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A Succulent Centerpiece in Five Easy Steps

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To create the composition shown here, the designer chose a white-painted wooden urn 12 inches in diameter and 8 inches tall, with a basin 3 inches deep. Plants include ‘Sunburst’ aeonium, Echeveria ‘Perle von Nurnberg’, burro tail sedum, assorted blue echeverias, lithops (living stones), and Seneco radicans (fish hooks).

Instructions follow. Be sure to see more lovely centerpieces in my book, Succulent Container Gardens. Learn how to make them in my online Craftsy class, Stunning Succulent Arrangements. And visit my YouTube channel for more great ideas for designing with succulents!  

 

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  1. Cut a circle from heavy mil plastic (such as a trash bag) and use it to line the basin. Fill with potting mix and press down on the soil with your palms to compact it. Form a mound several inches high in the middle that slopes to just below the rim.

 

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2. In the center, plant an upright cluster of the largest rosettes.

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3. Tuck smaller plants or cuttings around the center grouping, facing outward at a slight angle.

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4. When the arrangement is nearly finished but still has some gaps, use a chopstick to push roots of remaining plants into the soil, and to tuck and conceal the edge of the plastic below the rim.

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  1. Gently brush spilled soil off the leaves, then water the completed arrangement lightly to settle the roots.

Design by Susan Teisl of Chicweed floral design shop, Solana Beach, California

See more lovely centerpieces in my book, Succulent Container Gardens. Learn how to make them in my online Craftsy class, Stunning Succulent Arrangements. Visit my YouTube channel for more great ideas for designing with succulents. ~ Debra Lee Baldwin 

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Plants and Pots at the Cactus & Succulent Society Show

Update: I released two fun and informative YouTube videos after doing this post. Both star “America’s Succulent Sweetheart” Jeanne Meadow, whose world-class succulent garden is featured in my book, Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.). Enjoy! ~ Debra

At the San Diego C&SS show, Jeanne Meadow selects perfect succulents for her newly acquired, one-of-a-kind art pots

At the San Diego C&SS show, Jeanne Meadow hunts art pots to showcase her rare and collectible succulents

 

Succulent enthusiasts flock to the annual Cactus & Succulent Society Show at the Los Angeles Arboretum mid-August. It’s the largest of its kind in the US. Judges award ribbons and trophies based on how well a specimen is grown, its rarity, and how well it’s “staged” in its pot. Pots aren’t merely containers, they’re works of art, and may be more valuable than the plant. Below are what caught my eye and photographed well, but represent only a fraction of the unusual and beautiful succulents on display.

Agave victoriae-reginae

Above: Agave victoriae-reginae, named after England’s Queen Victoria.

Twisted cereus

Above: A twisted cereus. Seriously.

Tephrocactus geometricus

Above: Tephrocactus geometricus. 

Mammillaria microthele

Above: Mammillaria microthele on the trophy table. Anyone for cinnamon rolls?

Hoodia

Above: Hoodia, the African cactus that’s reputedly an appetite suppressant. Not sure I’d want to take a bite, would you?

Gymnocalycium

Above: Judge Woody Minnich examines an unusually colorful Gymnocalycium mihanovichii. 

Fig in Muradian pot

Above: A bonsai’d fig with its roots elevated in a Mark Muradian pot. His work is characterized by embossed patterns.

Euphorbia gorgonis

Above: Euphorbia gorgonis in a Mark Muradian pot. Notice the Fibonacci spiral in the plant’s center.

Epithelantha micromeris in Cone pot

Above: An Epithelantha micromeris cluster in a container by Tucson potter Mike Cone. More spirals!

Echinocereus pulchellus

Above: Echinocereus pulchellus on the trophy table. If all this Latin seems tiresome, consider how it describes the plant. Echino = prickly, cereus = waxy, and ceroid cacti tend to be cylindrical. Pulchellus you’ll remember if you took Latin in high school—it means beautiful.

E. castanea f. spiralis

A twisted cactus, Eulychnia castanea spiralis. Don’t you wonder how and why it would do that to itself? Ow!

Dyckia

Above: A dyckia. I’m not sure why these bromeliad relatives are in the show, but they’re certainly beautiful. And treacherous. Those stiff leaves are like serrated knives.

