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When in Drought, Choose Succulents

By: Maureen Gilmer

Barrel cacti, agave, and echeverias are all bold succulents for droughty landscapes.

Whenever there are statewide water cutbacks in California, everyone has to rethink some of the plants in their home landscapes. 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.  If you’ve always wanted that great, clean succulent garden look, there is no better time to make the change.

In the past, most gardeners planted annual flowers for pockets of color.  Instead, plant these same 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 annuals, if you live in a frosty climate. You can also overwinter them indoors. Just dig and pot them up at summer’s end to green up indoor rooms all winter long.

The Best Soil for Succulents

The single biggest problem with succulents in traditional gardens is too much water caused by over irrigation in slow-draining clay ground.  Too much water rots succulent roots and stems—killing plants quickly.  Solve the soil dilemma by creating pockets of Black Gold Cactus Mix potting soil to improve rooting conditions. Do this with larger succulents by replacing the soil one hole at the time.  You can provide even sharper drainage by amending mixes with additional Black Gold Perlite.

Sometimes succulent pots need extra water-holding amendments, especially when irrigation cutbacks start drying out your planters. Black Gold Cactus Mix has just enough water-holding capacity to keep roots growing well.

 

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Jewel-box succulent container garden

Planting Succulent Beds

Once your soil and pots are prepared, its time to bring the vibrant echeverias, festive flapjacks, and ever-popular black aeoniums 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 that encourage filtration and keep water from accumulating at the bottom of the hole.  Then fill with potting soil, and plant away.

Planting Succulent Containers

BG_CACTUSMIX_1CF-FRONTIf you have a built-in masonry planter, create a close-range jewel-box garden.  This 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 a lovely rainbow of kalanchoes, flowering aloes, and geometric crassulas.  When you add hardy sedums and sempervivums, they’ll survive through the coldest winter to anchor next year’s display.

Remove the top foot 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.  In the beginning, you may not know their names or their ultimate forms, but over the coming months, you’ll learn to recognize them and get a feel for how each grows. Though we are often averse to change in life, it’s often 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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