Landscaping with Succulents

The many gardeners who appreciate succulent plants will have two informative events—with plant-buying opportunities—in September, so this is a good time to plan ahead.

Let’s start with two information fragments, for the record:

  • all cactuses are succulents, but all succulents are not cactuses, and
  • succulents, found in many different botanical families, are simply plants that store moisture.

The first event will be the Annual Show and Sale of the Monterey Bay Cactus and Succulent Society. This occasion will be in the large patio of Jardines Restaurant, 115 Third Street, San Juan Batista. It happens from 9:00 to 5:00, Saturday, September 15th and (9:00 to 4:00, Sunday September 16th. Hint: make a luncheon reservation when you first arrive.

The second event, on Friday, September 28th and Saturday, September 29th, will be the Second Annual Succulent Extravaganza!,at Succulent Gardens: The Growing Grounds. This sprawling nursery for succulent plants is at 2133 Elkhorn Road, Castroville (near Moss Landing; check it out on Mapquest or Google Maps). The schedule will be 9:00 to 4:00 on both days, plus a BBQ from 4:00 to 6:00 on Friday. The schedule of speakers will be posted soon at

When gardeners see the vast arrays of succulent plants at these events, they might experience the immediate reaction, “What fascinating/beautiful/striking plants!” and the slightly delayed reaction, “How could I use these plants in my garden?”

The aesthetic reaction could happen repeatedly while viewing a large display: succulents take many forms, size and colors, and are particularly striking when in bloom. This response involves the gardener’s own idea of attractiveness, so we will leave it to the individual.

The planning reaction relates to both the gardener’s personal preferences and his or her unique environment for new succulent plants. For these reasons, landscape design must be an ongoing local project, but still there are a few principles to consider.

There are two major categories of landscaping with succulents: succulents alone and succulents with companion plants (also known as “mixed beds”). We could identify countless additional categories of landscaping with succulents, including container gardening with succulents, but let’s start with these two.

There are many books and websites that provide detailed information on succulent plants, but very few that offer insights into landscaping with succulents. One book that does this very well is Dry Climate Gardening with Succulents (1995) by Debra Brown Folsom, with John Trager, James Folsom, Joe Clements, and Nancy Scott. The authors, all connected with the world-class Desert Garden at The Huntington Botanical Gardens, consulted with experts from six other gardens to produce this exceptional reference. Look for it today in your public library and on

Enjoy September’s two big succulent events.


“Succulent-only” Landscape Designs

The design of a landscape—or a garden bed—limited to succulents still involves basic decisions before the selection of individual plants.

One option would be limit to the bed to a single species. A mass effect can bring interest to the landscape, particularly when the bed is a feature within the larger picture. Having multiple specimens of a single species focuses the viewer on the details of the plant.

In some gardens, we see beds devoted to essentially random groupings of succulents, with no apparent relationship to one another. There are succulent plants in 60 different plant families, divided into 300 genera that include many succulent species. Visit the website of The Succulent Plant Page for more information on this point.

This “succulent universe” presents a very large number of possible combinations of plants, suggesting that a thematic approach of almost any description would elevate the design from hodgepodge to something more comprehensible to the viewer.

Variations of the “succulents only” design include a collection of plants within a genus, from a geographic region, or from a selected plant community. Each of these variations provides a degree of satisfying coherence to the design.

Additional thematic possibilities for such a design might emphasize combination of form, blossom color or foliage color.

Landscape Designs that Combine Succulents and Companions

According to the authors of Dry Climate Gardening with Succulents, the designer’s objectives for combining succulents with non-succulents might include providing contrast, counterpoint and accents, bringing out the best in both the succulents and the companion plants, or providing interest during periods when the succulents are not in bloom.

In any event, the designer’s first consideration should be to ensure that the companion plants have cultural requirements that are compatible with the succulent plants. Generally, this means bright light, minimal water with good drainage, good air circulation and balanced fertilizer during the growing season. These requirements orient the designer to the selection of xerophytic shrubs, i.e., plants that are adapted to a dry habitat.

This consideration leads the designer away from lush tropical plants, because they have different cultural needs and simply don’t look natural together with succulents. While it is always possible for a creative designer to find interest in unlikely combinations, most will do well by separating succulents and tropicals.

A large number of drought-tolerant plants are suitable as companion plants in a succulent garden. Indeed,there are many succulents that grow well with less than full exposure to the sun, so the number of drought-tolerant plants that thrive with partial exposure to sunlight could be added to this list.

The best companion plants for succulent gardens, however, are desert shrubs and trees. They have very similar cultural requirements, many similar physical characteristics, and in some cases different physical characteristics that provide a welcome counterpoint to the succulents. As an example of a desirable difference, Dry Climate Gardening with Succulents offers the Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica), an evergreen Mexican shrub with brilliant red feathery blooms. This book recommends many more non-succulent plants for the succulent garden.

Ultimately, aesthetic considerations should guide the designer in the selection of companion plants for succulents. When possible, bring a candidate plant to the succulent bed in a pot to assess how it would look when planted. As always, this will be the individual gardener’s decision.

Landscaping with succulents, with or without non-succulent companion plants, offers the garden designer an intriguing list of challenges and opportunities. Enjoy your garden!


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