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Designing with Cold-Climate Succulents

Becky Sell of Sedum Chicks plants cold-hardy succulents in repurposed wood-and-metal containers, hypertufa pots, wreaths and more. She grows the plants, too, where she lives in Turner, Oregon, near the Washington border.

Becky’s compositions can overwinter outdoors in northerly climates (Zones 4 to 8), providing the potting medium drains well. Cold-hardy succulents such as stonecrops and hens-and-chicks will also grow in Zones 8 and 9 if protected from heat in excess of 85 degrees and scorching sun. Some varieties, notably shrub sedums, die to the ground in any locale and come back the following spring.

In her designs, Becky often combines sedums (stonecrops), sempervivums (hens-and-chicks), and Delosperma ice plants. Of a little-known Rosularia species with soft, light green leaves, she says, “When people ask which plant is my favorite, this is definitely on the list.”

There are about 35 species in the genus Rosularia. The sempervivum-like succulents come from Europe, the Himalayas, and northern Africa.

Find more photos of succulents for Northern climates—including many of Becky’s favorites—on my website’s new Cold-Hardy Succulents page. I photographed the designs shown here during the Northwest Flower & Garden Show at the Sedum Chicks booth, which won an award for outstanding visual appeal.

Below: This bright red vertical container was a hit. At right, I darkened the photo to make plant IDs, in white letters, stand out.

Below: Sempervivum ‘Jade Rose’ repeats the teal blue of a Sedum spathulifolium cultivar.

Below: In a cold-hardy wreath, Becky surrounded a large sempervivum rosette with smaller sedums, Delosperma cooperi (at lower left), and Sedum confusum (lower right).

Below: I’ve ID’d the three sedums in this wreath at right. Becky gives her plants “hair cuts” to keep them compact.

“I like its dark edges,” Becky says of Sempervivum ‘Black’, shown below in dramatic contrast with chartreuse Sedum ‘Lemon Coral’. At lower right is a succulent native to Oregon: Sedum oreganum.

Becky and husband Paul create planters from repurposed wood and metal. The bronzy succulents below are Sedum confusum, which blushes red-orange in a sunny location. When less confused, it’s bright apple green.

For wreaths and vertical gardens, Becky uses sphagnum moss to help hold plants in place. She emphasizes the importance of good drainage, which is true for all succulents, but especially those in rainy climates. Succulents from cold climates tend to have thin or small leaves and want a richer potting soil than thicker-leaved varieties from desert regions. Becky recommends Black Gold’s organic mix.

In my YouTube video, “Sedum Chicks at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show,” Becky explains how to select, cultivate and beautifully combine cold-hardy succulents.


Learn more about succulents for northerly climates:

How to Grow Tender Succulents in Northerly Climates: Resources and info for growing tender succulents in cold, northern climates.

Designing with Cold-Hardy Succulents: Becky Sell of Sedum Chicks plants cold-hardy succulents in repurposed wood-and-metal containers, hypertufa pots, wreaths and more.

In print:

Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.) See the section on Cold-Climate Succulent Gardens.

All my books show design ideas and give care and cultivation for Sedum and Sempervivum.

The Plant Lover’s Guide to Sedums, by Brent Horvath (Timber Press)
Cacti & Succulents for Cold Climates, by Leo Chance (Timber Press)
Hardy Succulents: Tough Plants for Every Climate, by Gwen Kelaidis, Photos by Saxon Holt (Storey Publishing)

On my YouTube channel:

Growing Succulents in Northerly Climates, Sempervivums  Gorgeous new cultivars and design ideas from my presentation at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show.

Growing Succulents in Northerly Climates: Sedums and More More cool succulents for cold climates plus how to select, grow and design using them. From my second presentation at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show.

Sedum Chicks at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show. Designer/grower Becky Sell of Turner, Oregon explains how to beautifully combine sedums, sempervivums and other cold-hardy succulents.

Make a Frost-Hardy Succulent Wreath with Hens-and-Chicks. Simple steps to a stunning wreath!

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DIY Succulent Centerpiece in Five Easy Steps


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!  



  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.



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


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


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.


