DIY: Make This Trickle-Down Succulent Tower

Donkey Tails (Senecio morganianum) in a vertical can cascade.

This idea came from deep within Mexico where plastic nursery containers are rare and coveted.  Tin cans are used, whenever possible, instead of pots to save money.  When I found the tower at Xochemilco, I realized this is trickle-down-watering at its finest.  It’s also the most innovative idea I’d seen for recycling and saving money.  It also offered a great way to grow more plants with less water and space.  Anyone with a fence post, porch post or just a single 4′ x 4′ in a post hole can create this vertical green tower.


String of Bananas (Senecio radicans)

Cascading Succulents

The good news is that it’s used for the most beautiful of all succulents: string of pearls (Senecio rowleyanus), donkey tails (Senecio morganianum),  string of bananas (Senecio radicans), and rosary vine (Ceropegia woodii).  All produce long, dangling tresses that soon cloak the post in pendulous foliage.  Though frost tender, they benefit from your cover, or simply remove cans before the first frost and decorate your sunny windows for the winter.

For most who live where there is summer rain, this vertical system solves the problem of keeping succulents dry enough, so they don’t rot in the heat.  It was invented in Mexico City by a cottage-level succulent grower to protect cacti and succulents with overhead tarps where it rains in the afternoons.  It will work with your climate, too.   When you grow plants under patio covers on posts, they’re covered from rain but still exposed to plenty of sun.  This keeps them dry until you decide they need water.

Rosary vine (Ceropegia woodii)

Rosary vine (Ceropegia woodii)

Watering and Drainage

Watering is the most fun since each can drains into the one below it and so on.  That means every drop of water you apply is utilized.   This system will work for virtually any kind of plant and offers a great way to grow herbs, greens, and flowers, too.

If you use succulents to create your version, you must ensure the cans drain quickly by using a nail to punch numerous holes in the bottom, not just one.  Use only Black Gold Cactus Mix when planting each can.  Tin cans are ideally sized for cell-pack succulent starts or small 2″ potted seedlings, the largest root ball that fits.

Potting Mix

Due to the small root zone, keeping water in the cans is vital for less drought-resistant plants, such as cilantro.   Take advantage of Black Gold Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Soil to help each plant maintain moisture over a much longer period as well as benefiting from higher fertility levels and RESiLIENCE®, which may reduce wilting. Pine needles are used in Mexico for mulch which is stuffed into the tops of the cans to hold on to moisture and extend time spans between trickle-down watering.

Waterhold Coco BlendThere are a dozen variations possible on this basic idea, from fancy wire bales on the cans to upsizing everything too much larger containers for the same trickle-down on a larger scale.  It’s endless how Black Gold potting soils can turn discarded cans into the biggest problem solver of the season.  Start collecting them today.  Then plant your succulents any time of year and sow winter greens late summer for easy picking on the porch.

Gardening for Bats

4.21A hylocereus triangularis flower
The foot-wide blossom of Queen of the Night (Hylocereus triangularis) has many stamens that bats must wade through to reach nectaries deep inside.

It’s curious that an agave that flowers once at the end of life produces such an enormous bloom stalk.  These can range from 5- to 15-feet tall, depending on the species.  Many of the flowers are clustered at the very top, which is an adaptation for one particular pollinator, the bat.  Because bats use echolocation to guide them, it can be more difficult to navigate their way through brush and thickets.  So naturally a plant that seeks these night-flying pollen vectors would raise its flowers above the brush where they are easily accessed by bats.  Without bats there would be minimal pollination of these plants, which are the primary source of tequila production.

At sunset 30 million freetail bats emerge from Bracken Cave in Texas to consume 250 tons of insects every night.  A single brown bat can catch and eat up to 1000 mosquitoes per hour!  Bats are indeed our most effective insect problem solvers so they deserve a place in our gardens.

Bat Pollination

Many bat species pollinate flowers, feed on nectar, and return to consume the ripe fruit that follows pollination.

