Do consider using crushed-rock top dressing to enhance your succulent designs. In the ground or in pots, your succulent compositions will look and perform better if bare soil doesn't show. Top dressing lends a finished look, and plants benefit from the way 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.
Bark mulch can be too water-retentive and may harbor molds, insects, and snails. It may look good at first, but as it decomposes it turns silver, looks uneven, and leaves bare patches. For examples, see Mistakes Beginners Make.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 661-714-1052.
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