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

Design by Fresh Chic, a division of CW Design & Landscaping For more Fresh Chic designs, see my article, Tips from a Top Container Garden Designer

Also find lovely centerpieces in my book, Succulent Container Gardens. Learn how to make them in my online Craftsy class, Stunning Succulent Arrangements. And be sure to visit my YouTube channel for more great ideas for using and designing with succulents! ~ Debra Lee Baldwin 

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Ten Reasons Why You Really Need Rocks

My new YouTube video

Remember when crushed-rock front yards were a ’60s retirement-community cliche? Not any longer! Nowadays smart designers cover bare soil with rocks to create gardens that are as sophisticated and good-looking as they are practical.

“Before” photo of driveway planting


Driveway garden, “after” (newly installed)

In my video, Van Liew Garden Redo, San Diego landscape designer Steve McDearmon explains how he installs succulents amid swaths of warm-toned Mojave Gold gravel, Hickory Creek rubble rock, and Honey Quartz boulders (all from Southwest Boulder and Stone). Though subtle, the rocks are as important as the plants.

Reasons for rocks:

— They need no maintenance and look the same forever.

— They contrast texturally with walls, pavement, and plants.

— They add color and cohesion to a landscape.

— They moderate soil temperature, keeping it warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

— They hold moisture in the soil and inhibit evaporation.

— They prevent erosion by diffusing the impact of rain.

— They give a garden a finished look. (Doubtless you already know that topdressing is important for containers. The same is true of gardens.)

— They’re visually intriguing, especially when several sizes combine.

— When used to create flowing lines in the landscape, they lend design interest and emphasize focal points.

— By shading the soil, they prevent weeds from germinating. (And any that do pop up are easier to pull.)

Aloe glauca

Also see my books:
Designing with Succulents (2nd ed), boulder and rock gardens, pp. 96-99

Succulents Simplified, rocks in gardens, pp. 99-101

Succulent bouquet with echeverias
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Succulent Bouquet Styles

When I need a quick hostess gift, thank-you present, or an arrangement for a special friend, I make a bouquet of succulents. Below I show materials, numerous design ideas, and offer lots of useful info, tips and inspiration. For a special-occasion succulent bouquet (suitable for a wedding), see my book, Succulents Simplified, pages 162-169. I also have several videos on my YouTube channel of assorted succulent bouquets; for links, scroll to the end.

Cuttings for the mug bouquet shown below.

I start by selecting a glass container (usually a jar, thrift-store vase, or clear bottle), the size of which determines the size of the arrangement. Then I head into the garden with clippers. I cut a dozen or so succulent rosettes, and in 2 or 3 minutes per cutting, they’re wired onto stems and ready to be arranged.

Echeverias, graptosedums, crassulas and kalanchoes lend themselves beautifully to bouquets because of their colorful leaves and rosette shapes. They’re easy to attach to faux stems, need no water (because they live off moisture in their leaves), look good for a long time, and can later be planted as cuttings.

Succulent arrangement
At a workshop I taught, a student made this lovely bouquet of wired succulent rosettes, ‘Sticks on Fire’ stems, and red eucalyptus. For ballast, she added layers of sunrise-colored sand.

Sunburst aeonium bouquet
I made this bouquet before I learned the floral technique of wiring succulent rosettes. The reason for the arrangement was to show how the plants resemble flowers. It consists of aeoniums and graptoverias with long stems…always an option, but not easy to find!

Aloe flower bouquet with wired succulents
These bouquets were for the launch party for my book, Succulents Simplified, which has those same plants on the cover. I used marbles as ballast and filled the vases with water to keep the flowers fresh. The faux stems are reinforced with bamboo skewers.

Succulent bouquet of wired rosettes
After the aloe flowers faded in the bouquet show earlier, I pulled them out and arranged the succulent rosettes in a different vase (with no water). They looked good for several more weeks.

Elaborate succulent bouquet of wired rosettes
I made this bouquet of echeverias, dwarf aloes and silver eucalyptus stems for a garden club at which I was speaking, to raffle off. It took me forever to wire so many rosettes (30 @ 3 min./ea. = 1-1/2 hours). The response made it worthwhile, but please don’t ask me to do it again!

The color of the vase inspired the selection of ‘Coppertone’ stonecrop, which in turn inspired blue echeverias for contrast.

