Dirt Therapy: Designing with Succulents as Easy as 1, 2, 3

Dirt Therapy is a regular column in the Capistrano Dispatch written by GNTG Founder, Marianne Taylor I’ve taught a “Designing with Succulents” class for years at Goin Native. Everyone is always in awe of these beauties.

What makes these plants so interesting? It’s got to be the dramatic looks, the fuzzy or glossy leaves, the crazy spikes or the huge flower heads. They are just downright stunning, and as author and succulent expert Debra Lee Baldwin calls them, “seductive.”

See for yourself by walking around Dana Point Harbor and checking out their bold textured containers around the shops or in the garden beds with rocks and boulders. Cruise through downtown San Juan Capistrano and drop by Five Vines Wine Bar, where succulents are growing bountifully in wine barrels. Window boxes decorate Sundried Tomato with harmonious colored succulents. Even brides are using them for their wedding bouquet and boutonniere, says Stacey Fitts at Floral Occasions.

Succulents are beautiful all year round. The colors, textures, sizes and shapes of succulents orchestrated in a garden setting or container translates as a work of art. These plants are tolerant of neglect but flourish when pampered.

I must admit, it’s my favorite plant to design, whether in a small or large space.

Before the holidays, I received a call from a client, who wanted to refresh her entrance at her home with succulents in the large metal urn. She was looking for easy care, colorful, long lasting and unique plants to welcome her family and guests at their front door.

She had used water-thirsty annuals in these large containers in the past, only to have to replace them every three to four months. She didn’t want the upkeep or maintenance any more, and she was looking for something more sustainable. My goal was to create for her a succulent garden that would maintain itself with little upkeep and minimal watering, look amazingly beautiful and would last for years.

I’m going to share my class secrets with you to create your own container garden.

What you need to get started:

Container: Choose the right sized container for the space you want to highlight but make sure it has adequate drainage. I like to use metal or ceramic containers because plastic ones will fade and crack.

Soil: The amount of cactus mix depends on the size of your container. If it’s deep, you have a few ways to go. You can fill up the entire container with cactus mix, leaving 3-4 inches below the rim; add large plastic plant containers, turn them upside down and add cactus mix over them, all the way to the rim; or you can use packing peanuts to fill up three-fourths of the container before adding the mix.

Irrigation: Hand watering is best for containers, but you can also set up a drip system. Water about twice a month in temperatures less than 72 degrees and weekly for warmer temperatures.

Design: Find plants with interesting foliage, colors and textures. Be sure to choose a plant or two that has the same color of your container.

Size: Select one tall plant, several medium sized varieties, a mixture of low plants as filler and a few that cascade over the rim. Keep color contrast and repetition in mind.

Placement: Gently take plants out of their pots and place them atop the size. Have the tallest plant a little off center and press on the root ball to secure it without completely burying it. Work from the middle outward, leaving the groundcover or rock dressing for last.

To secure all the plants in place and to hide the remainder of the dirt or any roots, I walk around the container and add groundcover, like stonecrop lime sedum. I’ll finish by taking a brush to remove excess soil and debris on the leaves, or I’ll turn the water on low mist and rinse off the excess.

Succulents really are as easy as one, two, three.