GARDEN DESIGN TIPS


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Fifteen tips to help you create a beautiful succulent garden

1. Soil     Succulents are not fussy about soil, providing it drains well. Roots that sit in water may rot. Amend heavy garden soil half-and-half with decomposed granite or crushed pumice. To further enhance drainage, plant succulents atop mounds. For containers, use "cactus mix," or add pumice or perlite to regular potting soil.

2. Water     Succulents are low-water plants but they are not no-water plants. They look best when given regular water. The rule of thumb is the fleshier the plant, the more camel-like, and the less water it requires. Soil should go nearly dry between waterings. Keep succulents on the dry side during dormancy (usually the winter months). Cacti in particular cannot tolerate overwatering.

Aloe arborescens, aeoniums in bloom, Agave americana 'Marginata', Bonney garden3. Add color to your garden  Leaves and stems of succulents come in a wide variety of colors, including dark magenta, and shades of red, orange, green, yellow, tan, and even blue.

Some succulents also have wonderful flowers and bloom during the winter months. In the garden shown here, aloes bloom red-orange, and aeoniums bright yellow, December through February.


Agave americana and California poppies, Debra's garden4. Companion plants   Plant low-water, non-succulent perennials and annuals amid your succulents for spectacular floral color in spring.

Companions that work well include orange African daisies, purple statice, blue babiana (a South African bulb) and California poppies (shown here with ice plant and Agave americana).

Aeoniums in bloom next to window in wall, Schaefer garden5. Focal points    A garden needs focal points to anchor compositions---such as a large and dramatic aloe, agave, euphorbia or columnar cactus.

Focal points also might be a sculpture, a bench, a large pot, or even an interesting window in a wall.

Blue senecio, Kalanchoe luciae in Applebaum garden6. Repetition     When you look at a decorative object, your subconscious searchs for something similar. You can lend pleasing continuity to your garden by repeating shapes, colors and textures.

Succulents that work well when planted in multiples include Kalanchoe luciae and Senecio mandraliscae, shown here. Containers, when all the same, also are an excellent way to add repetition.

Kalanchoe luciae, aloe, blue senecio, barrel cactus, variegated Portulacaria afra, garden by Jeff Moore7. Contrast     Lend variety and interest to your garden with succulents that have different sizes, colors, shapes and textures.

Juxtaposing complementary colors in your garden can be very appealing---for example, a green aloe with a red kalanchoe or blue senecio with orange Euphorbia tirucalli 'Sticks on Fire'. 

Contrast the strongly linear, up-thrusting lines of an agave or aloe with the round prickliness of a barrel cactus. Here, smooth boulders provide an important element of contrast.

Columnar cactus and yuccas with boulders in Bailey garden8. Scale    Choose plants that are appropriately sized for the space they fill. Consider the width and height of the area when determining how far apart the plants should be.

Certain cacti, aloes, yuccas and agaves can get quite large at maturity (three to five years)---so plan for this when choosing their location.

This rocky setting frames a columnar cactus, which is both a focal point and a living sculpture. Nearby, spiky yuccas contrast with rounded boulders and the vertical lines of the cactus.

Agave franzosinii, Euphorbia milii, blue senecio in Schaer garden, succulent garden design by Michael Buckner9. Height    Make your garden more interesting by introducing dynamic vertical elements.

Here, large Agave franzosinii is the star of the show. Echoing its blue color is the groundcover, Senecio mandraliscae. A granite boulder repeats the steely blue of the agave and the and orange of the Euphorbia tirucalli 'Sticks on Fire' in the background. Euphorbia milii (a succulent shrub with red flowers) adds mid-height interest.

Boulders in dry garden with dasylirions and aloes in bloom, design by Jeff More10. Mounds and clusters    A natural setting for succulents is not flat and incorporates rocks and boulders. Succulents generally look best clustered.

If possible, vary the terrain in your yard, then plant agaves, aloes and dasylirions on mounds and ridges. This places the plants at eye level and also helps water to drain away from the roots.

A valley might be a pathway leading into the garden or perhaps a dry creek bed.

Mult-tiered display of containers with echeverias, graptopetalums and other succulents, by R.C. Cohen11. Containers     Enhance patios, decks, balconies, entries and windowsills with potted succulents. Choose intriguing, colorful and/or geometric varieties that you and your guests will enjoy up close, such as echeverias, graptopetalums and sedums.

Succulents in pots can also be placed in your garden permanently, or seasonally if the plants need to be overwintered indoors.

My book, Succulent Container Gardens, describes numerous ways to pair plants with pots, plus intriguing, eye-catching ways to display them.

The same design principles (repetition, contrast, scale, height) apply to container arrangements.


Front yard with Agave americana 'Marginata', Euphorbia tirucalli 'Sticks on Fire' design by Jeff Moore12. Rocks     Succulents look great with rocks: Planted in front of them, behind them, between them, or cascading over's all good. Add boulders with colors that match or complement the oranges, grays and blues of succulent foliage. Or choose plants that repeat or contrast with rocks already in your garden.

For a topdressing that enhances the composition and reduces the amount of mud, erosion, and weeds, cover paths and bare spots with decomposed granite or a natural-looking gravel.

Agave americana, red wall, Lynn Blackman's garden

13. Background     Connect the garden to your house and whatever else is in the background---such as a pool, wall, fence, hedges or trees---by having matching (or contrasting) colors, textures or shapes. 

Take photos of your garden. When it is framed through a camera lens, certain features will jump out at you. Then use them to advantage.

Here, Agave americana contrasts with a red wall.

14. Get rid of unnatural objects     Having utilitarian items in your garden that are clearly man-made can hinder the illusion of peace and natural beauty.

Things to conceal or get rid of include black plastic nursery pots, tools, ladders, blue-green garden hoses and anything white. I spray white irrigation risers with khaki-colored paint (available at Lowe's or Home Depot) to help them blend in.

15. Convert one small area at a time     Have a master plan for your garden that you develop in stages. You needn't do your entire yard all at once. Find an area that currently does not look good----or take a bite out of that water-thirsty lawn---and add a vignette of succulents.

Live with and enjoy that new area for a while. Then convert another area or two. Try various types of succulents and observe what works well. These are very forgiving plants that will likely look good wherever you put them. As you sculpt your own personal succulent garden, relax, have fun and enjoy the creative process!

For more about common types of succulents, see the Succulent Information page. For detailed information about how to design a succulent garden and select plants, my book, Designing With Succulents is an excellent resource that showcases the work of top designers.

You also might find one or more of my photo libraries helpful.

Now, as you continue to browse this website, look at the photos and see if you can spot the design principles mentioned here!


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