Gift bouquet of succulent rosettes
Wired rosettes are top-heavy, so you need some sort of ballast to hold them in place. Here I used crushed, tumbled glass. (I made this a few years ago. I wonder, should I have filled the jar with glass? At the time, I thought it was cool to let the wired stems show.) Succulents include jade, aeoniums, sedums, and in the center for texture contrast, a fuzzy kalanchoe. When stems are this short, you needn’t stabilize them with floral picks or bamboo skewers.

Succulent bouquet in colored sand
The colors of the rosettes inspired the colors of sand. (I keep a palette of colored sand in jars that occupy an entire bookshelf.) Read more about how this arrangement came together. 

Succulent bouquet with eucalyptus and dried split peas
I agreed to demonstrate how to make a succulent bouquet at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show. Few colorful succulents were available, so I wired red and silver tillandsias onto stems as filler and included dried material. I had brought a bag of split peas for ballast, so imagine my delight when my helper showed up with seeded eucalyptus—an unplanned yet perfect repetition!

Materials: To make a succulent bouquet, you’ll need:

— Garden clippers, wire cutters, and scissors.

— A vase, mug, jar or some other holder. Height and size don’t matter, but keep in mind that your bouquet should be at least half as tall as its container, and the taller the arrangement, the more succulents you’ll need.

— Assorted colorful succulent cuttings. In order for stems not to split when you wire them, they should be about the diameter of a chopstick but no thicker than your little finger (because thick tissue is tough to push a wire through).

— 22-gauge florist’s wire. I buy it in prepackaged, 18-inch lengths from a craft store. You’ll need one length of wire for each rosette.

— A roll of green florist’s tape. This helps hold the wire in place and hides it, creating what looks like a real stem. (Wondering if you can simply use long-stemmed succulents? Yes, if you have them. You can certainly use the flowers of succulents, too!)

— Bamboo skewers (sold at any supermarket) or floral picks. These are useful for strengthening and stabilizing the faux stem and holding the cutting upright. They’re inflexible, so plan to cut some of the faux stems shorter to make a balanced arrangement. I usually wire a few lightweight cuttings without sticks to have some to bend outward.

— Ballast to anchor stems. Their high moisture content makes succulent cuttings top-heavy when wired, so stems need to be held in place with sand, pea gravel, a floral frog or foam, crushed glass or—in a pinch—dried peas or beans (careful not to get them wet).


  1. Cut wire in half and thread each 9-inch-long piece into the stem just below the lowest leaf. Wires should be at right angles to each other, so when you look down on the succulent, it’ll look like a plus sign with a plant in the middle.
  2. Place a floral pick or bamboo skewer alongside the stem or, if it’s wide enough, up through the middle.
  3. Fold wires downward so they encase the stem stub and skewer. All four wires should touch each other.
  4. Tear or cut off 8 or so inches of floral tape. Use your thumb to hold the top of the tape against the base of the succulent. With your other hand, gently stretch the tape. Twirl the rosette and stretch the tape as you wrap the stem. (It may take a few tries, but it’s not difficult.)
  5. Use wire cutters to cut the stem to whatever length you want it to be.
  6. Add ballast to the container and insert the wired rosettes into it (with dried floral material if you like) until you have a pleasing bouquet.

Videos I’ve made showing this technique:

If you’d like a professionally made succulent bouquet sent to the recipient, San Diego floral designer MariaLuisa Kaprielian (shown in my Bridal Bouquet video, above) ships nationwide. MariaLuisa’s online floral shop is Urban Succulents. You’ll love her site’s gallery. Also follow her on Instagram @urban_succulents, where she continually posts new designs. 

One of seven sessions of my Craftsy class, Stunning Succulent Arrangements, is How to Make a Succulent Bouquet. Use this link to take the entire class (all seven lessons) at 50% of the regular enrollment price—$20 instead of $40.

Succulent bouquet made by Debra Lee Baldwin for Craftsy

This is the bouquet (above) I made for the Craftsy class. It’s in a Mason jar with crushed glass for ballast.


— Handle succulent leaves minimally because they mar easily. Hold cuttings by their stems or the underside of the leaves.

— Unless you’re using heavy rosettes, floral picks or skewers aren’t necessary with short-stemmed arrangements (wires wrapped with tape are adequate).

— As with any good design, select elements that are colorful, textural, and provide pleasing repetitions and contrasts.

