Quasi Bonsai: Manageable Bonsai Beauty

(Image by Maureen Gilmer)

The price of neglecting to water your bonsai in midsummer even for a day will have to be paid in a withered plant.  You might as well plough the field and forget the seed as commit such negligence.  –Norio Kobayashi, Japan 1951

The little-known secret of true Japanese bonsai trees is that they are watered every day.  Not a single sunrise passes without the gardeners inspecting every bonsai inch and checking how much moisture is available to the roots.  It’s vital because the shallow, tray-like pots have two or more large drain holes and drain quickly.  There’s little room for moisture-holding soil.  These miniaturized trees grown in this ancient tradition live centuries due to intimate daily care.  It’s also why they are prone to die on our patios, too. Lack of such TLC is a bonsai killer.

Unlike the rigors and high cost of true bonsai keeping, you can change the rules a bit to create a more manageable quasi bonsai that offers the same look with a fraction of the care.  Anyone can make one if you understand what’s important to get it right.

Quasi Bonsai Creation

This Lantana dangler (next to the beautiful fig creation) requires a pedestal in the garden. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

1. Pot Depth to Diameter Ratio

The first step is to find the right sized pot with sufficient depth to diameter ratio.  It may be oval or rectangular, but pot diameter must be three times pot depth.  Using this as a guide, find pots capable of holding more soil, so the plants do not dry out as fast as they do with traditional pan-shaped pots.  It’s really all about the proportions, so your choice may be a simple modern or classic ceramic pot, or even a recycled container.

2. Shrub Type and Size

True bonsai is a full-sized tree adapted to remain small due to perpetual pruning of top and roots to gradually dwarf leaves, flowers, and fruit as well as the trunk and branches.  For quasi bonsai, you select a dwarf woody shrub that bears a curious growth habit, instead. Damaged shrubs may prove to be the ideal starter plants for your twisted creation, when compared to a perfect nursery-grown specimen. One gallon shrubs are a good starting size.

Choose a shrub that is suitable for your bonsai-style pot. Make sure the pot is deep enough to contain at least half the root ball.  When transplanting, you’ll have to remove soil and cut and splay the roots at the bottom of the root ball to fit. Set the crown of the shrub so it lies a half inch below the top rim of the pot.  Pack the remaining spaces with Black Gold African Violet Potting Mix, or if unavailable, use Black Gold All Purpose Potting Mix. Ensure there’s free space around the pot edge that allows you to fill it with water to seep down at its own rate.  It also allows for moss or gravel without instant spill over when filled to the top.  With shrubs, this reduces the chance of crown rot from planting too deep.

3. Great Rocks

Bonsai can be an upright tree, a leaning tree, or one that naturally dangles off the edge of the pot.  The latter often requires a pedestal so the dangling part hangs in space.  In quasi bonsai, asymmetrical bonsai forms are challenging because the newly planted root ball can be pulled loose by the weight of the rest of the plant after the soil is wet from watering.  The trick to keeping the root ball in place is with a counterweight placed on top.  This is done with a single large rock selected for its size and compatibility with the plant and pot. It also protects the root ball from solar heat and surface evaporation.  The rock can be tall or flat, just as long as the weight is an adequate counterbalance.  This also keeps the pot from becoming tippy on the tabletop if one side is too heavy.

4. Quasi Bonsai Pruning

Once planted securely, pruning your quasi bonsai is the most rewarding part of the whole process. First study bonsai tree photos online to get a feel for the various forms and how they are pruned to resemble a larger tree.  Find a pair of stout scissors or clippers with a long nose that can reach into the trunk to prune out branches or twigs without breaking others.  Do this slowly, standing back often to look at the whole before returning to this detail work.  This is where you’ll find your Zen year after year as it matures.

The beauty of bonsai can transform a balcony, patio or yard with instant Asian elements.  Make your own this year and discover how easy it is to get the look without strict adherence to the art.  Study it well, know the forms and become a bonsai maven among your friends and neighbors.

Plants for Quasi Bonsai

The dense dangling form of Japanese juniper is coveted for quasi bonsai. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Many shrubs are good candidates for quasi bonsai. Here are five evergreen selections that are easy to grow and train.

