Succulents and cactus have experienced a surge in popularity over the last few years, and for good reason. Their colorful, unique shaped foliage looks good year round – no flowers necessary. They grow large and small so it’s easy to find one that will fit happily into the smallest pot, or grow up into a stately tree. For those who want a garden but don’t have the time or lack a green thumb, you’re in luck! Cactus and succulents require relatively little maintenance and very little water once established.
However, it’s not always apparent how to incorporate succulents into your pots, patio, or entire landscape. Fortunately, many of the same principles of landscape design apply to succulents just like other more traditional garden plants.
Combining plants of varying sizes, foliage shapes, and colors creates a visually pleasing, dramatic landscape or container. Because succulents grow in many sizes, shapes and colors they can be used in gardens to form natural transitions and create flow.
Here we see a beautiful arrangement of succulents planted along a walkway. Notice the wide variety of different leaf shapes, sizes and colors – the broad, round, green leaves of Aeonium urbicum; the long, slender, spiky foliage of Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’; the short, bluish pink leaves of Echeveria ‘Blue Curls’; the bright lemon-yellow of Aeonium ‘Sunburst’. There’s a natural size transition in this planting, from large, backdrop plants to short boarder plants. This arrangement from large to small ensures no plants are hidden and highlights the unique and beautiful features of each plant. See also how the colors of each plant play naturally off the colors of nearby plants. The bright yellow Aeonium brings out the golden edges of the Agave next to it, and the ‘Blue Glow’ Agave pulls out the pale blue centers of the adjacent Echeveria. Arranging plants with analogous and complementary colors creates a harmonious affect and is pleasing to look at. This garden is a great example of how combining similar and contrasting plant features can create a dramatic landscape.
Repetition is another important principle of design in any landscape or container. It’s good to have a variety of plants within a space, but repeating certain plants helps create harmony in a garden and ensure plants fit together to create a whole.
In the picture on the right we have another succulent planting along a walkway. The photo shows a nice variety of plants, a few of which are repeated throughout. Too many unrelated plants in one space can make for a chaotic garden. Repeating “backbone” plants, like the big green Aeonium urbicum, help to unify the entire landscape and create an orderly, deliberate appearance. Repeating the brightly-colored Kalanchoe thyrsiflora adds a component of depth – the bright red foliage seems to reach towards you as the green and blue plants melt naturally into the background. Reiterating that illusion throughout the planting can make a small space appear larger and more exciting.
One of the best guidelines to follow as a beginner is to keep things simple. A garden with a little bit of everything can feel disorganized and cluttered. However, a simply-designed garden will often feel calm, orderly and restful to the eye.
Simplicity in landscape design would be to pick just a few plants or a few different colors and repeat them throughout the garden.
In this example the designer picked two different colors for the majority of the bed and mixed in two plants for contrast and interest. The arrangement looks organized and cohesive – the sea of blue Senecio mandraliscae ties the entire planting together and draws attention to the bright green Aeonium urbicum. Additionally the multi-colored Phormiums seem to shine against the surrounding cool tones. Limiting the number of different plants in this landscape and linking them together with a mass of Senecio evokes a sense of order.
There are many other design principles that apply to landscapes, but the ideas discussed are a good start. These concepts apply to any succulent planting, including small walkway beds, expansive slopes, or even table-top containers.
Most importantly – have fun with the design and enjoy the result!