Designing with Succulents

Mixed succulents at Melbourne Botanic Garden. Janna Schreier

Aloe and Cotyledon at Melbourne Botanic Garden

I’ve fallen in love with succulents. Which has come as a bit of a surprise. Admittedly, they are plants; you probably think it is par for the course for me to rave on about them. But these are succulents. You know, solid, static, dull-coloured, flat, spiky, lifeless, horrible things.

Aeoniums at Hidcote. Janna Schreier

Aeoniums at Hidcote, UK

And yet somehow I have found myself at nurseries with trolleys full of the things. Green ones, grey ones, pink ones, purple ones; frilly ones, toothed ones, fanned ones, pointy ones. I can’t get enough of them.

So why the big change?

Crassula multicava. Janna Schreier

Crassula multicava growing so happily under an Acer palmatum in my garden

I think it’s two fold. One, I’m lazy. It’s easy to become a slave to the garden in Australia: watering daily in summer and needing to mulch, mulch and mulch again. I want to enjoy my garden, not resent its constant demands and so I figured replanting some of my pots with succulents would help me on my way.

Steven Wells and Melissa Thomas at MIFGS

Succulents, including Aeonium, Cotyledon and Sedum, form a significant part of the planting at this award winning MIFGS garden, designed by Steven Wells and Melissa Thomas. Photo: Steven Wells

Secondly, I’ve opened my eyes to different ways of using succulents. In the past, I’ve repeatedly seen them used in ways that don’t show them at their best. Either too many teeny tiny mismatched pots containing mismatched succulents effecting an overly busy display only your Granny would like, or, if planted out, a complete lack of integration with the rest of the garden.

Echiveria trough. Janna Schreier

Flowering Echeveria at Oughton Farm, New Zealand: new ‘pups’ will soon fill this container

Succulents are quite unique in style. Plonk a patch of them in the corner and they are always going to look like a plonked patch in the corner. They need to ‘talk’ to the rest of the garden.

Mosman succulents by Jane Stark. Janna Schreier

Kalanchoe orgyalis (copper spoons) brings gorgeous texture and colour to this garden in Mosman, designed by Jane Stark

So how do we get them chatting with their neighbours?

Adam Robinson's Roof Terrace Garden. Janna Schreier

This low maintenance roof terrace garden, designed by Adam Robinson, has a grey/yellow/green theme tying the space together

As ever, it’s all about connections. What do your favourite succulents have in common with your other favourite plants?

Silver succulents and non-succulents. Janna Schreier

Cotyledon succulents integrate perfectly in the Silver Garden at Melbourne Botanic Garden

If there’s a silver succulent you particularly like, plant it with other silver plants. And don’t just plant one, repeat it across a bed so it looks like it is meant to be there.

Succulents in pots. Janna Schreier

Low bowls with succulents are very on trend at the moment

Look at the form of the plant. What can you place it with that will tie it in holistically? Aloe flowers can look very similar to Kniphofia flowers; Agave often have upright foliage which might link well with similarly coloured Iris germanica. There’s nothing to say that you can’t mix succulents with different forms too; just make sure there are enough connections. The ubiquitous Buxus balls, frequently seen with soft wildflowers, provide much needed structure, their solid appearance giving the perfect counterfoil to more delicate growth. You’ll note that they work best when mixed with wildflowers with a similar shade of foliage; there always needs to be a connection between plants, even when you are designing for contrast.

Succulent Wall Pot at Ginge. Janna Schreier

Trailing forms of succulents look fantastic in a wall mounted pot

And think about the size of succulents. Many, like Echeveria and Sempervivum, are very low; perfect for bowls perched on a garden wall or for in between stepping stones in a sunny location, but not so well proportioned for a bed containing taller plants. They just look out of place.

Sedum, Kalanchoe and Beschorneria. Janna Schreier

Sedum, Kalanchoe and Beschorneria blend perfectly in this low maintenance garden designed by Jane Stark

If you’re still in doubt, think of Sedum spectabile (above). A succulent with a form that works perfectly with other perennials.

Steven Wells and Melissa Thomas MIFGS Garden. Janna Schreier

Cotyledon orbiculata var. oblonga ‘Macrantha’ (centre right) in Steven Wells and Melissa Thomas’s MIFGS garden. Photo: Steven Wells

And Cotyledon orbiculata var. oblonga ‘Macrantha’. Those lush, round, large leaves look great in almost any planting; almost as good a planting partner as the much loved, lush, large-leaved Hosta (in fact, much better in dry soils). The bright green colour blends perfectly with so many plants, whilst providing wonderful contrast in texture and leaf size. We saw this same look at Dame Elisabeth Murdoch’s Cruden Farm.

Kalanchoe 'Flapjack' colour

Kalanchoe luciae flushed with colour

Succulents in pots. Janna Schreier

Multicoloured Euphorbia tirucalli

Succulents can also bring bright colour to a display. Think Kalanchoe luciae (flapjacks) or Euphorbia tirucalli (fire sticks) foliage, not to mention the many succulents that flower throughout the year.

Cotyledon at the Melbourne Botanic Garden. Janna Schreier

Flowering Cotyledon at Melbourne Botanic Garden look perfect in this dry spot

Distinctive texture, form and colour along with virtually maintenance free growing? It’s no wonder I love them. They actually want to be in my garden, thriving, whilst asking for so little in return for their space.