Dwarf English Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’): Maxing out at 12 to 18 inches tall, this is the best and greenest boxwood for pruning into a small upright form. Train it in a partly sunny location away from drying winds.

Japanese Garden Juniper (Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’): This tiny juniper is superior to all other compact creeping junipers, due to its dense bluish foliage, tight growth habit, and slow growth. Locate it in full sun.

Dwarf Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina domestica ‘Fire Power’ or Harbour Dwarf): This Chinese garden shrub, with its vividly colored foliage, is an ideal choice in lieu of upright trees for creating a mini quasi bonsai grove. Dwarf varieties, which generally reach around 1-2 feet, make for easier training. Choose a full to partial sun location for dwarf heavenly bamboo.

Elephant’s Food (Portulacaria afra): This African succulent is like a small-leaved jade tree.  It’s commonly sold as small plants, grows quickly, and withstands hard pruning, while maintaining its heat, and drought resistance. Grow it in full sun to partial shade.

Dwarf Azalea (Rhododendron indicum): Evergreen foliage and scarlet or magenta spring blossoms make this dwarf azalea a great choice for quasi bonsai. Specimens naturally reach only 2-3 feet, so they are easily trained in a partially shaded garden location.

Dwarf English boxwood are perfect for quasi bonsai creations.


Bold Waterwise Container Plantings

Do you need a big accent container plant for the patio or garden that asks for little water? In California, designs resulting from water cutbacks are changing the way we look at potted plants. Now they are a bigger part of the landscape, nestled in the planting or set at crucial spots to please the eye. These are valuable problem-solvers for filling in spots where older plants have died. They also help to make gateways, and other focal points interesting in small spaces.

Trendy southern California water-wise gardens show you how it’s done. Bold, water-wise plantings from top gardens have been hand-picked to show great design with these plants. Note how simple and dramatic each can be in the right setting, and how little care they require. So be inspired to create your own by these four stellar examples.

The Huntington Containers

Earthy green pots planted with single Cape rushes bring needed height to the garden. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

Southern California’s botanical garden, library, and art center, The Huntington, shows off some of the best planting ideas for the region. Their new California Garden features pots of fine-textured reeds to define each tier of the gradual grade change. Nestled among in-ground plants, it has earthy green pots planted with single Cape rushes (Condropetalum tectorum). They provide stellar vertical elements in an otherwise low-lying planting scheme. The South African reeds are grown in summer gardens or frost-free regions to provide the dark green fine-textured appearance rare among droughty plants.

Palm Springs Container

Cascading variegated elephant bush thrives in drought and looks spectacular in pots. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

In Palm Springs the newest darling of succulent pots is the variegated elephant bush (Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’). It’s a green succulent variant featuring cream-colored variegation. This gives it a light value against darker pots or backgrounds. Variegation causes this variety to be smaller, less sun resistant, and more pendulous. It’s become a favorite for nesting exotic-looking Agave.

Balboa Park Container

A simple purple wandering Jew adds bold color to a tall pot. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

In San Diego’s Balboa Park was a discovery for using an old-fashioned, purple, inch-plant (Tradescantia pallida ‘Purpurea’) is planted as both a house plant and an outdoor summer annual. Fast-growing, tolerant of extreme heat with a lush purple coloring and small pink flowers, this is a new trend for shaded areas of droughty gardens. Widely available at garden centers, the foliage is outstanding in this very tall turquoise pot. Over the summer the long purple tendrils will cascade down the pot edges for a delightfully Art Nouveau feel. Where there’s frost, dig and move them indoors for winter house plants.

California Home Container

A minimalist blue-on-blue pot brings cool elegance to an apartment patio. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

For apartment dwellers, another container find along the California coast resulted in an all-blue creation. Blue chalk sticks (Senecio serpens), a lovely cool-hued succulent, makes the perfect companion for this blue Delft-style pot. True blues are rare in the drought-resistant garden, but with the cobalt glaze as an anchor, this blue plant is all you need for eye-popping beauty.

Every one of these containers can be created in a day for instant upgrades to outdoor spaces and for lighting subjects.

