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.

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”

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.

Pot Up Garden Plants for Winter Joy


Geraniums: Pot your outdoor geraniums like they do in the Alps where plants are brought outdoors to line a sunny window sill.

Autumn brings an end to the summer garden, but you need not say good-bye to everything you planted this year. It’s an age-old practice to pot garden plants of certain varieties to bring indoors where they live on for months, and some may even survive the winter to grow for another year.

Zonal geraniums are favorite garden variety Pelargoniums that grandmother traditionally dug from the soil, potted up into red clay, and set upon the window sill. These will remain evergreen, which is all you need to enjoy the exotic brightly colored foliage of fancy-leaved types. The ability to winter-over geraniums this way makes them a better buy than one season annuals that die with the frost. This is also a great time to take cuttings to make more of your favorite colored leaves and flowers for next year’s garden.

The trendiest group of plants today are succulents. There are some such as sedum that are cold hardy, but the popular ones are frost tender species from southern Africa. The big showy varieties are expensive and too often thrown away after they bolt to flower at the end of the season. Bolting spoils their beautiful shape, but it doesn’t mean the plant will die afterwards. They are in fact long lived if protected from frost.

Flapjacks: Kalanchoe thyrsifolia, aka flapacks bolt to flower, then they can be dug and potted with Black Gold Cactus Soil.

The most outstanding of the tender Kalanchoes are flapjacks with their pancake-sized leaves that make them prized plants. Ditto the larger Echeverias. Now is time to cut off the spent flower spike and repot the base in super-porous Black Gold Cactus Mix. Over the winter months it will produce many offsets that you can pluck and plant come spring to expand your succulent garden next year.
 Recently, spider plants have become very popular outdoors due to their vivid leaf color and long, dangling stems. Gardeners often cut the danglers and plant them into shaded garden soil after the last frost where they root over the summer. In fall, dig these up and plant into pots so they flourish on a warm windowsill until spring returns.

For all ornamentals, use Black Gold All Purpose Potting Soil which contains slow release fertilizer that ensures there is sufficient fertility for winter growth. This is ideal for zonal geraniums and spider plants as well as tropicals and tender perennials.

Mrs Pollock Plant
Mrs. Pollock: The fancy leaved Pelargoniums are geranium varieties that produce vivid foliage for brightening winter days.

Food plants and herbs from your organic garden may be potted in Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil. Because we use only the leaves of herbs, keep them alive over winter to retain their foliage for fresh seasoning. For example, dig a chunk of oregano before the plant is burned back by frost, then pot it up and bring indoors to season your Italian dishes all winter long. The same applies to mints and thyme. Just be sure the plants you bring inside are free of any pests or diseases that may otherwise spread to your healthy plants.

Even though frost may spell the end of your outdoor garden, it is the beginning of your indoor one. Load up on fresh potting soil before garden centers store their supplies. Set a small table against a south facing window where the plants receive the most sunlight. Transplant, repot and start your offsets in this controlled environment. They’ll become a living link to the beauty and fragrance of your summer garden on those dark days when the ground is frozen and the snow flies.