Mounding Garden Beds For Succulents Out West

These linear plantings of agave and cacti are aligned perpendicular to the slope to check the speed of runoff.

Love succulents but hate your clay soil?  Solve it by creating a simple mound of quality soil that ensures your finicky succulents will be happy with perfect drainage.  Under these conditions, your plants won’t suffer waterlogged roots, and rotting will be a thing of the past if you irrigate with a slow drip system.

A mound with all the mistakes: Pointed top, steep sides and dry sandy soil with no cohesiveness that will melt in the first hard rain.
A mound with all the mistakes: Pointed top, steep sides and dry sandy soil that will melt in the first hard rain.

Incorrectly constructed mounds become failures for a variety of reasons.  Most importantly, the soil won’t stay put and soak in when you water, and improper irrigation can leave conditions way too dry, even for succulents.  These problems are due to the shape of the mound; if made too steep on the sides, the water runs off before it can penetrate. Effective succulent mounds need to rise up gradually, provide that flat place on top, and drop down just as gently on the other side.

Sizing Your Mound With Math

A mound is composed of three plains: The upslope, a level zone along the top, and the downslope on the other side.  How high you go is dictated by how much space is available.  The slope is governed by the angle of repose, which for traditional plants must be no more than 30% if the water is to penetrate.  That’s a one-foot “rise” in elevation for every three feet of length or “run”.

Example:  6′ upslope distance + 3′ top of mound + 6′ downslope distance = 15 linear feet

To create a standout succulent mound, use a wide range of colors, sizes, and textures to give it endless visual appeal.

This equation limits the width of your hypothetical mound to 2 feet in height. Once you calculate its dimensions, do the same for the length.  Then use length x width x height to find the overall volume of the proposed mound in cubic feet. The largest bag of Black Gold Moisture Supreme Container Mix contains 2 cubic feet of material, so either make the whole mound out of this mix or blend it 50-50 with natural soil. Aggregate can be added to increase drainage.

Grading Your Mound

Where soils aren’t heavy clay, the container mix is an extender and to better integrate local soil flora into the mound.  Mix very well with a tiller or fork, then gently grade the mound into a graceful shape without broken curves or undulations. When grading out your mound, keep the soil damp and lightly compact the surface so it holds together.  Use boulders where conditions are irregular or create fields of smaller attractive pebbles to hold ground or control runoff.

Succulent Planting Strategy

angle of repose
Planting on this slope features larger agaves and masses of small succulents to hold soil against erosion.

Water flows downhill picking up soil particles with speed. To keep this from happening plant against the direction of the water flow.  (This is what wheat farmers do to minimize erosion; they align their planting rows perpendicular to the natural flow of water.)  Use small, densely planted succulents for steeper spots then irrigate with micro-spray irrigation to allow roots to create a network better able to hold the slope.  Larger succulents, like aloes, further guide runoff away from more vulnerable locations with a single drip emitter.

A mound for succulents doesn’t need to be as high as those for plants with deeper root systems.  In most cases, they are fine with just one foot of elevation to keep plants and root crowns high and dry.  When the mound is in and fully planted, finish it off with a fine layer of stone or pebble that blends in with your cobbles and boulders for a perfectly designed display garden you’ll be proud of.

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.

Stop Succulent Sudden Meltdown

baby toes
Babytoes, another living stone, blooms like lithops in late winter indoors on a bright windowsill.

There are few growing experiences as disappointing as meltdown.  When your favorite indoor cacti or succulents get soft for no reason at all, it’s downright frustrating.  The phenomenon of succulent sudden meltdown is caused by an infection that enters the internal tissues and causes rot.  Like tooth decay, rot works its way throughout the interior of the plant before you ever know it’s there.  While a tooth eventually tells us through pain that there’s a problem, most gardeners never really know what killed their plant.  Nine times out of ten it’s moisture related because gardeners tend to overwater and microbes plentiful in home growing conditions aren’t naturally as numerous in the arid environments where these plants originate. Succulents lack the needed defenses to ward off rot. Continue reading “Stop Succulent Sudden Meltdown”

Gravel Gardens

This gravel garden is creative and bright!
This gravel garden is creative and bright!


Succulent gardening can break beyond the traditional rock garden model. Take, for example, gravel gardens. These unique garden spaces support most plants that would thrive in a rock garden, but instead of rocks they are bedded in attractive gravel and fast-draining mix.