— It’s nice to place the bouquet in a container that’s also a gift, such as a pretty coffee mug.

Succulents in a gift mug

Succulent coffee mugs of my own design are sold through my Zazzle store.

— For ballast in clear-glass containers, use layers of colored sand that repeat colors in the plants.

— Include dried floral material. I often use eucalyptus because it harmonizes well with succulents.

— It’s OK to combine wired succulents with fresh floral material, but you’ll have to fill the container with water, which may make the floral tape come loose from the faux stems. Moreover, fresh flowers and greens last a week or less; wired succulents, much longer. (See the story of “Grandma,” an Echeveria ‘Lola’ rosette that lasted atop her stem for several years, in the second edition of Designing with Succulents.)

— Photograph the bouquet before you give it away. You’ll want to show people later!

For how to make a SPECIAL OCCASION succulent bouquet, see my book, Succulents Simplified, pages 162-169. To be notified of my new video releases, be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel. One of seven sessions of my Craftsy class, Stunning Succulent Arrangements, is How to Make a Succulent Bouquet. Use this link to take the entire class (all seven lessons) at 50% of the regular enrollment price—$20 instead of $40.

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Amy’s Circular Succulent Garden Re-Do

Watch my 5-minute YouTube video of this project: “Circular Succulent Garden Start to Finish.”

When I first saw fitness coach Amy Van Liew’s circular garden and spherical fountain, I envisioned how it might look replanted with colorful succulents. A great fountain and garden bed deserve to be seen, especially when in the middle of a magnificent home’s entryway!

In the spring, when I took this photo of Amy, the flowers in the circle garden were impressive. However, aeoniums bloom once and then die. As you can see, they had already become leggy, and other plants (notably Sedum rubrotinctum) were overgrown and ratty. Moreover, the nearly concealed fountain was home to tadpoles.

Amy and husband Ed agreed it was time for a re-do. So, six months later, we created a new entry garden.

The basin now is filled (and concealed by) aqua-colored crushed rock that suggests water. This appears to overflow and create rock rivulets between planted areas that are top-dressed with pea gravel in a contrasting orange hue.

Each of six sections features a different kind of plant. We chose six of each kind, all in one-gallon pots, and all from Waterwise Botanicals nursery in nearby Bonsall, CA. Some have rounded leaves or a globular form that repeats the fountain’s. Except for one, all are succulents.

Sedum ‘Firestorm’ is a ground-cover succulent with red-orange leaves massed with clusters of tiny white flowers in spring.

Echeveria ‘Sahara’ is a new cultivar bred to be heat-tolerant, and therefore is suitable to a climate with summer temps in the 90s. It has a circular shape, lavender-pink-blue coloration, and produces dainty flower stalks in autumn.

Yet more circles can be seen in the leaves of Portulacaria afra ‘Minima’, a cultivar of elephant’s food. ‘Minima’ is a low-growing, heat-tolerant, ground-cover succulent with bright green foliage and red stems.

Blue fescue took the longest to become established—which is why I postponed showing the finished garden. This ornamental grass is doing great; it’s just s-l-o-w. As you can see, it has a mounding growth habit and slender, threadlike leaves that are truly blue.

Amy had had good luck with flapjack plants (Kalanchoe luciae), so we used them again, this time massing them for effect. A bonus is that their red-edged leaves are rounded—yet another echo of the fountain.

But nothing so perfectly repeated the fountain as these globular barrel cactus. I was pleased Amy wanted them; many people don’t because the plants are so spiny. But barrel cactus is not difficult to handle if you know how. The spines curve downward, so they’re not treacherous unless you push on them the wrong way (upward).

Here’s how the circle garden looked when finished last fall.

And how it looks now, six months later.

To see highlights of the installation, watch my 5-minute YouTube video, “Circular Succulent Garden Start to Finish.” The entire project took about two days, including time spent rounding up plants and materials.

See my video of the Van Liew garden redo by landscape designer Steve McDearmon, and my blog post “Ten Reasons Why You Really Need Rocks.” 

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Highlights of the Fall Garden Party at Waterwise Botanicals Nursery

There was so much beauty at Waterwise Botanicals nursery near San Diego during the recent Fall Garden Party (an annual event near San Diego featuring succulents), I’ll let the photos I took speak for themselves. Cue rhapsodic music!

