, , , ,

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 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.