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Ten Succulent Front Yard Essentials

These ten essentials for a successful succulent front yard aren’t difficult to achieve yet make a big difference. We have designer Deana Rae McMillion to thank for chronicling and sharing her lawn-to-succulents transformation, not only after installation, but also over the ensuing three years. It looked great immediately, earned a city beautification award, and—as you’ll see—continued to improve. Deana Rae credits San Diego designer Laura Eubanks for inspiration. 

BEFORE The McMillions 1970s house and yard, viewed from the street, was all lines and rectangles lacking interest and personality. The location is Carpinteria, CA, south of Santa Barbara, a mile inland from the ocean.

AFTER:

In 2012, a year after she and her husband moved in, Deana Rae cut out a small area of the lawn and experimented with succulents. They did well, and an Agave americana quickly attained several feet in height and diameter. Notice how it (the big blue century plant at upper right) has grown over time and serves as a dramatic focal point that visually balances the “weight” of the house.

Succulent Essential #1: Know how large plants will get. For example, Agave americana, though easy to grow and often free for the asking, isn’t for every garden. (See my video, “What You MUST Know About Century Plants.”)

After the sod was cut and removed, Deana Rae installed pocket gardens alongside the new front walkway.

#2: Ask friends and neighbors for succulent cuttings. If you’re not going to put them in the ground right away, start them in pots.

#3: If soil is compacted and difficult to dig, give succulent roots a fighting chance by spading it and adding amendments prior to planting.

#4: To add interest and definition to the overall design, bring in large boulders. They weigh tons, so have them delivered and positioned BEFORE you plant.

#5: Don’t skip the infrastructure. Take care of pre-planting steps like installing and adjusting irrigation, evaluating runoff, repairing drains and walls, and upgrading hardscape.

#6: Design with undulating lines for a natural look. Straight lines and rows are more formal, seldom found in nature, and emphasize the linearity of nearby structures.

#7: In close-up areas, create complex plantings. Viewpoints that are broader and farther away need less detail and larger plants.

Deana Rae’s plant choices include medium-sized agaves, aloes, calandrinia (with purple flowers), bulbine (orange flowers), blue Senecio mandraliscae, and drought-tolerant perennials such as yellow sundrops (Calylophus sp.). A dry creek bed of river cobbles funnels rainwater into the garden. Small succulents such as jades, aeoniums, echeverias and sedums—all from cuttings—nestle around boulders.

#8: Top-dress with crushed rock (gravel). Imagine this garden with only bare dirt between plants. Topdressing finishes a landscape aesthetically; adds interest, color and texture; discourages weeds and makes them easy to pull; moderates soil temperature; and slows moisture evaporation. “I had so much fun shopping for rocks and gravel,” Deana Rae says. “I think I love rocks as much as I do succulents.”

Aloe maculata (in bloom) is tough and its offsets are often free for the asking. It’s one of the few succulents that’s invasive in friable soil, but in a parkway strip like this, it can’t get into trouble. In fact, as it spreads, it’ll make the the area look even better. The fortnight lily at right was well established, so it stayed.

#9: Continue rocks and gravel into the parkway strip. This enhances the overall design, makes the front yard larger, and makes what’s sometimes called a “hell strip” easy to maintain.

#10: Include intriguing plant-rock combos within the larger garden. Such “vignettes” are optional, but offer a great way to express your creativity, enjoy your garden hands-on, and offer visitors delightful discoveries. A few examples:

Lance-leaved Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’ (center) contrasts with curvier plants: ripple jade (upper right), Euphorbia mammilaris (lower middle) and a crested myrtillocactus (center left). Echoing the agave’s pointed rosette are Echeveria subrigida ‘Fire and Ice’ (lower right, in bloom), Echeveria agavoides ‘Lipstick’ at lower left, and aloes.

 

Rivulets of gravel flowing through the garden suggest motion and water. They also contrast and repeat colors of succulents, and provide access to planted areas. Statuesque Euphorbia trigona ‘Rubra’ serves as a focal point that will triple in size over time. An eclectic mix of small succulents includes echeverias, aloes, kalanchoes, sedums, crassulas and barrel cactus. A low-water salvia in bloom (upper left) lends floral color and a mounding, soft-textured backdrop.

 

A ceramic turtle adds a touch of whimsy and repeats the color and shape of a cluster of turquoise echeverias. It’s fine to add a planted pot to a garden, like the wide terracotta bowl at left (with Crassula ‘Mini Jade’, Kalanchoe luciae and Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’). Lampranthus deltoides at upper left extends the blue and lends frothy texture. Aeoniums, sedums and aloes complete the composition.

 

A sheltered niche amid rocks is a great spot for echeverias, which can be tricky to grow in the open garden and generally do best in  pots. Amid them are Sedum ‘Blue Spruce’, silver squill (Ledebouria socialis), and orangy-red Crassula ‘Campfire’.

 

Related info on this site:

WHY YOU REALLY NEED ROCKS

Here are ten reasons why your landscape—especially if it includes succulents—really needs rocks, large and small… [Continue reading]

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Succulent Garden Design Essentials

Here are a dozen succulent garden design essentials for you to keep in mind as you design and plant your own garden. They’re exemplified by an award-winning succulent garden in San Diego, an outstanding example of smart landscaping for Southern California’s arid climate. Many thanks to Nancy Dalton for sharing her garden.

Succulent Garden Design Essentials

  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 garden design essentials

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.

Succulent garden design essentials

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.

Succulent garden design essentials

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.

Succulent garden design essentials.

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 colorataSucculent garden design essentials

 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.

Succulent garden design essentials

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. Succulent garden design essentials

 

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.

Succulent garden design essentials

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:

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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.

Related info on this site:

Patrick Anderson’s Garden: It All Started with Aloes

Fleshy green monsters in Patrick Anderson’s Fallbrook garden look like they might snap him up if he turns his back. They’re giant succulents, and Anderson’s half-acre hillside showcases hundreds of unusual ones. “I like their huge, sculptural forms,” [Continue reading]

 

Ten Reasons Why You Really Need Rocks
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… [Continue reading]

Six No-Water Succulents for Your Garden
Even if you live in drought-parched Southern CA, garden plants that don’t need to be watered are not as hard to come by as you might think. Certain readily available succulents… [Continue reading]