Planting Waterwise Containers

To maximize water retention, use Black Gold Waterhold Potting Mix for planting a rush pot provided the container is very well-drained. This reduces watering frequency and leaves moisture deeper down for the reeds. When planting succulents, including the purple Tradescantia, variegated Portulacaria, and blue chalk sticks, use Black Gold Cactus Mix to ensure adequate drainage. For very deep pots, don’t hesitate to keep your plant in a nursery pot and drop it inside the bigger one for quick seasonal changes.

Hot pots can be made any time because they’re not dependent on flowers. Instead, they are beautiful and useful on day one for that party, gathering, or special event. Above all, they ask for little water while flourishing through the heat of the summer happy as clams.

Pots of fine-textured Cape rushes define each tier of The Huntington’s California Garden. (Image care of The Huntington)


Sansevieria Reconsidered

Extreme South African drought consumed everything except curious green, sword-like plants rising from the barren ground beneath giraffe-pruned trees. They survived because they are succulents. While browsers struggled to find food, they did not touch the swords, which contained unpalatable toxins.

This is Sansevieria trifasciata, the old fashioned mother-in-law’s-tongue or sword plant. Its resilience shows why it is a no-brainer house plant; it’s tough as well as attractive. Take it outdoors for the summer, and it’s a game changer on porch or patio.

New Popularity

Succulents are the perfect match for Sanseveria because both demand similar watering conditions.

The rediscovery of this Victorian drawing room house plant by lovers of the mid-century modern aesthetic has brought Sanseveria into the limelight again. Sansevieria trifasciata and its close kin are usually sold in the house plant department because they are cold-tender succulent house plants, until now. Where patios are quite shady, this is one drought resistant house plant that you can bring outdoors every summer.

Drought is also demanding new plants and varieties that don’t need much water. Sanseverias are not fond of hot western sun, so they prefer sheltered living spaces outdoors. Where lack of light precludes many less resilient species, these are real problem solvers.

Potting Sanseverias

A Sanseveria busts out of a red clay pot repaired with wire. (Frida Khalo’s garden in Coyoacan, Mexico)

Sanseverias are slow spreaders, much like Iris with their thick fleshy rhizomes that grow into colonies. Green shoots are produced along the roots. These roots are so strong they can crack a pot if too crowded, which is why they are best grown in 1-gallon nursery pots that can be cut away with pruners when it’s time to divide them. When pot bound, simply remove the root ball, separate it into manageable sections, let the root ends dry out for a few days, then replant in Black Gold Cactus Mix. As succulents, they appreciate a porous soil mix.

For a fresh idea, put your nursery sword plant in its plastic pot into a bigger pot of Black Gold All Purpose Potting Soil, so its rim sits an inch above the soil surface. Then plant around it with other seasonal plants or succulents that grow under the same light exposure. This will give your sword plant a more well-drained root zone than its companions in the same pot. If just planting companion succulents, use only Black Gold Cactus Mix to maximize drainage.

Foliage Variations

Sansevieria can come onto a veranda in spring, then moved inside before frost.

Sansevieria varieties are all similar in form, but they have different leaf patterns. This allows you to brighten or darken a setting, depending on the color value of a certain variety. Unfortunately, varieties aren’t always properly labeled, so be sure to select by eye to ensure you get what you need for the space you have in mind. With forms just inches tall to 4 feet in height, size should also be considered when purchasing. Since these were grown in greenhouses, give them some time to adapt to the location at your house before repotting or dividing.

A plant this neutral is a chameleon, altering its overall feel and character depending on the setting. When grown as a house plant, there is no better vertical plant to play off a white wall. Add greenery to a hot zone in the house or apartment, knowing that if you forget to water, it’ll be just fine. If Sanseveria can survive an epic African drought, even the busiest mom can enjoy this oxygen-producing house plant. And, the most harried career woman will come home to a little bit of nature every day.

No matter where you live, bring sword plants out for summer, to try a whole new way to garden with them, knowing they’ll come back inside with you at frost to wait out the cold winter days.



String of Pearls: Living Beads for Hanging Baskets

String of pearls is delicate yet tough, low maintenance and incredibly rewarding.