Just when I think I've seen one too many succulent topped pumpkins, one comes along that's beyond gorgeous

Just when I feel I’ve seen too many succulent topped pumpkins, one comes along that takes my breath away.

This tricholobivia has formed quite a colony of offsets

The display gardens are worth visiting, year-round, for design ideas plus practical-yet-lovely plant combos.

The staff makes lovely dish gardens, each unique

The staff makes lovely dish gardens for sale. No two are like.

At my booth during the event, I did impromptu plant-pot pairings

At my booth during the event, I did impromptu plant-pot pairings.

The best way to pair pots is to take them to the nursery with you. Who would have thought that purple pleiospilos was perfect for this whimsical fish pot?

The best way to select plants for a pot is to take it to the nursery with you. Who would have expected purple pleiospilos to be perfect for this whimsical fish? Yet when the two were alongside each other, it seemed obvious.

Metal clay artist Lucy Ellen stopped by to brainstorm new designs.

Metal clay artist Lucy Ellen of Escondido stopped by my booth to brainstorm workshop ideas.

The display garden near the entrance was designed to suggest the desert in bloom, while using plants more suited to a coastal climate

Nursery manager Tom Jesch designed the display garden near the nursery entrance to suggest the desert in bloom. The plants he chose are suited to a more maritime climate.

I love the geometry and textures of columnar cacti, especially when illuminated by the sun

I love the geometry and textures of columnar cacti—especially when illuminated by the sun—don’t you?

Silvery blue Echeveria peacockii in one of the display gardens

Silvery blue Echeveria peacockii graces one of the display gardens.

A miniature succulent garden at one of the workshops

A miniature succulent garden at one of the workshops.

A succulent holiday three, mainly of sempervivums and sedums, was a workshop project

This succulent holiday tree, made mainly of sempervivums and sedums, was another workshop project.

One workshop was about planting driftwood with succulents

…As was planting driftwood with succulents.

Aeonium 'Zwartkop' backlit

Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’ backlit.

Those filamented edges!

Those glowing, filamented edges!

An Echeveria cultivar tough enough to grow in the open garden

An Echeveria cultivar tough enough to grow in the open garden. I believe it’s ‘Sahara’.

A green Echeveria cultivar has offset into a large mound in one of the display gardens

Over time, this Echeveria ‘Green Crush’ offset to form an impressive, hens-and-chicks mound.

I'm obsessed with this red cryptobergia bromeliad, a colorful low-water companion for succulents

Red cryptobergia is a desert bromeliad that makes a colorful, low-water companion for succulents and a great addition to potted combos.

Nursery manager Tom Jesch repurposed a toy truck as a planter for succulents

Tom Jesch repurposed a toy truck as a planter for succulents.

Masses of coppertone stonecrop and graptosedum

Masses of coppertone stonecrop and graptosedum carpet the ground in one of the display gardens.

Columnar cacti, haloed by late afternoon sun

Columnar cacti, haloed by late afternoon sun, point to festive white tents where workshops were held.

If you didn't make it, here's one more thing you missed: taking home a free one-gallon succulent. (Don't feel bad. Maybe next time!)

Forgive me if this makes you gnash your teeth, but if you didn’t make it to this year’s Fall Garden Party, you missed taking home one of these free one-gallon succulents.

Hey, there’s always next time! ~ Debra

Agave victoriae-reginae
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My Succulent Meditation Garden

You’ve experienced how gardening can be a form of meditation. But have you considered how the plants themselves might enhance your sense of serenity? I’m conceptualizing a meditation area with succulents that incorporate soothing geometric patterns and spirals.

Agave victoriae-reginae

Stretched canvas wall art piece by Debra Lee Baldwin

The eye never tires of following a circular design. Case in point: I sometimes catch myself staring at this canvas print, above, in my living room. (It’s more relaxing than the TV.)

My meditation garden will have at its center an egg chair in which I can swing and rock—a happy reminder of my childhood. I’ll arrange rosette succulents (see list below) around it, vary their sizes and distances, and create groupings of them that in themselves offer repetitions. The area will be in dappled shade, bordered by a terrace on one side and pots on the other. A solar-powered fountain will muffle traffic and neighborhood noise.