Dioscorea elephantipes Keith Kitoi Taylor

Above: A Dioscorea elephantipes on the trophy table. The plant is owned by Keith Kitoi Taylor of the Sacramento Cactus & Succulent Society, who also created the highly textural pot. What makes this a succulent is the plant’s woody caudex, which is a water tank. The vining foliage is deciduous.

Conophytum minimum

Above: Conophytum minimum. Sure wish I could get my hands on a few of those  muffin-like pots.

Cone pot

Above: Euphorbia horrida in a Mike Cone pot.

CA Cactus Ctr display

Above: A display of collectible plants in one-of-a-kind pots, presented byCalifornia Cactus Center in Pasadena.

Books

Above: I was happy to see my trio of books for sale at the show (upper left).

Blossfeldia liliputana2

This diminutive Blossfeldiana liliputana is rare and difficult to grow. It made it to the trophy table, and is from a teen-age boy’s collection.

Astrophytum3

Above: A prehistoric-looking astrophytum. The name means star-shaped.

Astrophytum2

Above: Another astrophytum. Don’t the lines in its skin look like those of  a computer chip? I wonder what it might be trying to tell us.

Ariocarpus

Above: Best of show, an ariocarpus in bloom. These cacti, native to limestone hills of Rio Grande in south Texas, are endangered in the wild and notoriously difficult to cultivate.

Aloe by Tim Harvey

Above: An aloe hybrid developed by Tim Harvey, who edits the journal of the Cactus and Succulent Society. This plant is not for sale, nor is it available in any nursery; hopefully it will be some day.

Agave victoriae-reginae variegata

Above: Agave victoriae-reginae ‘Variegata’.

Agave utahensis

Above: Agave utahensis, from–no surprise–Utah. It’s one of the most cold-hardy agaves. Don’t you love its long terminal spines?

Agave pumila

Above: One of the smallest agaves, Agave pumila. Notice its blue color, wedge-shaped leaves and delicate striations.

Agave potatorum, Japanese hybrid

Above: Of all the plants in the show, this  was my favorite because of its deeply indented sides, rust-colored spines and  variegation. It was entered by agave expert Tony Krock of Terra Sol nursery in Santa Barbara, and is an Agave potatorum hybrid. The three-word cultivar name is Japanese and wasn’t translated on the tag. Anyone know what ‘Ikari Rajeh Nishiki’ means?

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It’s also possible to purchase collectible succulents and containers at the show. Here I’m with the two potters mentioned above:  Mark Muradian (left) and Mike Cone (right). Photo by Jeanne Meadow.

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I Come Out in Garden Design’s Spring ’16 Issue

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No doubt you know that Garden Design is a fabulous “bookazine” for those who love luscious photos of gorgeous gardens and superb design. It’s a huge honor and a high point of my career to be profiled in the Spring 2016 issue as a “groundbreaker” (See “Succulent Chic,” pp. 32-35).

Consequently, I took the opportunity to come out as a cactus lover.

Well, I had to. They asked about trends in the world of succulents. I believe my progression is fairly typical. Most of us start out loving succulents that look like fleshy roses—echeverias, graptoverias and the like. As we gain appreciation for the lines, textures and shapes of all succulents, we inevitably arrive at those that exhibit elegant simplicity at its best—never mind that they have spines (in fact, sometimes because they do).

Note I’m not talking about common prickly pear—the plant most of us have bad childhood memories of. (Ow!) There are SO many other kinds of cacti.

The article’s portrait shot (above right) shows me surrounded by columnar cacti with spines that glow yellow-orange in the late-afternoon sun. Yep, I wore turquoise on purpose.

Herewith, I offer a dozen reasons why cacti are the coming thing…in waterwise gardens and in Garden Design.

Cacti in square pot

In a word: symmetry. Mammillarias in particular have it nailed.

Poodle opuntia

They offer astonishing textures. I mean, c’mon, fur? Opuntia sp.

Echinocactus rubrispinus

Endearingly, cacti don’t take themselves too seriously. Echinocactus pectinatus rubrispinus.

Cactus snowflakes

Some think they’re snowflakes.

Cactus flower looks like waterlily

Others, waterlilies (Trichocereus hybrids at left)

Mammillaria elongata crest

And brains (Mammillaria elongata crest)….

Succulent looks like bird

Or birds. (Cleistocactus strausii)

Cactus flowers look like roses

A few are in touch with their feminine side (roses at left, opuntia at right).