They are living jewelry no woman can resist, the most coveted house plant, string of pearls. This tender succulent is feminine looking, delicate yet tough, low maintenance and incredibly rewarding. There are two species that can transform traditional or modern spaces, indoors or out. Hang them like living necklaces to bring awe to your home.


String of pearls (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

The true string of pearls is a South African native from the maritime Cape of Good Hope, so it loves the humid coast. Dubbed Senecio rowleyanus, its leaves are like tiny grey-green peas on the finest dangling stems. Its cousin from drier inland is Senecio radicans, fondly called “string of bananas” due to its sickle-shaped leaves. These do better in hot inland climates. Both make great house plants.

In the wild, both senecios grow as ground covers that root as they spread, so they rarely look like the hanging beauties we buy from the garden center. Yet, when planted to dangle in hanging baskets or raised pots and placed in a bright room, specimens almost look like living sculptures.

In gardens where winters are mild, these senecios can be grown outside, usually in raised pots or baskets that ensure perfect drainage. Indoors they are equally desirous of porous soils and hanging pots that are shallow and wide. Wide pots allow the ground-hugging plants to generate a lot of surface roots to hold soil tightly against the weight of their hanging strands.


String of bananas (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

A key to success is rapid drainage in your container. The best hanging pots have many holes in the bottom to ensure plants remain dry at the root zone. When creating your hanging string-of-pearls sculpture, start with the right pot—perhaps a mid-century throwback with a macramé hanger. Once you’ve found it, buy your pearls or bananas and get ‘er done.

You’ll need super well-drained potting soil to keep your plants from becoming too wet. When transplanting to your beautiful hanging pot, Black Gold Cactus Mix offers the ideal porosity. This fast-draining potting soil will make it much harder to over water your string of pearls.

When you get ready to transplant these senecios, study the root ball that comes out of the nursery pot. Gently remove any potting soil that does not have roots on the lower half of the mass. This will allow you to better fit the root ball into your shallow pot.

Set the plant, then lightly backfill with Black Gold Cactus Mix that has not been pre-moistened. If it sifts out of the drain holes, line the bottom with salvaged window screen before planting. Finally, tap the pot to help the plant settle into the potting soil, and wait to water. Allow a day or two for any damaged succulent tissues to callus over before you introduce moisture. This is essential to avoiding potential rot at the soil line.


When you do water, plug the drain of your kitchen sink, add 2 inches of water, and put the whole pot in the sink.  Let it wick up water until you can see wet soil on top.  This means it’s time to drain the sink. Leave the pot to drain for a few hours before returning it to its hanger. This watering method keeps moisture away from rot-prone stems that are the Achilles heel

A happy string of pearls can reach great lengths. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

of these delicate succulents. As strands grow longer, be sure to lay them along the counter on the sink’s edge to keep them from getting wet.

A final key to success with all dangling succulents, particularly fine-stemmed ones like these, is avoiding the wind. Continual swaying wears down the stems along the pot edge, causing injury that limits moisture transfer to the stem tips where new growth occurs.

These senecios are easy to root, so if you find one that works well for you, propagate it.  Just take a runner and bend it up to the soil mass on top where it will root on contact quickly. Then sever it from the mother plant to start a whole new living sculpture of favorite pearls or bananas galore, without risk.

Seven Mediterranean Food Plants for the Dry Edible Garden

Pomegranates are common fruits for southern California.

The dry edible garden is rooted in classical civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea. The Greeks, Romans, and Carthaginians shared their ancient local food crops throughout the western world. Some of the best are grapes, pomegranates, date palms, rosemary, artichokes, cardoons, and figs. All are still vital to contemporary agriculture in deserts and dry places around the world and make great choices for arid-zone gardens.

Growing Mediterranean Edibles

Because most of these Mediterranean edibles are not very cold hardy, you need to know their tolerances before trying to grow any outdoors. Further north, grow dwarf varieties in containers that can be brought indoors for the winter. Water-holding, Black Gold Moisture Supreme potting soil is an ideal mix for contained arid food plants.

One potential problem is that some of these plants, such as date palms, need long-term high heat for their fruit to ripen properly. Though fruits might appear in cooler temps, they aren’t nearly as sweet or just won’t fully ripen.

