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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.

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

GD Cover & DLB annotated_resized

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).


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.

GD Cover & DLB annotated_resized

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.










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 or call him at 661-714-1052.


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 more than 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 

How to Kill Succulents

How Not To Kill Succulents

What IS it with New Yorkers? Whatever we’re cheerfully crazy about on the West Coast is dismissed by somber-clothed subway sprinters as idiotic. Or at least that’s the vibe I got from a reporter with New York Magazine, who disguised her weather envy with a lot of polite questions. Evidently what she really wanted was yet more reasons to diss succulents.

Jamie Lauren Keiles emailed that she was researching an article on how to kill succulents, and would I be available for a phone interview? I responded that I had killed plenty and would be happy to explain how.

I figured she was kidding.

SHE WASN’T. An excerpt:

“What kind of asshole hates a plant? Me, I guess. A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a coffee shop in Bed-Stuy, glowering at a jade plant in a ceramic mug, unable to get the phrase benign uterine polyp out of my head. The surge of disgust took me by surprise. For most of my life, I believed myself to like succulents. I loved them, even. In the same way that a baby’s oversize head and round eyes provoke empathy, the plump and whimsical leaves of these desert plants felt undeniably cute. But as with babies, more plants does not necessarily equal more cute. One baby? Adorable. Hundreds of babies in twee upcycled teacups atop every coffee-shop table and windowsill in your neighborhood? A nightmare.”

I emailed her: “just read your article on killing succulents, and would like you to know that they forgive you, sappy plants that they are.”

To not leave the question begging—and because succulent lovers (as well as haters) need to know—

“But what if one did want to kill a succulent? Or many succulents? Hypothetically speaking.

‘Their roots are not set up to deal with too much water,’ Baldwin told me. ‘So the No. 1 way to kill a succulent is to love it too much.’

With this in mind, we succulent-haters wait in hiding. It’s only a matter of time.”

Btw, I had told Jamie, “Every reporter’s favorite quote from me seems to be, ‘People used to say they hate succulents. Now they say they love them.’ So would you please use a different one?”

She wrote:

“Baldwin worked with succulents before the current fad, in an era when plant-lovers considered them ‘common’ and ‘for poor people.'”

But hey, she did mention my books. Even linked to them…more or less. (After the article appeared without links, I sent her a heart-rending reminder.)


For another East Coast reporter’s opinion and perspective, you might enjoy my post: Why Are Succulents So Popular?


Also see: How to Keep Succulents Happy Indoors


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Succulent Driftwood Designs

Watch my YouTube video, Succulents in Driftwood (2:51).


It’s surprisingly easy to make a succulent driftwood planter that looks professionally designed. Each piece of driftwood has its own personality and suggests a different flow of succulents. The plants resemble undersea flora, and the wood hints at something you’d see in a forest. The two combine to make a special, almost fantasy-like composition that works well as a patio centerpiece or special gift for a friend. These photos are from a recent succulents-and-driftwood workshop.


Driftwood pieces (from Sea Foam Driftwood) come with pre-drilled crevices for potting.


Materials include small potted succulents, cuttings, sea shells, bits of tumbled glass, moss, rocks and sand. Tools are clippers, hot glue, and a chopstick for tucking-in plants and settling roots.


Begin by filling the planting hole with potting soil.


Add small rooted succulents and cuttings, envisioning them as undersea flora and fauna growing in and on submerged logs.


Use a chopstick to tuck floral moss into remaining gaps. Moss will conceal any exposed soil and help hold cuttings in place until they root.


Cuttings selected by Julie Levi include trailers (Ruschia perfoliata, Crassula lycopodioides), colorful rosettes (Sedum nussbaumerianum and Graptosedum ‘California Sunset’), and Crassula tetragona, among others. A sea urchin shell, attached with hot glue, is the perfect finishing touch.


Connie Levi chose a slightly different assortment: Crassula lycopodioides (watch-chain crassula), a dwarf aloe, Aeonium haworthii, Crassula perforata ‘Variegata’ (a stacked crassula), and for upright interest (at right), Hatiora salicornioides.


Linda Powell filled her piece of driftwood with pieces of jade, Kalanchoe pumila, variegated aeoniums, an echeveria, a dwarf aloe that resembles a sea star, and dainty cremnosedum rosettes. I like how she clustered smaller shells, too.


Libbi Salvo’s long piece of driftwood, with several areas for planting, would make a good centerpiece for a rectangular outdoor table.


Watch my YouTube video: Succulents in Driftwood (2:51)

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Should You Let Your Flapjack Plants Bloom?


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.)


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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


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!)