Lophocereus

Others, not so much.

Mammillaria fragilis

More than a few are darn cute. Each of these thimble cacti is less than an inch in diameter.

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But here’s what I like best about cacti: How they’re haloed by the sun. The spinier the better.

Obtain the Spring ’16 issue of Garden Design.

Mini Succulent High Desert Garden video

View how I assembled the container garden shown in the article. 

Are you a formerly closeted cactus fancier too? If there’s enough of us, I may organize a pride march.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Top Dressing is Essential for Succulents

In the ground or in containers, your succulent compositions will look and perform better if bare soil doesn’t show. Top dressing lends a finished look, and plants benefit from how it disperses water.

In the open garden, soil exposed to sunlight is likely to foster weed growth. Add a thick layer of crushed rock, and those few weeds that do sprout will be easier to pull. My preference is to use an inorganic top dressing, such as crushed rock or pebbles, rather than shredded bark, which can be too water-retentive and may harbor molds, insects, and snails.

Be sure to watch my YouTube video, “Why You Really Need Rocks” which features a newly installed succulent landscape by Steve McDearmon of Garden Rhythms, who top-dressed with several sizes of warm-hued rock, brought in by the truckload from Southwest Boulder & Stone.

By diffusing the impact of rain, gravel also helps prevent erosion. And by holding moisture in the soil, rock promotes root growth, thereby boosting the vitality of plants—especially important during dry spells. The darker the gravel, the more heat it absorbs from the sun’s rays. Aloe and agave expert Kelly Griffin, whose coastal garden is featured in my book, Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.), top-dresses with dark crushed rock because warm soil promotes rapid root growth—which is what he wanted, and to which his garden attests. However, such chocolate-brown gravel wouldn’t be a good choice for a desert garden.

Aesthetically, as I told my audience at the recent Succulent Extravaganza, top dressing is to a potted succulent as a mat is to a painting. The pot is the frame, the plant is the artwork, and the mat helps fill in and enhance the overall presentation. I also discussed showy topdressings, like crushed glass. Watch the video: Why Top Dressing is Essential for Succulent Gardens.

Members of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America see top dressings as backup singers and never as the star. They enhance their collectible, container-grown succulents by harmonizing pot, plant and top dressing, sometimes adding a choice rock or two to suggest how the plant might look in habitat. This approach, an art form in itself, is called “staging.” In competitive shows, judges apply strict standards to the way plants are staged.

Commercial rock suppliers sell neutral-toned gravels in bags too heavy to lift. Craft stores offer odd-colored criva and neon-bright sand in small bags at high prices. So thank goodness for John Matthews, the top-dressing guy. John sells at C&SS shows throughout Southern CA, and offers the ideal solution: pea-sized crushed rock in a variety of hues, packaged in affordable, 2-lb. bags. For more info, email John at jgmplants@aol.com or call him at 661-714-1052.

 

Greenhouse for succulents in display garden
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Succulents at the Spring Home/Garden Show

Succulent display garden

I zipped around San Diego’s Spring Home/Garden show right before the judging, cell in hand. (When in a hurry, I use my phone to take photos in dim light instead of my fancy-schmancy Canon.) I was delighted with what I saw. No question I’m biased, but the display garden (above) showcasing plants from Desert Theater nursery, and designed by Steve McDearmon of Garden Rhythms and Katie Christensen of Miss Katie’s Garden, was my favorite. You could plunk the whole shebang in your front yard for a great-looking, low-maintenance lawn-replacement landscape.

The show is the first Fri.-Sat.-Sun. of March every year. You’ll have to pay parking, but you needn’t pay the admission price of $9 at the door. Obtain a FREE PASS by going to the show’s Buy Tickets page and entering this special code for my fans and followers: DLBA.

Have fun!

Succulent display garden

Apologies for photos that lack credits. None of the display gardens had names on them because they were about to be judged. If you want to ID them in a comment below, please do!

Greenhouse for succulents in display garden

St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center (display garden above) helps adults with developmental disabilities. Gardening, propagating plants and selling them is a big part of it. I love the greenhouse in their display garden!

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Do I detect a trend brewing? This lovely display combines succulents (dudleyas) with red bromeliads and other low-water tropicals.