Establishing Gravel Gardens

A general statement regarding plants for gravel gardens is that as a group they tend to like sunnier and dryer conditions. Once established, they generally require no supplemental water, if they exist in areas with average rainfall. When establishing these gardens, the most crucial element is the soil. Soil preparation to provide quick drainage is the key to healthy and successful gravel gardens and preparation must be done prior to planting.

car with sedum
This whimsical sedum garden is a delight!

An excellent soil amendment is Black Gold Cactus Mix. It provides the fast-draining requirements. In addition, pumice and washed gravel are both stone-based amendments perfect for these gardens. Both increase aeration and drainage, which is critical to successful gravel gardening.

There is a presumption that gravel gardens look dry and sparse and that is certainly not the case. In a recent garden I visited, the pathways were gravel, the beds were lined with rock and there was a wide assortment of colorful low-water plants to give color during the summer. This garden also had a small pond and there was even a rose bed in the background. While this is probably not the typical gravel garden, it provides a good example of the diversity of plants a gardener can incorporate.

wagon with sedums
Sedums cascade from this fallen wheelbarrow garden.

Plants for Gravel Gardens

One of my favorite gravel gardens incorporates a diversity of drought tolerant plants and has a focal point of a beautiful blue ceramic pot to match the blue wall in the background. There is a fountain in front of the blue wall with a Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) in the background. To the right and left of the pond are two small olive trees, (Olea europaea ‘Arbequina’), and throughout the area are drought tolerant plants with a blooming Kniphofia in the foreground. This is a wonderful example of how individual gardeners can create their own special space and plant palette.

Succulent plants are familiar to many gardeners. These plants have thick fleshy leaves or stems able to store extra water. Cacti and sedums are two good examples. In many gardens that I visit, sedums are often used in sharply drained, gravelly gardens. The very popular Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ is widely planted in gardens throughout the Pacific Northwest and is also a favorite for perennial flower beds. It is a very reliable late summer bloomer, and the flowers are a favorite of honey bees. Hens and chicks, hardy cacti and beautiful sedums, like the unique ‘Touchdown Teak’, are also ideal for these gardens.

Sedum 'Touchdown Teak' is a pretty sedum just perfect for gravel gardens.
Sedum ‘Touchdown Teak’ is a pretty sedum just perfect for gravel gardens.

I love visiting other gardens to see some of the things that gardeners do with succulents and sedums. I have often seen them used in a whimsical sort of way. I think that a garden reflects the gardener, and when I see something whimsical I think this reflects the sense of humor of the gardener. Two recent garden visits bring this to my mind. The first garden contained a miniature car garden with sedums in it. What a perfect centerpiece for a garden party and a low maintenance one too! The second had a wagon filled with sedums that were placed to look as though a child might have just left it. When planting succulents in containers, regardless of whether it is a miniature car or a wagon, I would suggest using Black Gold Cactus Mix exclusively and not mixing it with garden soil.

As I mentioned earlier, with gravel garden plants, drainage is the critical factor. Many plants can even survive colder temperatures than normal if they have good drainage. Experiment and create some new gravel beds with succulent plants, you might be pleasantly surprised at the end result.

Sedum Aut.Joy, J. Livesay 2013

Create A Rock Garden For Cacti & Succulents

Succulents thrive in the crevices and graveled beds of an English rock garden.
Succulents thrive in the crevices and graveled beds of an English rock garden.

All over Pinterest there are pins of the most fabulous outdoor succulent rock gardens from desert climates and the Southern California coast. No rain falls in these areas from May to December, so water content in the soil is minimal, creating a specialty environment for these plants. This makes it tough for eastern succulent gardeners living where rains fall year-round. In moister areas succulents can rot, die out or simply look poor, particularly when planted on level ground with dense fertile soils, so gardeners seeking to grow them need to be smart. Continue reading “Create A Rock Garden For Cacti & Succulents”

Late Season Succulents, Inside or Out

pastel gilmer2
Gorgeous purple hued Echeverias and mint green Sempervivums in a shallow wide pot make a perfect table top feature for autumn outdoor dining.

For parents, back to school season is the happiest time of year. Finally things slow enough to spruce up the garden for fall. But what to do when food plants and flowers are going to seed at summer’s end? Try some experiments with colorful late season succulents in pots to give outdoor living spaces a contemporary feel. When cold nights arrive, just bring them indoors to decorate your home all winter long.

