Lawn to Succulent Garden
OK, you've let your lawn die. (Insert applause emoji.) Here's how savvy, succulent-loving homeowners went from turf to terrific.
Smart Design and layout
If you're overwhelmed by the complex task of redoing a large yard, consider hiring a landscape designer. She or he can help you with part or all of the process: lawn removal, irrigation (yes, succulents need some water), hardscape, plant selection and placement.
A garden should be practical, inviting and beautiful. Important considerations include climate, orientation to the sun, soil quality, grade changes, and---most importantly---what you hope to achieve: a backyard retreat, perhaps, or curb appeal that increases the value of your home.
Patrick Anderson's Succulent Garden: It All Started with Aloes (6:07) How a well-designed succulent garden looks two decades after installation.
Design Essentials: Rocks and Topdressing
In 2007, San Diego plantsman Michael Buckner, one of the first designers to specialize in succulent gardens, told me, "You can never have too many rocks." It was an ah-ha! moment. Ever since, I've noticed the many subtle and important ways rocks enhance succulent gardens of every size.
Rocks and topdressing (gravel) moderate soil temperature, keep weeds from germinating, need no maintenance, and look good year-round. Find out more about this essential design element in my videos:
A Succulent Boulder Garden (4:06). Why you should be very glad if you have huge rocks.
Succulent Design Ideas from Sherman Gardens (4:18). A small garden with big ideas includes rivers of rock and mosaic.
Trees and non-succulent companion plants
There are indeed succulent trees, such as Aloe 'Hercules', Dracaena draco, and Beaucarnea recurvata. As it happens, they resemble those in children's books by Dr. Seuss.
Succulent trees may have great personality, but they provide minimal shade unless large, which takes forever. And even when small, they tend to be expensive. A smart alternative is to provide shade by planting lovely, non-succulent trees that once established, need minimal water.
Palo verde is a desert tree that does fine closer to the ocean. It gets by on rainfall, blooms for months, and provides a lacy canopy. How much do I love this green-barked beauty? I have seven palo verde trees in my half-acre, Zone 9b garden.
Trees, btw, are the first things to plant. Don't start with the small stuff. Most gardens need shade ASAP, and even a relatively fast-growing tree---like Acacia longifolia---can take three to five years to provide it.
Low-Water Trees for Succulent Landscapes (6:31). These shade and protect understory plants from heat, cold and searing sun.
In the Companion Plants chapter of Designing with Succulents (2nd ed) you'll find lovely, low-water, nonsucculent trees, shrubs and ground covers.
Select the Right Succulents
"We need to make a video" agave hybridizer Kelly Griffin told me. "I'm seeing Agave americana everywhere. People are gonna hate agaves in a few years, because they'll figure planting one is a big mistake." Much of Kelly's life's work is creating agave crosses that don't have the feral-cat characteristics of century plants (Agave americana). His cultivars stay reasonably small, don't produce pups that invade valuable garden space, take a long time to bloom (a good thing), and are truly beautiful.
Of course you can have a century plant if you want one...they're usually free for the asking (that pupping thing). In fact, the only plant in my garden I've truly mourned was "Big Blue," an Agave americana I'd planted as a pup and that bloomed and died at 23.
The key is to select succulents that you love, and to prepare beforehand for their care requirements and possible drawbacks.
What You MUST Know About Century Plants (2:50). Big Blue's last starring role. Sniff.
Six Great Agaves for Your Garden with Kelly Griffin (4:53). They are: A. ovatifolia, A. 'Blue Glow', A. victoria-reginae, A. titanota, A. impressa, and A. guiengola.
Critique: Newport Beach's Grand Succulent Garden (6:23) Find out what this public installation does right, and---perhaps more importantly---what it doesn't.
As the author of two editions of Designing with Succulents ten years apart, I’m sort of obsessed with the evolution of succulent landscaping. Here’s what designers and homeowners are discovering that works and (perhaps more importantly) what doesn’t. These top six trends—call them preferences, if you like—may surprise you. 1. About as many rocks as plants. Designers bring in boulders, create cobbled riverbeds, fill gaps with gravel,…