Deep-toned, bell-like wind chimes will provide a pleasant sound and enhance my awareness of breezes. I listened to several wind chimes (anything’s possible on the Internet) and ordered Corinthian Bells 44-inch wind chimes. At $116 they’re a splurge, but anything smaller was too high pitched. (It helps that the fountain and chair are bargains.)

Additional tactile elements are the warmth of the sun, fresh air filling my lungs (“remember to breathe!” says my yoga instructor), cushy outdoor pillows, and maybe my dog on my lap. (I’d prefer a purring cat, but my husband’s allergic. Memo: See if neighbor will loan me her kitty.)

As for fragrance…in spring my garden has scents of orange blossoms and wisteria, and I’ve often thought of trying to grow jasmine again (my first attempt failed), but it’s easier to simply find incense I like. Doesn’t incense for outdoors sound wonderful? I ordered this assortment, which includes sandalwood, jasmine and others.

Finally, I’ll invigorate my taste buds with chilled water that has a few drops of mint essential oil. Or if it’s chilly, a cup of hot chamomile tea.

On to the plants! Here’s my short list of favorite symmetrical succulents:

— Large aeoniums, ideally variegated

04-Aeonium 'Sunburst'

— Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’

Graptoveria 'Fred Ives'

— Pachyverias


— Sempervivums that have offset in a hens-and-chicks fashion


— Large, colorful echeverias

45-Echeveria, ruffled hybrid

— Echeveria imbricata

51-Echeveria imbricata

— Echeveria ‘Topsy Turvy’

103-Echeveria 'Cubic Frost'

— Euphorbia ‘Snowflake’

37-Euphorbia 'Snowflake'

— Stacked crassulas

Crassula capitella ssp thyrsiflora

— Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’

151-Agave lophantha 'Quadricolor'

— Agave victoriae-reginae

141-Agave victoriae-reginae

— Agave parryi ‘Truncata’

Agave parryi var truncata

— Aloe nobilis or any symmetrical red-orange aloe

21-Aloe nobilis

I’ll keep you posted as it all comes together. In the meantime…The newly popular activity of coloring a detailed line drawing also reduces stress, and mandalas (which means “circle” in Hindu) are useful as meditation aids. You’ll find succulent mandalas plus line drawings of the plants shown above in my coloring book for adults, Sensational Succulents. 

Related articles:

Debra’s own garden 

My succulent meditation garden

Spring in my succulent garden

Succulent garden design essentials

How to grow succulents

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Succulent Garden Design Essentials

Nancy Dalton’s award-winning succulent garden in San Diego is an outstanding example of smart landscaping for Southern California’s arid climate. Enjoy it’s many pleasing and practical aspects and keep these dozen ideas in mind as you design and plant your own garden.

  1. Repeat colors and forms. By combining agaves with yuccas, the designers used similar-but-different plants to create continuity. The Yucca rostrata at far right repeats the dark green starburst shapes of slender-leaved agaves at middle left. These in turn echo an intriguing aspect of each other: white filaments that curl from leaf margins.Succulent landscaape

2. Incorporate textural plants. Texture is both what’s seen up-close, like fuzzy red kangaroo paw flowers, and what’s viewed from a distance, like the mounding jade at middle right and ‘Sticks on Fire’ beyond. Also highly textual are barrel cacti and any plant that shimmers in the breeze—like the Yucca rostrata at left.

Award-winning succulent front yard in Southern California

3. Sculpt the terrain with berms and valleys. Mounded soil is more interesting than flat and height enhances drainage. Tip: Bring in several yards of topsoil amended with pumice and mound it atop your former lawn or a difficult-to-dig area of compacted dirt. The succulents you plant in fresh soil will quickly take root and thrive.

Agave multifilifera in the front yard succulent garden.

4. Group plants with varying heights and sizes. In Nancy’s garden, Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ serves as a backdrop for medium-sized succulents such as barrel cacti and variegated elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’). Low-growing blue Senecio mandraliscae and Othonna capensis complete the high-medium-low vignette.


5. Position plants according to water needs. Those most prone to rot, such as cacti from to the desert Southwest, tend to do best atop a berm that allows water to drain away from their roots. Finer-leaved succulents tend to dry out more easily and will be happiest around the base of the mound or in a swale. See my article, “How to Water Succulents.”

