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.

Everblooming Bedding Plants for Heat and Drought

Two Zinnias, ‘Macarenia’ and ‘Mazurkia’ , comprise the bright, heat-wise Sasiando Mix. (Photo care of National Garden Bureau)

Finding garden flowers that bloom effortlessly through the hot, dry summer months can be a challenge for those new to gardening. So many popular bedding plants are tender and water needy. Impatiens, coleus, dahlias and even petunias will quickly flag when the heat and drought ramps up. But, have no fear. Lots of bedding plants will make it through the worst of the summer weather. Some even shine—blooming effortlessly all summer long.

National Garden Bureau Agastache-Arizona-Sun
Arizona Sun is one tough, pretty bedding plant that offers continuous color and attracts hummingbirds. (Photo care of National Garden Bureau)

When choosing “hot” summer flowers, I like to think of their origins. Resilient selections come from sultry climates, like Mexico, Africa, the American South, and hot, dry regions in the Mediterranean. They’re adapted to hot weather. Agastache, angelonia, cuphea, salvia, marigolds, and zinnias are several excellent choices. Exciting varieties are generated each year, making it easy to fill the garden with beautiful flowers sure to shine.

Hummingbird Mint

Hummingbirds love the sunny flowers of agastache (otherwise known as hummingbird mint) and the blooms shine through summer in containers or garden beds. They’ve been a standby in my garden for the last 20 years because they are so beautiful, fragrant and easy. Many new resilient varieties make gardening and crafting colorful flower combos easier than ever. The new Agastache Arizona™ Sun and Arizona™ Sandstone, with their gold and soft orange blooms and foot-high statures, will bloom through hot, dry weather and mix well with many similarly tough garden flowers. Though hybrids, the parent plants originate from the American Southwest—a testament to their ability to take the heat.

The bright flowers of Cuphea Vermillionaire continue until frost. (Photo care of Proven Winners)


The Mexican native narrowleaf angelon (Angelonia angustifolia) produces snapdragon-like spikes of white, purple and pink flowers through summer months. Of these, the carefree bloomers in the Serena™ Series have won multiple awards (Mississippi Medallion Award, Dallas Arboretum FlameProof Award, Louisiana Super Plants Award) for their high performance and ability to stand up to summer heat. The breeders claim: “Plants grow up to 50% larger in Floridalike conditions.”

Firecracker Plant

Gardeners with large, sunny, South-facing beds should consider planting the big, bushy firecracker plant, Cuphea Vermillionaire™. New from Proven Winners, the bushy plants reach around two feet and become laden with lots of orange-red, tubular flowers that are a hummingbird mainstay. A strong tendency to rebloom until frost makes this a superb bedding plant as does its high tolerance to hot, dry weather.

Scarlet Sage

In late summer, I always rely on colorful scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea) to add bright garden color up until frost. And, these natives of the American South and Mexico are made for hummingbirds! The tall species gently self-sows, so I simply dig the seedlings and place them where I want them, but that doesn’t keep me from planting a few choice varieties as well. The AAS- and Fleuroselect-winning varieties in the Summer Jewel™ series are compact (reaching one and a half to two feet), bloom continuously, and come in shades of red, pink, and white.

NGB Salvia_SummerJewelWhite-AAS2015-2-crop
The award-winning Salvia Summer Jewels White is a great continuous bloomer for hot, dry places! (Photo care of the National Garden Bureau)


Once established, marigolds are made for summer with their nonstop flowers in flame colors. The tall, Garland Orange African marigold (Tagetes erecta ‘Garland Orange’) bears huge, long-stemmed flowers on strong, bushy plants less apt to topple over in the wind. Plants reach three feet, making them a great choice for colorful, back-of-the-border fillers.


There’s always a place in my garden for zinnias. Not only do they make great cut flowers, but newer varieties flower effortlessly with little deadheading (removal of old blooms). The new Sasiando mix, which comprises Zinnia ‘Macarenia’, with gold and orange double blooms, and ‘Mazurkia’, with ivory and red double blooms, attracts butterflies in a big show of flowers. Both are high performers in sweltering summer weather and their bushy plants reach two to three feet. Deadheading is not necessary but may keep plants looking prettier.

Plant a few of these water- and heat-wise plants and your flower garden will be smiling through even the most scorching days of summer, with moderate care and watering. Give them a boost with an OMRI Listed flower food and top-dress with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend and keep the sunny blooms and bouquets coming!