desert potting, it's likely that come spring, I'll be moving around a wider range of plants. Written by Tucson gardening mavens Scott Calhoun and Lynn Hassler, it's a superb guide that will be invaluable for novices, and one which experienced gardeners will undoubtedly appreciate.

The lush photographs, demonstrating container gardening's aesthetic potential, should be enough to send most readers scampering off on a quest for plants and pots. However, for those needing extra incentives, Calhoun and Hassler tell us that potting offers gardeners an enticing assortment of perks: less work and lower water requirements; heightened control over growing conditions; efficiency of space; and year-round blooms.

Writing that books about container cultivation in other regions are about as irrelevant here as "muck boots in Phoenix," Calhoun and Hassler observe that cultivating potted plants in the desert also presents a unique array of problems. Water and heat issues obviously head this list, but containerized plants can have difficulties with excessive light and our sometimes frigid nights. However, these challenges, they assure us, can be overcome.

Calhoun and Hassler write that container gardening can easily become addicting, and note that some folks have been known to fill every inch of space in their yards with flowering pots. While not necessarily recommending this approach, they do provide ambitious gardeners with a veritable greenhouse of choices, including cacti, succulents and perennial and annual flowers, as well as herbs and vegetables.

Perhaps the main idea to take away from this book is that there's a lot more to container gardening than just haphazardly sticking plants into pots. To thrive, containerized flora require special soils and attention, and when it comes to finding them an abode, not just any pot will do.

When choosing a container, Calhoun and Hassler tell us, a key consideration is how well it will complement its future inhabitants in terms of size, shape and design. Of greater importance, though, is its ability to meet a plant's water needs. Certain types of containers, they say, such as wood, the ever-popular terra cotta and hypertufa—a kind of artificial rock—are porous, allowing soil to dry out quickly. They're ideal for plants such as cacti that can store water. Plastic, ceramic, metal, fiberglass and stone containers are nonporous, retaining moisture longer. They're a good choice for plants that require a more constant supply of water.

For gardeners who tend to think outside of the traditional flower pot, Calhoun and Hassler offer lots of intriguing ideas, from the surrealistic vessels created by Phoenix potter Mike Cone and the tree-bark-inspired designs of Tucsonan Jan Bell, to the limitless possibilities that can be found at junkyards, swap meets and around the house: wheelbarrows, cinder blocks, red wagons, buckets, old mining bins, gas cans, chimney flues, coffee cans, piles of old tires, drain pipes, bathtubs, half whiskey barrels and old, rusted-out trucks—everything but the kitchen sink. (Actually, they suggest that as well.)

This short book, like a small, well-managed container garden, makes good use of its confined space, providing a trove of helpful tips on all essential aspects of potting, such as watering, soil preparation, fertilizing, "potting on" (transferring growing plants to larger containers), insulating pots, drilling drainage holes and—I paid special attention to this part—container placement and relocation.

Calhoun and Hassler write that whether you're trying to jazz up a balcony, patio or porch, landscape a yard that won't accommodate a conventional garden, or simply add some diversity to your yard, container gardening may be the answer. At the very least, they say, it's a fun pastime, offering never-ending opportunities for creative expression.

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