As we await El Niño rains, the Monterey Bay area’s familiar rainy season is already late in starting, and we feel the pull of long-term perspectives on gardening.
Let’s consider landscaping with succulents plants, which are gaining appeal for their interesting foliage forms and colors, ease of cultivation and propagation and of course drought tolerance.
Many succulent plants can hold their own in the garden as specimens or aesthetic statements, but when we group several plants, they relate to one another in various ways and we have a landscape, either by design or by chance.
Landscaping by chance is often popular, but with a little planning, gardeners can succeed with more deliberate methods.
Designing with plants involves individual preferences and styles, which we always respect. There are, however, a few broad guidelines to consider.
The first of these is “taller plants in back,” which is about visibility. Take the time to learn the mature height of each plant. Here is information sheet from succulent expert Debra Lee Baldwin, listing popular succulent plants by height: Instant Gardens.
Another organizing guideline is to group plants by their watering needs. This technique, called hydrozoning, works with nature (always a good idea!) and makes garden maintenance easier.
Using this technique requires knowing the watering needs of the succulent plants in your landscape. All succulent plants need some water, particularly during their growth periods. They need much less during dormancy.
The two broad categories of succulent plants are the “winter dormant,” i.e., plants that grow during the spring and summer, and the “summer dormant,” i.e., those that grow mostly during the fall through early spring. Here is a link to winter dormant and summer dormant succulent plants.
The landscape designer also could group plants by county of origin. Such grouping is a step toward creating plant communities, which are combinations of plants that are found in natural settings. Such combinations reflect the plants’ common needs for soil, exposure, climate and other factors. Gardening in this way involves detailed cultivation methods. Grouping plants by country of origin is relatively easy, while respecting nature and developing an interesting landscape. The avid gardener can discover a plant’s country of origin from some books and plant labels, or by entering the plant’s botanical name in wikipedia.org.
Finally, consider combining succulent plants with grasses, which are another category of drought-tolerant plants. Grasses typically respond to severely dry conditions by going dormant, rather than by storing moisture, and grass-succulent combinations are seen in natural settings. The benefit of combining succulents and grasses is primarily in the aesthetic effect of contrasting the succulent’s fleshiness with the grass’s wispiness. To learn more about grasses, see the book, The American Meadow Garden (2009), by John Greenlee and Saxon Holt.
For more comprehensive guidance, Debra Lee Baldwin’s book, Designing with Succulents (2007), provides inspiring ideas for planning your own succulent garden area.
Preparing for long-term water shortages certainly includes defensive strategies, but your preparations can include landscaping with succulents as an absorbing and creative exercise.