If you live where they are hardy, grapes, pomegranates, date palms, rosemary, artichokes, cardoons, and figs make outstanding landscape plants that thrive despite limited water and high heat. Keep in mind that sufficient irrigation is required, particularly in porous, fast draining soils, if they are to produce quality fruit. Here are additional tips for growing each.

1. 2. Artichokes and Cardoons

Artichokes have naturalized in arid coastal California, proving their adaptability. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Out in the garden, the easiest arid vegetables to start with are artichokes and their close relative, cardoon. Both act as ornamental and edible perennials. The artichoke we eat is the flower bud, which should be harvested when buds are full-sized with tight bracts. For a big floral show, leave the buds to mature into huge, purple thistle-like blooms. This plant also bears fabulous lobed grayish foliage that’s exceptional for gray gardens. [Click here to learn more about growing artichokes.]

Cardoons have flavorful stems that can be blanched and eaten. The bold silvery leaves also look great when planted in arid flower gardens, and are followed by large, purplish, thistle-like flowers.

3. Date Palms

Fresh dates on a date palm tree.

Mediterranean date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) reach up to 100-feet and like heat and drought. They are hardy to USDA Zones 8b11, so they can only be grown in the hot and dry American landscapes of Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas, and Florida. Full sun and well-drained dry soil are required for good growth. Male and female flowers exist on separate plants, so at least one male and female plant are needed for cross-pollination and fruit set.

(Editor’s Note: If space is limited, try growing the Southeast Asian pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii), which reaches 8-10 feet, can be container grown, and is hardy to USDA Hardiness Zones 9 to 11. Its dark purplish fruits are thin-skinned but edible.)

4. Figs

Many figs grow well in large containers.

Dwarf forms of fig (Ficus carica) are specially bred for small-space areas. They grow well in containers that are fit for small city gardens or high-density neighborhoods in hot climates. Hardiness depends on the variety. Some are hardy to USDA Zone 6, as is the case with ‘Chicago Hardy’, while most others are hardy to USDA Zones 8-11. Here too, learn if their fruit cycle works locally by checking with your local garden center. You want the plant to thrive in a large patio container during summer, then plan for winter protection strategies. You may need wheels or a good dolly to bring pots indoors.

5. Grapes

The green hose marks the single watering point for this grapevine in the high desert. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Common grapes (Vitis vinifera) are amazing vines that provide both extensive shade and an annual crop of fruit grown for fresh eating or winemaking. Grapevine covered ramadas were landscape fixtures in early California and served as the first true “outdoor rooms” in the region.

The beauty of grapes is that they have one stem per plant, making irrigation of single plants easy. Drip irrigation helps sustain vines that survive an average of 30-40 years and become enormous over time, even with pruning. Grapes offer more than fruit; the young leaves are easily canned for homemade stuffed grape leaves (dolmas) from scratch.

6. Pomegranates

Grapes have been cultivated in the Mediterranean since ancient times.

Today’s pomegranate (Punica granatum) trees come in a huge range of sizes, with smaller trees for city yards or larger trees for orchards or spacious landscape plantings.  So long as the local climate is within the cold tolerance range (USDA Hardiness Zones 8-11) and summers are not humid and rainy, pomegranates should thrive.

They grow well in poor, dry, rocky soils, but benefit from soils fortified with organic matter. (Commercial growers know that to achieve the largest juiciest fruits regular moisture and nutrition are needed.)  If the soil drains well, a pomegranate will appreciate added soil amendment.  The best choice is to blend Black Gold Garden Compost into the soil at planting time.  This helps young potted trees transition from potting soil to native soil. [Click here to learn more about growing pomegranates.]

7. Rosemary

A rosemary shrub in flower.

The herb rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a large evergreen shrub that grows well in arid regions and tolerates intense sun.  It has many uses. Enjoy it as a culinary herb, cut flower, and or essential oil scent. The fresh stems also make great flavored kebob sticks and/or barbecue brushes. Plant potted rosemary in Black Gold potting soil and place on a sunny, west-facing patio or deck.