Shooting a Succulent Prodigy


Country Gardens magazine, published by Better Homes and Gardens, sent Ed Gohlich, one of the top garden photographers in the US, to the home of Matthew Wong, then 11, to shoot him with his succulent collection. I served as field editor and writer and took photos, too. The article is in the early spring 2016 issue, on newsstands nationwide and online. If you’d like to give the magazine a thumb’s up, you can do so on its Facebook page. Also enjoy my ten-video series, Succulent Matters with Matthew, on my YouTube channel. (In the most recent, you’ll join Matthew as he explores my garden.) And if you’d like to visit Matthew’s blog and connect with this remarkable kid, here’s the link.


Ed’s assistant arranges plants for Matthew to hold.



Below: Matthew mugs for the camera, pretending to bite a cactus.


Below: Stapeliads have stunning flowers that smell like rotting meat in order to attract flies and other pollinators.


Below: We shot some of Matthew’s drawings of succulents, too.

Matthew Wong drawings_annotated_resized

Here’s what to look for when you’re in line at the supermarket. This issue’s article on monarch butterflies is another reason to buy it. (Saving the monarch is one of my favorite topics, too. Click here for my post about an aloe garden designed for monarchs.) 

Country Gardens cover

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Rick’s Aloe and Butterfly Garden


The current population of monarch butterflies is a mere 4% of what it formerly was. These once ubiquitous butterflies are on the brink of extinction. Anyone with even a small garden, in any part of the US, can help reverse this sad trend.


I knew that Rick Bjorklund’s garden in San Diego would delight me with its aloes, but I didn’t expect to see butterflies who felt the same way. Not only do monarchs love aloe blooms, their offspring have settled into Rick’s garden, too.


This is because Rick also cultivates milkweed, the one and only food of monarch caterpillars. His numerous Asclepias curassavica shrubs are infested with striped, leaf-eating, antennaed tubes.


Hm. Which end is which?

Once they’re fat and sassy, caterpillars look for a place to hang out…literally. To pupate, they attach themselves to a branch or eve, and their skin splits open, revealing a conical box that resembles a jade earring. What a surprise to see a chrysalis hanging from a kalanchoe (below). It’s amazing that insects native to the Americas are at home in a garden of plants mainly from Madagascar and South Africa.


This one’s attached to an agave leaf.


Here’s what happens next (photo courtesy of

Butterfly emerging

Monarchs also like Verbena bonariensis. I photographed this in a northern CA garden in early autumn.


What every friend of butterflies should know: 

— To promote the survival of monarch butterflies, cultivate milkweed (one or more plants in the genus Asclepias).  Native to the Americas, milkweeds can be cultivated as far north as Quebec.

— When designing your monarch-habitat garden, position nectar-producing plants (like aloes, daisies and verbena) near milkweed. Adult butterflies look for both when laying their eggs, to ensure that their offspring will have plenty to eat.

— Refrigerate milkweed seeds three to six weeks prior to sowing. Get them off to a good start in peat pots with a thin covering of topsoil (they need sunlight to germinate). Transplant into the garden when rooted, four to six weeks after germination, in a full-sun location. Daytime highs should be at least 70 degrees F. Plants grow 36 to 60 inches tall, and can be spaced 12 to 18 inches apart.

— Monarchs and other butterflies have liquid diets. They like muddy water for its minerals, and the nectar of numerous flowers, which they ingest through a proboscis that unfurls and serves as a flexible drinking straw.

— Monarchs produce four successive generations annually, each with phases of egg, larva, pupa and butterfly. Adults of the first three generations live two to six weeks. The fourth generation, born in the fall, migrates to a warmer climate where the butterflies live through the winter, mate, and then return north.

— Butterflies fly best when temperatures are between 80 and 100 degrees. They’ve been clocked at 12 mph.

— Make sure butterflies have plenty to eat by supplementing their diet with a quality commercial nectar. To keep ants out of a butterfly feeder, coat an inch or so of the rod that supports it with Vaseline. Clean the feeder and replace the nectar daily. Place the feeder close to the milkweed and flowering plants in your garden, but out of direct, hot sun lest the liquid evaporate.

— Provide a mud puddle as a water source, ideally near a boulder on which butterflies can sun themselves.

Resources for butterfly gardeners:

Online article on saving and aiding butterflies, by British expert Clive Harris of DIY Garden, who emailed me: “76% of our butterfly species have declined over the past 40 years, so anything that helps spread the word about protecting these little chaps would be massively appreciated.” 
Milkweed seeds
Butterfly feeder
Butterfly nectar

Reference books:

Milkweed, Monarchs and More by Rea, Oberhauser and Quinn
Monarch Butterfly by Gail Gibbons