Succulent vertical display garden

Melissa Teisl and Jon Hawley design gardens as Chicweed Design & Landscaping. Although they sold their floral shop in Solana Beach, you can still see aspects of it in their gardens, like the lovely vertical display above. I’ll bet the sandbox behind it was inspired by their little boy.Potted aloe garden by Chicweed

This mosaic pot filled with succulents also is in Chicweed Design & Landscaping’s display garden.

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Speaking of lovely succulent container gardens, this one is by Katie Christensen for Desert Theater. The gorgeous purple plant is a dyckia, a type of bromeliad that’s succulent. Dyckias would doubtless be more popular if they didn’t have leaf edges as sharp as steak knives. (Katie, are you bleeding?)

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Also in the Desert Theater display is “Miss Katie’s potting bench.”

Succulent container gardens

Miss Katie brings a feminine aesthetic to succulents.

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Judges give bonus points for labeled plants. This is a charming way to do it, don’t you think?

IMG_4306The display garden above, which incorporates agaves and dasylirions, utilizes a lot of interesting hardscape and topdressings, which after all are THE ultimate way to have a waterwise garden.

echeverias in metal bowl

And isn’t this stunning? So simple! Pass the oil and vinegar. (Kidding.)

Don’t forget, you can get a free pass by going to the Show’s website and entering my special discount code: DLBA. If you missed it this year, subscribe to my newsletter (below), and I’ll give you a head’s up for next year.

Succulent container how-to
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How To Design a Succulent Container Garden

“How to Plant a Succulent Container Garden,” the video that Timber Press commissioned when my book, Succulent Container Gardens, was released, has had nearly a quarter of a million views! For your entertainment and edification, below are annotated photos of the main steps involved. Be sure to visit my YouTube channel for more than 50 how-to videos of super design ideas featuring succulents!

Container How-To 1 Container how-to 2 Container How-To 3 

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Should You Let Your Flapjack Plants Bloom?

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You’re probably aware of flapjack plant (Kalanchoe luciae), a succulent that’s popular because of the color of its leaves. (Shown above at Waterwise Botanicals nursery, perfectly timed for Valentine’s Day.)

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Like other succulents with overlapping leaves along a single stem, when Kalanchoe luciae blooms, the entire plant elongates. This is how those in my window box looked in March of last year.

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If your goal is to have a lot of new little plants, one option is to let the mother plant bloom. Providing it survives the effort (they usually do, but not always), you’ve hit the jackpot. Harvest each cluster with several inches of stem attached to anchor it, and start it as a cutting. Roots will grow from leaf axils (where leaves are attached to the stem).

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I didn’t want awkwardly tall plants in my window box, so when the flapjacks started to elongate in March, I snipped off the bloom spikes. The mother plants seemed determined to flower regardless, and buds grew from leaf axils beneath the cut. I was just as determined they weren’t going to flower, so I pinched out the buds.

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Within a month, the plants’ topmost leaves turned beige and crisp along the edges. I’m not sure why this happened, but I trimmed them to keep the plants tidy.

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By June, new little leaves concealed the truncated stems, indicating that the plants had been gearing up to produce offsets. When they couldn’t do it along a bloom spike, they did so closer to the core.

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Here’s how one of the plants looked in August.

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And again in October. Other plants in the window box are blue echeverias and Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’. The composition looks fine, but would be even better if those flapjacks would turn as red as they were at the nursery! (Hm. Topic for a future post? “How to Keep your Flapjacks Red.” Advice welcome!)

 

 

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Got a Pot? Elevate it!

“Everything looks better elevated,” says San Diego succulent designer Diana Clark, who has wood stands custom-made to enhance her potted compositions. Diana, who calls her business “The Perfect Plant” because she pairs vessels found at antique stores or estate sales with a “perfect” succulent, created the plant-pot pairings shown here. As you look at them, ask yourself: Does the stand matter? Would the composition look just as good without it? And if you agree that the stand makes a difference, do you think you might you might try it?

It’s surprising how easy it is to find stands that will work for pots, at thrift stores. Learn more about Diana’s Asian-inspired design aesthetic in this YouTube video I created. And if you’re in the San Diego area, do come to a show-and-sale she’s having in Point Loma November 7-9. I’ll be there Saturday morning, Nov. 8, signing books, and would love to meet you!

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Debra Lee Baldwin, Garden Photojournalist, Author and Succulent Expert Debra Lee Baldwin, Garden Photojournalist, Author and Succulent Expert

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