Quality potting soils with high water-holding capacity are the best choice for growing edible plants with fewer irrigation demands. Good mixes rich in organics hold more water for longer than low-grade potting mixes. That means you can grow more with less water, and harvest fruit and veggies at a fraction of the price of shipped fruit from grocery stores.

Top 10 Water-Wise Container Garden Plants

No matter where you live, you can always count on bouts of hot, dry summer weather. That’s why it’s smart to fill your outdoor containers with drought-tolerant flowers and foliage plants. Sure, you can always water heavily and fill your pots with water-holding potting soil, but water-wise plants provide real container garden insurance. They will perform beautifully in the dog days of summer, saving you time, money, and worry.


Top 10 Water-Wise Container Garden Plants

Proven Winner’s Good Morning Sunshine is a cool-colored, textural container garden recipe custom made for hot, dry weather.

These ornamentals create a great pallet for water-wise container gardens. Once established, they will tolerate drought and shine in the summer heat.

Agastache Alcapulco® Salmon Pink

Hummingbird Hyssop (Agastache hybrids)

These fragrant garden flowers add upright color to containers and attract hummingbirds. There are lots of varieties that vary in height, some reaching 2-3′ and others staying quite compact. The colorful members of the Alcapulco® Series are vigorous and come in pastel shades of rose, orange, and pink. Pinch the old flower stems back to encourage new flowers all summer long.


Angelonia Angelface® Blue

Summer Snapdragon (Angelonia Angelface® Series)

These bedding flowers produce nonstop blooms all summer long in shades of pink, purple, rose, and white. The annuals are offered by Proven Winners® and their flowers attract bees and butterflies. Even though they look delicate, they can take high heat as well as drought.



Bidens Goldilocks Rocks® (image by Proven Winners®)

Tickseed (Bidens ferulifolia)

Bright gold flowers make tickseed a sunny choice for containers. The low, mounding annuals add substance to plantings and bloom all summer long, attracting bees and butterflies. The variety Goldilocks Rocks® is especially tough and will thrive in even the worst summer weather. Tickseed is self-cleaning, so there is no need to deadhead.



Catharanthus Cora® Violet

Madagascar Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus)

Bushy Madagascar periwinkle blooms effortlessly until frost, making it a mainstay for sunny, drought-tolerant containers. It comes in lots of bright colors that can be purchased at practically any garden center. Its flowers are favored by butterflies, and many great varieties exist, such as those in the compact Cora® Series.



Cuphea Vermillionaire® (Proven Winners®)

Cigar Flower (Cuphea ignea)

Talk about a resilient garden flower! Cigar flower is a big, bushy ornamental that becomes covered with orange-red, elongated flowers throughout summer. The tubular blooms attract hummingbirds and don’t stop until frost. The Proven Winners® hybrid Vermillionaire® is especially large and colorful.



Euphorbia Diamond® Delight (Proven Winners®)

Euphorbia (Euphorbia Diamond® Series)

The delicate, white blooms of these tough garden flowers look like snowflakes and will complement almost any container planting. Euphorbia in the Diamond® Series are offered by Proven Winners® and their popularity is a testament to their ease of growth and beauty. The mounded, slightly cascading plants are self-cleaning, look great all summer, and will bloom until frost.



Lantana Bandana™ Pink

Lantana (Lantana camera)

All lantana are as tough as nails, and the bushy plants give container gardens a colorful, robust look. The glowing flowers are produced in warm, bright, multi-colored clusters that attract butterflies. Some varieties are more compact than others, like those in the Bandana™ Series.



Artemisia Quicksilver (Proven Winners®)

Wormwood (Artemesia Quicksilver™)

Grown for its icy, silvery leaves and appealing mounded habit, Quicksilver™ is a tough wormwood that looks good with both warm- and cool-colored plantings. Its toothed leaves are fragrant and resistant to deer and rabbits.




Pennisetum Fireworks (Proven Winners)

Annual Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum)

This elegant grass brings soft, airy height to containers and comes in lots of shades–from the multi-colored ‘Fireworks‘ to the russet red Red Riding Hood. By midsummer, it will produce ornamental foxtail plumes that persist into fall, even after they have turned brown.