6. Grow rangy non-succulents in pots. Instead of in the ground, Nancy’s herb garden occupies large terracotta pots near her kitchen door. This keeps the plants under control (some, like mints, are invasive) and makes them easy to water, tend, harvest, and replant.Pot grouping of herbs

7. Add a fountain. The sound of splashing water on a patio or adjacent to a garden sitting area blankets neighboring noise and  enhances even a small yard’s sense of privacy. It also attracts songbirds.

8. Put complementary colors to work. Succulents come in all colors, as do glazed ceramic pots, so have fun with them! Here, Nancy contrasted blue and orange. Coppertone stonecrop (Sedum nussbaumerianum) in the bed serves as a ground cover, frames the focal point, and flows around pots of Kalanchoe orgyalis (copper spoons) at left and Agave colorataFountain surrounded by succulents

 9. Display dynamic succulents against walls. Nancy lent interest to a white stucco retaining wall with three brightly-glazed pots. They contain a tall, columnar cactus, a clustering euphorbia, and star-shaped Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’. Find more ideas in my book, Succulent Container Gardens.

Pot grouping in Nancy Dalton's succulent garden

10. Showcase the symmetry of succulents. Small agaves look great in pots that frame and call attention to their elegant, geometric shapes.  Here, Agave victoria-reginae graces a hexagonal pot near Nancy’s front door. Agave victoriae-reginae in a pot


11. Include a dry creek bed. In a drought-prone climate it’s soothing to suggest the presence of water. To create the look of rushing water, designer Michael Buckner lined Nancy’s dry creek bed with cobbles turned sideways. Such enhancements can channel water from gutters into the garden and provide access to hard-to-reach areas. See the section in Designing with Succulents on dry creek beds, pp. 56-59.

Cobbles appear to be rushing water

12. Top-dress bare soil with crushed rock. It may seem minor, but this often overlooked aspect of design makes a huge difference. A layer of gravel lends a finished look, discourages weed growth, and helps hold moisture in the soil. See my articles, “Ten Reasons Why You Really Need Rocks” and “Why Top Dressing is Essential for Succulents.” 

Special thanks to Deeter-Buckner design for these “before” photos of Nancy’s front yard:





Nancy Dalton’s s garden won the city of San Diego’s drought tolerant landscaping contest and was on the San Diego Horticultural Society’s Spring Garden Tour. Located in Carmel Valley, the garden has a mild, frost-free climate. Landscape designers Samantha Owens of Barrels and Branches nursery and Michael Buckner of Deeter-Buckner Design helped with soil amendments, plant selection, placement, and installation. Nancy herself is knowledgeable about plants and is a hand’s-on gardener.

Download my list of Succulents for Coastal Southern California Gardens.

See my YouTube channel playlist, “Great Succulent Gardens.”

See Nancy’s garden in my video, Design Ideas from an Award-Winning Succulent Garden

…and in my book, Designing with Succulents.

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Make a Succulent Mug Gift Bouquet

I’m not much of a cook, so instead of a prepared dish, I like to bring my hostess a succulent floral bouquet.Succulent coffee mug bouquet

Mugs sold individually at home goods stores and secondhand shops make great gifts, especially when filled with succulent rosettes that suggest exotic flowers.

How to give succulents stems

Succulents wired onto faux stems are long lasting and can themselves be planted later as cuttings.

Materials for succulent bouquet

I prefer to use a mug of my own design (available online from my Zazzle store), but any nice one will do.

Colorful succulent cuttings for mug bouquetYou’ll need a dozen colorful succulent cuttings…

Materials for succulent gift mug

…sand for ballast (so the stems stay upright), 22-gauge floral wire, stretchy green floral tape, garden snippers, and wire cutters.

Succulent gift mug bouquet

See each step in my recent video: How to Make a Succulent Mug Bouquet.

Succulent gift mug video

And if you like this idea, check out my earlier post on how to make A Succulent Bouquet in Colored Sand. It features wired succulent rosettes in a slender glass bottle filled with layers of sand.

For how to make a SPECIAL OCCASION succulent bouquet, see my book, Succulents Simplified, pages 162-169.

One of seven sessions of my Craftsy class, Stunning Succulent Arrangements, is How to Make a Succulent Bouquet. Use this link to take the entire class (all seven lessons) at 50% of the regular enrollment price—$20 instead of $40.


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.