Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Amazing World of Succulents

Ruffled Echeveria

An underwater scene or life from another planet? Indeed, our own planet earth is home to this amazing group of plants. Long since are the days when the well loved 'Hens and Chicks' (a Sempervivum) were my only idea of succulents. The world of succulents is vast, beautiful, exotic, sculptural and fascinating and can add a whole new dimension to your landscape!

Mixed planting of Succulents on a mound

With our focus strongly turned towards water conservation and drought tolerant solutions, creating a succulent garden, succulent corner, mixed planting bed including succulents or succulent containers is not only an interesting addition to a landscape, but a water-wise choice. Though the particular microclimate must be considered (many succulents enjoy the marine layer and don't like hot blazing inland sun) succulents can flourish here in California given the right planting environment.


Knowing where plants originated helps to understand their microclimate needs. Succulents are plants that have adapted to mostly harsh environments where water was not always available, sometimes going for long periods of time without water .

Aloes & Cacti

According to Robin Stockwell, owner of Succulent Gardens Nursery in Castroville, CA and an expert on succulents, “There are three environments that caused this adaptation: the desert (hot and dry), the alpine regions (cold and frozen) and the tropics (wet and salty).” Partially due to these challenging origins, Robin calls succulents “The Conservationists of the plant world”. They have learned to conserve their need for and use of water.

Stone wall at Succulent Gardens Nursery with
Echeveria tucked into crevices

Virtually all succulents have a thick skin or protective coating that actually seals in moisture and minimizes evaporation. Thus their name. The coating may be white and powdery or waxy and blue-green. Spines can also provide some sun protection. They need a porous, well draining soil to thrive, and once established, like to fully dry out between waterings. They do not do well with 'wet feet' or roots, so the porosity of the soil should be adjusted to your climate. The wetter the climate, the more porous.

Bougainvillea with giant Cacti

Many succulents prefer some shade or protection from intense direct sun, doing well with as little as 2-3 hours of direct sun each day. There are also those succulents that thrive in hot sun. Cacti by definition are succulents belonging to the Cactaceae family. They like more light and sun and prefer less water than many other succulents. Southwest style or desert theme gardens are perfect for these, but they can be carefully worked into some other garden styles.

Mixed Planting with Miniature Cacti & Boulders

When planning and planting your garden, keep in mind that all plants tend to grow and reach towards the sun. Also, since succulents don't like their roots to stay in water, planting on berms is one way to assist natural drainage. Though not essential by any means to plant this way, it does take advantage of gravity and the natural flow of water/drainage. Plant succulents on the tops and sides of the berm, rather than at the base which naturally tends to catch more of the water. Save this area for plants or groundcover that need that extra water.

Aeonium 'Sunburst' & Senecio Planting

The variety of forms available in succulents range from very low growing groundcovers to very large forms, to even tree-like forms in size and shape. They go from soft to spiky in texture and from bright, playful colors to soft muted pastels. Often they have sculptural forms that set them apart and allow them to easily be used as focal points. Mixing them with other drought tolerant plants allows for even more expansion of the palette and textures.

Succulent Living Green Wall

Living green walls are becoming very popular and these can be created with succulents as well as other plants. The photo above and several others were taken at Succulent Gardens Nursery. I highly recommend visiting them if you haven't been. They grow a vast and beautiful array of succulents.

Succulents (senecio mandraliscae) mixed with other perennials
add a juicy texture, color and form to this window box.

Whatever opportunity you might have in your landscape for adding succulents, be it a complete new design, to a little vignette or corner, the unique features of succulents enable seemingly endless creative opportunity for beauty and interest! Enjoy!

There are several wonderful reference books for Succulents. Two of my favorites are by Deborah Baldwin: "Designing with Succulents" & "Succulent Container Gardens".

Judy Maier, is a member of APLD, and a Landscape/Garden Designer, Garden Coach and Aesthetic Pruner serving the South Bay, Peninsula East Bay and entire SF Bay Area. You can find her several ways: As 'Judy’s Gardens and Design' on Facebook; "GardenDance' on Twitter., is her blog and her website is She can be reached by phone at 408 398-3161