Agave victoriae-reginae. Janna Schreier

Stunning form of hardy Agave victoriae-reginae

And if you think it’s all too difficult because you live in a frost-prone region, think again! Agave montana, Agave victoriae-reginae and Aloe polyphylla are all hardy down to at least -10°C (hardiness rating H5) and Aeonium simsii, Echeveria rosea, E. secunda, E. elegans, E. agavoides and Faucaria tuberculosa are all half hardy (H3). Ice plant, Delosperma cooperi, will even survive down to -29°C and by providing excellent drainage and good sunlight you will be able to get many more through the winter.

Pigface ground cover. Janna Schreier

Ice plant species, such as Lampranthus and Carpobrotus, form a wonderful green ground cover

If all else fails, why not create a stunning succulent sculpture for a sunny wall or table setting? Who can resist these gorgeous pieces made by Rosie Stevens?

Rosie's Succulent Tortoise. Janna Schreier

Rosie Steven’s succulent tortoise

Rosie's Succulent Wreath. Janna Schreier

Succulent wreath by Rosie Stevens

Ever useful succulents really want to be your best friend in the garden. Are you convinced yet?!

14 thoughts on “Designing with Succulents

  1. jannaschreier says:

    Thanks, Deirdre. There are indeed a lot; I guess it was inevitable that I would eventually be seduced by them! It still surprises me that they can cope with our prolonged, torrential, winter downpours, but my sandy soil must help a great deal with that. I really must stop growing (if you can call it that) Hydrangea!

  2. The Frustrated Gardener says:

    What a fabulous post Janna. We both seem to be getting into succulents at the same time. I am also looking for ways to reduce watering and make quite a sun-drenched spot interesting. I have grown aeoniums for years, but now they are joined by lampranthus, cotyledon, echeverias and sempervivums. Have you tried Bulbine frutescens? Pretty and useful for treating burns. I have yet to really do anything properly creative with an of them (my display probably does look a bit like a granny’s!) but I am getting to understand them so that when the new garden is finished I can keep those I like and give the others away. Particularly like that planting at Melbourne Botanics 🙂

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thanks, Dan. I haven’t come across Bulbine frutescens before, but I like it very much. The flowers remind me of Aloe flowers, which I am very much enjoying in my winter garden at the moment. Your long listing plant strategy part one sounds like a very good (and enjoyable) one!

  3. Suzanne Marsh says:

    As usual your post has prompted me to assess my garden. I have used succulents for years but on a limited scale. I agree that cotyledon seems to go with everything and like you I grow Crassula multicava under shrubs as a bullet-proof groundcover. Sansevieria is another favourite, but there is plenty of room for improvement in placement. I particularly like the photo of MBG’s silver garden showing the excellent marriage of cotyledon, Maireana oppositifolia and Eremophila glabra (Kalbarri carpet). I grow all three but would never have thought to put them together. The beautiful Kalanchoe orgyalis is new to me…I just have to have one! So many wonderful plants; so many wonderful combinations to try; I’ll need another lifetime to try them all out! Great post.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thanks, Suzanne. You are adding to my plant names knowledge too; Maireana oppositifolia is a new one on me and I’m not good at distinguishing all the different Eremophila (despite having spent some time in Kalbarri…shame on me!). You rarely see any of them here because of our humidity. I do hope you manage to find your K. orgyalis; it is just gorgeous and very unique.

  4. Adriana says:

    Great post Janna,
    I fell for succulents a few years back too (used to hate them). Now I love them for their resilience and form. Your post has given me some extra ideas on how I can liven up my succulent plantings (in dry soil under an under an olive tree) by adding some strappy-leafed plants to the bed as well – they go so well together.
    Thanks again Janna for keeping me inspired.

    PS. poor granny: don’t forget Beth Chatto, Rosemary Verey,Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West Elizabeth Murdoch are (or were) all granny age. Who can beat them?

    • jannaschreier says:

      It’s amazing how green and lush that first photo with the strappy leaves looks, isn’t it? It works really well. You really need to get to the Melbourne Botanic Gardens; they have so many great planting combinations. And as for poor Granny….I take it all back!

  5. Garden Walk Garden Talk says:

    Ha, I just got the succulent bug too. I liked how you mentioned, “Getting them chatting with their neighbors.” Even though I can’t have many of them outdoors, they are still a plant that needs some design consideration when grouping. I do love all the colors and form. I will have to figure out how to overwinter them successfully.

    • jannaschreier says:

      We are all such sheep! My husband thinks it’s hilarious that there is such a thing as ‘plant fashion’, but there certainly is. I have to say, I wouldn’t be so keen on growing things to then ‘overwinter’ them, but I wonder just how many succulents don’t need special care of this kind?

  6. Patterson Webster says:

    I am developing a gravel bed with mugo pines and succulents. I’ll post before and after photos once it is done — if I manage to get to it this summer. Our hard winter killed or damaged lots of plants so I’m still trying to get things back to the starting point!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Oh dear, that sounds a bit frustrating. I know the feeling though – I spend so long watering and fertilising my hot, dry, sandy garden I have little time to move things on by the time the basics for keeping the status quo are done! I really look forward to see your new gravel garden though – it sounds lovely.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s