Using Succulent Container Plantings to Spice Up Your Garden

August 1, 2019

Over the past decade, succulents have undergone a resurgence in popularity. Thanks to thousands of indoor appearances in the Instagram feeds of popular interior designers and bloggers, it’s almost easy to forget that these are delightful outdoor plants that are easily grown in pots. Beyond their hardiness, ease of care, and adaptability to both sunny and shady environments, succulents can add vibrancy and visual excitement to your garden.

Most succulents have a sculptural quality that provides a beautiful counterpoint to the softer shapes of common garden plants and flowers. They also vary widely in size, height, and texture, which allows you to change up the look of an established garden or flower bed simply by adding a few pots.

When planting, use a fast-draining soil designed for succulents, or make a 1:1 mix of regular potting soil with Perlite or Vermiculite, which will improve drainage and aeration. Soft succulents can’t survive in temperatures below 40 degrees F, so if you don’t want the hassle of moving succulents indoors in the winter, make sure you ask your nursery to suggest winter-hardy varieties.

Here are a few of our favorite ways to use containers of succulents in your garden.

For a simple, cohesive planting, choose several succulents with the same basic shape—for example, rosette-shaped plants like hens-and-chicks, echeveria, tree houseleek and hairy houseleek, and Turkish rosularia. Plant the same mixture of succulents in several different pots, and arrange them on the ends of planted beds, or in the spaces between rows.

Identify a unifying element. For instance, select four different concrete containers, in different shades of neutral. Or try several containers in a single bright color, or those that have the same shape but are different sizes (such as small, medium, and large urns). Using a single material, color, or shape allows you to experiment with planting different varieties of succulents and cacti while still maintaining a cohesive look.

Create a mixed grouping in a large planter. Almost any combination of low-growing, trailing, and tall succulents and cacti goes here. Long trough planters are great for showcasing these types of plantings, and look especially good when placed in sitting areas or along walls or buildings. If the planter will be placed against a wall, make sure low-growing succulents like creeping sedum and leatherpetal are planted in front, and taller ones, like ripple cactus and paddle plant, are positioned in back, so ever plant gets adequate sun.

Make a double-decker planting. Select two round or rectangular pots in different sizes. Pour potting soil in the larger pot until it is two-thirds full, then place the smaller pot inside the larger one. Now add your plants to both pots. The height variation creates visual interest, and is a good way to highlight your favorite plants in the upper pot.

Add in the occasional single-plant pot. Yucca and golden barrel cactus are ideal for this, thanks to their showy shapes and textures. . . . which can also be prickly, so make sure you grow them in areas where you or your guests won’t accidentally bump into them. These plants also need at least 6 hours of full sun per day.

Use hanging pots for added drama. A trellis, pergola, or arbor is perfect for hanging pots, but you can even use freestanding plant hangers. Follow the garden-design motto “thriller, filler, and spiller” as your guide when choosing plants: mix “highlight” plants like showy sedum or kalanchoe (thriller) with echeveria (filler) and succulents that trail over the side, such as string of beads or burro’s tail (spiller).

Some more of our favorite succulents for garden container plantings:

Creeping sedum (Sedum sarmentosum)

Showy sedum (Sedum spectabile ‘Brilliant’)

Angelina sedum (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’)

Hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum tectorum)

Firebird hen-and-chicks (Sempervivum ‘Firebird’)

Cobweb houseleek (Sempervivum arachnoideum)

Dwarf century plant (Agave desmettiana)

Ice plant (Lampranthus deltoides)

Echeveria (Echeveria spp.)

Burro’s tail (Sedum morganianum)

String of beads (Senecio rowleyanus)

Kalanchoe (Kalanchoe spp.)

Narrow-leaf haworthia (Haworthia angustifolia)

Ox tongue (Gasteria verrucosa)

Variegated creeping crassula (Crassula sarmentosa variegata)

Aeonium ‘Kiwi’ (Aeonium haworthii ‘Kiwi’)

– Robin Catalano

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