Designing Succulent Pots

You’ve seen them everywhere, those fabulous pots stuffed with vibrant succulents. They look great on tables or arranged on a sunny deck, balcony or window. And, growing and overwintering success is easy. Start by selecting a lightweight pot (with large drainage holes) that is easily carried in or out, and fill with porous Black Gold Cactus Mix potting soil, which provides the ideal root zone environment. Then pick out an array of unique succulents from the garden center, and get planting.

In this composition you can readily see the upright plants, strong rosette forms and cascading edge plants.
In this composition you can readily see the upright plants, strong rosette forms and cascading edge plants.
To achieve the trendy looks of decorator showrooms, select succulents that represent three different forms. First are upright branching types like Euphorbia ‘Firesticks’ or Portulacaria jade trees. Second are the rosette forms of cold hardy Sempervivum and Echeveria varieties. Third are crawlers, such as Senecio string-of-pearls and cascading groundcover sedums that hang off pot edges.

A pot with a balanced design will have one or more of these three forms, but the actual plants you select will define your personal creation. Shop by foliage color for vivid hues that give your composition punch without flowers. For more subtle effects, select pastel shades for a perfect match to your interior color palette.

Planting Succulent Pots

The best succulent pots are created by packing young plants tightly into the container. Generally speaking, succulents plants don’t resent crowded conditions, so purchase good sized individuals that are in scale with the size of your pots for eye popping effects on day one. Fill tiny gaps between root balls with Black Gold Cactus Mix. It’s best to wait a few days to water them in so that any broken stems or roots can heal over with a waterproof callus. This ensures that exposed tissues are not exposed to waterborne diseases that cause rot. (This is a succulent gardening basic; to protect fresh cuts/breaks during the planting process.) And don’t worry about not watering, succulents won’t wilt if not promptly watered.

This composition at the Proven Winners trials shows how perfectly succulent hues blend into fall and water color palettes.
This composition at the Proven Winners® trials shows how perfectly succulent hues blend into fall and water color palettes.

Finished pots should be given plenty of light, a cool winter environment and light water. As days grow shorter and cooler, be aware that succulents don’t need much additional moisture because there’s less loss to evaporation. The cooled, drier conditions of fall will demonstrate just how long moisture can remain in the soil. Succulents will truly thrive through winter with little to no supplemental water while excess water can kill them.

If you’ve been dying to jump into succulents for the first time, late summer is a good time and slower season to start. It’s also more affordable because not only will they make your fall garden sizzle, you’ll enjoy them all winter too. This is economy we can all live with, and if well cared for, they’ll be ready to go back outdoors when it warms up again next year.

Swanky Succulent Container Gardens


Succulents - Maureen Gilmer - Feature Image
Succulents: Elegant pedestal urns feature rounded mounds of succulent plants topped with a crown of spiky leaves.

Nestled into opulent coastal southern California is a nursery where I go to find out what’s hot in the world of container gardening. Decades ago Rogers Gardens was founded on flower-filled hanging color baskets so fabulous they draw tour buses daily. I worked there in the early 80s and today I return to see how they display every hot trend in container gardening. Most of what I see can be recreated using Black Gold specialty potting soils to make your home garden just as exciting this year.

Mesclun - Maureen Gilmer
Mesclun: Integrating colorful lettuce into pots and gardens makes more opportunity to snip for dinner.


Edible greens are proving to be one of the most interesting plants for both ornamental and food gardens. At Rogers they are displayed in glorious color from purple kale to pastel mesclun mixes of curious gourmet lettuce and greens. Potting them into decorative containers is easy when you use Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil. Blend these with edible flowers and culinary herbs for beauty you can snip and pinch into salads, soups and as decorative garish.

Flax - Maureen Gilmer
Flax: Latest looks include dark burgundy Aeonium and bright red striped Phormium combine in terra cotta.


Growing succulents in containers demands fast draining Black Gold Cactus Mix. Such porosity allows you to cram dozens of colorful rosettes into the same pot without concern for rot setting in. The latest look is combining vivid autumn colored foliage plants such as New Zealand flax hybrids with gobs of succulents for perfect compatibility.

Mediterranean - Maureen Gilmer
Mediterranean: Woody rosemary topiary sits atop high-contrast succulents.


Demand for drought resistant plants and popularity of Spanish inspired architecture puts Mediterranean species front and center. The creation of topiaries from rosemary and fruitless olive provides excellent form and fragrance with other less European selections. Fruitless olive and its dwarf cousin ‘Little Ollie’ are hot right now to accent Mediterranean inspired architecture. Blend them with succulents or low profile herbs in traditional terra cotta pots for focal points on patio and terrace. Use Waterhold Cocoa Blend Potting Soil to retain moisture and reduce the need to water often, making these creations even more water conservative than Mother Nature planned.