Bats pollinate saguaro (bat pollination is called “chiropterophily”) and other tall cacti that bloom at the very top to facilitate these visitors. Vine cacti use trees to raise their flowers for bats both the in desert and tropics.  These enormous snow-white blossoms lure the bats throughout the night when they burrow into the mass of stamens to reach nectaries at the base of the bell-shaped throats.  These flying mammals are known to grasp stiff parts of the flower with their claws while they feed, which scientists use as evidence of pollination.

Bat flowers also bear unusually large numbers of pollen-laden stamens because these animals also eat pollen during their visits. Pollen that catches on the hairs of a bat’s body allow them to fertilize a surprisingly large number of plants in a single night.  Studies show that one bat can carry about 1.5 million grains of pollen each evening, which translates to around 30 different flower visits.

Western Flowers for Bats

agave stalk
Agave bloom with tall, branched stalks of tightly packed flower clusters that are easy for bats to find using echolocation.

To lure local bats to your yard, where they consume from 600 to 1000 mosquitoes per night, grow their favorite flowers, which are produced by night-blooming cereus (the name for a number of large-flowered, vining ceroid cacti) .  One of the best of these vine-like cacti is fondly dubbed Queen of the Night (Hylocereus undatus).   The vanilla-scented night-blooming cereus (Selenicereus grandiflorus) is another similar species for bats. Both are vigorous species for frost-free climates, where they are best planted under trees or patio cover (where there’s mild frost) or in greenhouses.  Elsewhere you can enjoy them outdoors during the warm season and bring it inside for winter before the first frost.  Winter it over on a sun porch or bright south-facing window.

The blooms of Agave are also favored by bats, though most species bloom rarely, sometimes taking as long as 80 years as with century plant (Agave americana).  It literally takes an entire lifetime for each single plant rosette to save up enough fuel to flower.  When it is time to flower, they send up flower stalks, much like a head of lettuce does in early summer.  Some Agaves can produce enormous bloom stalks up to 20 feet tall, with nectar rich flowers raised high for accessibility to bats.

Growing Flowers for Bats

Vine cacti grow as hanging plants, so they’re easy to move around with the seasons.  Grow this one in a hanging moss basket that ensures there’s rapid drainage with no chance of over watering.  Fill it with Black Gold Cactus Mix potting soil to maintain good drainage throughout the summer, so even if there’s rain, it will still thrive.

When planting Agave in pots, choose a container that is wide enough to contain the Agave and have at least 2 inchs or more free space on all sides to allow for new growth, watering space, and surface evaporation. Place a square of mesh over the drain hole to prevent erosion of soil from the bottom of the pot. Then open a fresh bag of Black Gold Cactus Mix, a fast-draining medium containing a blend of perlite/pumice or cinders, earthworm castings and compost. It encourages vigorous growth while ensuring ample aeration and drainage. [Read how to prepare outdoor gardens beds for Agave here.]

As we all discover a new appreciation of living green and supporting the ecology of the earth, don’t relegate bats to the world of draconian folklore.  Support them and their pollination efforts by bringing plants and flowers they feed on into your garden.


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”

Cultus Succulentata, the Succulent Plant Lovers Club

These teenage barrel cacti prefer to grow in the gravelly ground of a rocky hillside.

Ten years ago I digressed into a netherworld of horticulture that is secretive, dogmatic, painful and unforgiving. Call it Cultus Succulentata, an unofficial group of succulent lovers as unconventional as the plants we cultivate. What binds us are succulent plants able to survive in the most arid climates.  But, I’m hooked on one family of this succulent cult, Cactaceae, which grow nowhere else but in the Americas. As a desert rat mentored by cactus guru Clark Moorten, at his botanical garden in the Palm Springs desert, I have been taught by the best.

Continue reading “Cultus Succulentata, the Succulent Plant Lovers Club”