Dichondra Silver Falls (Proven Winners)

Dichondra (Dichondra Silver Falls™)

This is the ultimate drought-tolerant spiller for impressive pots! The foliage effortlessly cascades down like a waterfall of silver and can be gently pruned back if it becomes too long. Its neutral color combines well with many other plantings.



Container Design

Diamonds and Emeralds is a more neutral container recipe from Proven Winners. (Image by Proven Winners)

Container gardens must have plants with the same sun and water requirements. For professional looking pots, go for plants with contrasting textures, heights, and habits, and devise a clear color scheme.

The standard container design formula includes a vertical, mounding or bushy, and cascading plant married in a complementary arrangement where plant heights blend into a fluid design. Contrasting leaf textures (fine, bold, airy, or spiky) will lend even more dramatic looks to your container. Choosing a smart color scheme is the final design factor.

Harmonious color choices make beautiful gardens. Colors may be contrasting but complementary (on the opposite end of the color wheel, such as purple and yellow, orange and blue, and red and green), warm or cool (reds, oranges, and yellows are warm and blues, greens, and purples are cool), or in similar hues (pink with pink, purple with purple, and so on).  Neutral plants and flowers, such as tan-, white-, silver-, and black-hued plants, fit with practically any color group. Click here to view some great container designs by Proven Winners®.


Container Preparation & Care

Larger containers hold more water and give roots more space, so opt for big pots able to sustain your contained gardens—especially when growing multiple plants in one pot. Containers must always drain well, so make sure they have drainage holes in the bottom and a base able to hold residual water.

The proper mix also makes a difference. For best performance in hot, dry weather choose Black Gold® Moisture Supreme Container Mix or OMRI Listed® Black Gold® Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Mix. Both contain natural ingredients that hold water well. Adding a slow-release fertilizer at planting time will also boost performance.

Water-wise plantings require less water, but they still need timely irrigation. Your watering plan will depend on the size of your pot and the plants chosen. Those planted in large containers with water-wise plants often require water every three days or so. If your plants look lush and healthy, you know you are giving them what they need.

Summer Breeze is a warm-hued, water-wise container recipe from Proven Winners.

Planting a Barrel Cactus Safely

The ferocious spines of the golden barrel cactus make them very difficult to pot. (Image by Jessie Keith)

The golden barrel (Echinocactus grusonii) is America’s favorite cactus. All over the Southwest, it has become a coveted living ornament in landscapes. When backlit by the sun, the bright canary-yellow spines literally glow, creating high drama against blue agaves and succulents. A big yellow cactus potted on porch or patio becomes the quintessential year-round focal point that never loses its warm color.

Large golden barrel specimens and other large barrel cacti thrive in big, strong pots if they are planted properly. What folks don’t know is that they are darned difficult to handle, and painful, too. The challenge is transplanting the stemless ball of wickedly sharp spines. The combined soil and plant weight makes golden barrel unwieldy to carry, which complicates matters further.  Here’s how to do it safely without damage to you or the plant.

Protect Yourself

This basketball-sized golden barrel is planted in a perfect-sized salvaged container to allow for future growth and easy watering.

To start, you’ll need long, thick, solid-leather gloves, because picking up pots of golden barrels is a wrist and knuckle nightmare for bare skin. Loosely wrap the cactus in a piece of carpeting, or find a cardboard box that fits over the spines tight enough to “catch”. The box is a bit better because it lets you turn the cactus upside down to stand while you carefully remove the pot. This exposes the root ball and facilitates preparation for transplanting.

When inspecting the root ball, look to see if your large cactus has been field grown and recently potted up. Field-grown cacti are cultivated on slopes that provide rapid drainage. They are dug and potted up in nursery soils that typically drain more slowly and are less suited to cacti longevity because they’re viewed as temporary. To protect your investment, inspect the bottom of the plant and remove any organic matter that may provide excess moisture. Then you will want to prepare your container for planting.

Planting Barrel Cacti

bare root
Newly dug from the grower’s field, the shallow, wide roots of the golden barrel are exposed temporarily until transplanted.