Herb Box - Maureen Gilmer
Herb Box: Old boxes repurposed at Rogers for a small space herb garden or a super gift idea.


Every foodie needs an herb garden filled with the best culinary species. At Rogers this year they’ve used old wood crates to create rustic herb gardens perfect for an apartment balcony, a condo courtyard or even a small roof garden. It’s truly amazing how useful they are when ganged together like this, offering lots to pinch and pluck. Since so many herbs come from arid climates that lack summer rainfall, try Hy Porosity Natural and Organic Potting Soil which helps them stay high and dry during rainy summers.

During my years at Rogers I learned that one potting soil doesn’t fit all plants. That’s why Black Gold offers so many options. Use the right ones so you can be just as successful with your succulents, Mediterraneans, edibles and herbs no matter where you live.

Sticks On Fire

Sticks On Fire - Photo by Craig Quirk
Sticks On Fire (photo by Craig Quirk)

Even though it is not winter hardy in most of our Pacific NW climate, for a novelty container plant, it is hard to top the color of Euphorbia tirucalli. This often goes by the common name of Red Pencil Tree, Firesticks, or Sticks on Fire and when you see the plant, you will know why it has those names. Stems tend to be red in winter and fade to copper in summer. It is an excellent container plant for a deck or patio. It needs good drainage, and I use Black Gold Cactus Mix and mentally consider it a summer annual and then I am not disappointed when it does not survive the winter!


Fast-Draining Soil for Succulents

Potted Specimens - Fast Draining Soil for Succulents
This succulent collection features inspiring examples of plant and pot compositions

“Water applied must drain through the soil in fifteen seconds. If it fails to do so, the soil is too dense.” Such advice came to me decades ago from an old school nurseryman who specialized in cacti and succulents. Back then I thought this fifteen second law regarding fast-draining soil for succulents was ridiculous. After moving to the desert I learned what native cactus ground looks like. Water applied instantly vanishes into the soil. The nurseryman was right.

Today about half my collection of succulent plants are grown in small pots that come into an unheated south facing greenhouse for the winter. They are planted in Black Gold Cactus Mix, which drains within the fifteen second rule.

Soil is Everything

What many new succulent gardeners fail to understand is that, because cacti root differently, soil is everything. Standard plants go deep to catch ground moisture after the surface soil dries out. In the desert, cacti adapt to short periods of rainfall by spreading out shallow roots over a large area. These roots are capable of rapidly taking up water before it water drains through porous ground. This water is immediately stored in a succulent’s specialized tissues that hold it between widely spaced rain events. Shallow rooting is the reason why most cacti do best in low, wide pots, pans and bowls with large, open drain holes.

Succulent Pot - Fast Draining Soil for Succulents
This low, wide pot allows for plenty of surface root development beneath the surface gravel.

Cactus potting soil contains perlite, which looks like little white pieces of popcorn. While it is excellent for a root zone, it floats to the surface when I water. This and little bits of organic matter become entangled in the spines or settle in nooks and crannies of smooth surface skin. This is not only unsightly, it brings soil born bacteria in direct contact with the plant skin which may begin the rotting process.

To control these floaters, succulent aficionados apply a layer of fine gravel on top of the potting soil to keep it all in place when water is applied. White rock is popular for modern style containers with a more graphic look. I prefer washed gravel because it’s more naturalistic and blends with the rocks I find on walks to use as an accent stone. You can also use aquarium gravel for more unusual or brightly colored composition of succulent, pot and surface material.

Transplant Gently

Even the smallest damage to the skin of a plant can allow pathogens to enter and begin the process of internal cell damage which leads to softening rot. When transplanting cacti, I handle each plant carefully to avoid the slightest damage. Once removed from the original pot, I do not replant immediately but allow it to sit bare root in the open air for a few days. This lets any damaged roots or skin heal over or callus before repotting in new soil. Failing to do so brings soil pathogens into direct contact with a wound, which inevitably infects internal tissues.

When your soil is sufficiently well drained for cacti and gorgeous succulents, it becomes downright difficult to over water them. The warmer months of summer are their rapid growing season. During this growing season, water often, feed modestly, and above all, make sure you use Black Gold Cactus Mix to be sure it drains in about fifteen seconds.