Diving Into Succulents for Drought

This five-gallon potted Agave americana ‘Medio Picta’ adds succulent zest to this border.

With statewide water cutbacks in California, everyone will have to rethink some of the plants in their home landscape. Rather than viewing this as a tragedy, make it an opportunity to dive into some of trendiest plants filling gardens of the rich and famous: succulents.  If you’ve always wanted that great succulent look, but have never grown one before, there is no better time to make the change.

Extraordinary Echeveria hybrids can be inserted into beds and borders as individual accent plants.

In the past, most gardeners planted water-guzzling garden flowers.  Instead, fill these spaces with exciting and colorful succulents.  This is a great idea for high-profile areas around outdoor living spaces, pools and spas, or courtyards where you can enjoy their diverse beauty up close and personal.  Be prepared to treat them as seasonal color if you live in a frosty climate; just dig and pot them up at summer’s end to green up indoor rooms all winter long.

The single biggest problem with succulents in traditional gardens is too much water caused by over irrigating in slow-draining ground.  This condition rots succulent roots and stems like an overwatered houseplant, so they fail to thrive.  When irrigation cut backs are drying out your planters, solve the soil dilemma by creating pockets of Black Gold Cactus Mix to improve rooting conditions.

raised bed
Spice up raised planters by replacing the top six inches of soil with Black Gold Cactus Mix and plant with colorful small succulents.

Do this with larger succulents by replacing the soil one planting hole at the time.  This brings the vibrant echeverias, festive flapjacks, and the popular black aeonium into your yard.  If you’re planting a six-inch potted specimen, dig your hole twice as wide and half again as deep as the nursery root ball.  Puncture the natural soil at bottom of the hole numerous times with a piece of pipe or rebar.  Go as deeply as you can to provide miniature sumps where water will go rather than accumulating at the bottom of the hole.  Then fill with potting soil and plant away.

If you have a built-in masonry planter, create a jewel-box garden.  This is a term is used for the vivid succulent gardens that are as colorful as the contents of grandmother’s costume jewelry box.  Here you can plant the lovely rainbow of kalanchoes, flowering aloes and geometric crassulas.  When you add cold hardy succulents such as sedum and sempervivums, they’ll remain through the coldest winter to again anchor next year’s display.

BG Cactus Mix front
BG Cactus Mix is a great choice when planting succulents for drought.

Remove the top six inches of soil in the planter and replace it with cactus potting soil, then arrange your colors in drifts or swaths of small bright plants.  Accent them with sparkling slag glass, driftwood or special rock minerals and crystals for an exciting jewel-box look.

Although this California drought is a disaster for many, it may be the catalyst you need to replace  water-intensive plants with exciting new succulents.  Sure, you may not know their names or their ultimate form, but over the coming months you’ll learn to recognize them and get a feel for how each grows.   And though we are often averse to change in life, it’s the doorway to our greatest accomplishments.

About Maureen Gilmer

Maureen Gilmer is celebrating her 40th year in California horticulture and photojournalism as the most widely published professional in the state. She is the author of 21 books on gardening, design and the environment, is a widely published photographer, and syndicated with Tribune Content Agency. She is the weekly horticultural columnist for the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs and contributes to Desert Magazine, specializing on arid zone plants and practices for a changing climate. She works and lives in the remote high desert for firsthand observations of native species. Her latest book is The Colorful Dry Garden published by Sasquatch Books. When not writing or photographing she is out exploring the desert on her Arabian horse. She lives in Morongo Valley with her husband Jim and two rescue pit bulls. When not writing or photographing she is usually out riding her quarter horse.

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