Your decorative pot must be wide enough to contain the cactus and have at least 1 inch or more free space on all sides to allow for new growth, watering space, and surface evaporation. Use a concave pottery shard to dome over the drain hole to prevent erosion. 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.

Use dry potting soil right out of the bag when potting up your golden barrel cactus. Place a layer of soil at the base of the pot, then set the top of the cactus root ball about 1-2 inches below the pot’s edge, and hold it there while you pour in the mix around the sides. Allow the mix to filter down and lightly pack it to create a porous yet solid base.

BG_CACTUSMIX_1CF-FRONTDo not water the cactus directly after planting, and put it in a partially shaded location. Wait a couple of days before watering, so any injuries to roots during the planting process have had time to heal themselves. Then water in thoroughly. Add more potting soil where settling or pockets occur.

For more visual interest, try adding a surface layer of gravel, glazed tile shards, or tumbled glass. Place in full sun.

Finally, try raising the bottom of the pot up with broken tile shards to create a gap between the drain hole and saucer. This facilitates rapid drainage to create the perfect conditions for cacti and succulents. It also protects decks and paving from what can become a very heavy, beautiful and ferocious plant in your garden.

Succulents: Beware Over Packed Pots!

This composition of mixed succulents may look pretty, but the gang-potted group will not survive unless transplanted into their own Terracotta pots.


Those big, popular succulent collections sold in pots and troughs (otherwise known as “gang pots”) are dying out all over. Each container may be packed with a dozen or more species of succulent plants that often originate from vastly different locations and have different cultural needs.  Many are native to South Africa while others originate from Mexico on the other side of the world. Dry climates are not all the same. There is more variation in the growing preferences of different succulents than you might think.

balcony outside
This wrought-iron slatted window balcony shelf offers great drainage for succulents.

That’s why these ganged creations just don’t last that long.  Those succulents that need drier conditions are in conflict with those that need more moisture.  In the end, the one-size-fits-all gang pot results in gang watering, which will cause mixed-succulent-pot decline due to too much or too little moisture.

Secondly there’s no way to adjust the lighting given to different succulents in gang pots.  Different succulents often have different light requirements, but when they are set in one position in gang pots, you can’t give different plants the sunlight they need.  This is why you never see serious succulent aficionados growing this way.  When you are unable to control light or moisture well, these plantings die out in spots and look generally ratty most of the time.

Choose Individual Pots

It’s far better to grow window box and balcony succulents in individual pots.  That way you get to rearrange them any time you want.  Watering is simple because you must look at each pot to determine how dry it is.  Just like kids, succulents can be very different, even when closely related, and unless you treat them accordingly, they’ll show it in the form of decline.

Planting one specimen, such as this star cactus, in an artful Terracotta pot is best.

Growing individuals in Terracotta pots is the best way to create a beautiful composition that blends easily, offers plants what they need, and allows you to bring them all indoors at season’s end to brighten your winter home.  Don’t fall for big, overflowing gang pots this year. Shop for the succulents you love, then bring them home to be planted in their new pots, and placed out in the sun where they thrive.

Potting Mix and Drainage

Key to your potted succulent’s success is Black Gold Cactus Mix, which ensures each new succulent is planted in very fast-draining soil.   Choose pots in scale with the size of the plant with very large or numerous drain holes.  Once planted, top the soil with a thin layer of Black Gold Washed Gravel or White Rock to hold in moisture and discourage perlite floaters that otherwise accumulate there.

A specimen jade plant in a red clay pot. (photo by Mike Darcy)

Consider setting your pots on an open, free-draining, slatted shelf on the patio or balcony that encourages drainage.  This ensures there’s plenty of free drainage plus pot walls are in the open air where oxygen and moisture readily exchange through Terracotta.  Open air also encourages evaporative cooling to keep containers adequately cool in the high heat of late summer.  If left in plastic containers, direct sun can cause such high interior soil temperatures that roots can literally cook.

Over time you can add and subtract from your collection as your succulents grow large and take on their best looks.  They can be fed individually, evaluated for health often, and best of all, a diseased or pest-ridden plant can be moved elsewhere.  That’s why succulent lovers keep their specimen plants in individual pots rather than gang pots that spoil the overall success of the team.