Hero Image

Marin IJ Articles

Succulents in containers – a designers dream

  • Martha Proctor
  • Succulents in containers make low-water gardening easy.

    By incorporating decorative containers of eye-catching succulents into your garden, you can have a beautiful design that suits your space needs without investing much water, time or money. Easy-to-plant succulents are prized for their ability to store water in their fleshy leaves, stems, and roots, thus enabling them to resist drought and extremes of heat. With fairly low maintenance, some succulents can live 20 or more years. With water a critical issue, succulents offer an array of exotic plants that are less attractive to insects and are easy to propagate.

    Succulents, although appearing in an amazing variety of shapes and sizes, grow well in almost any container that allows good drainage and is at least four inches deep. Even a simple dish works well, because the roots of succulent plants are relatively shallow. From stiff, upright organ pipe cacti to sprawling sedums, this diverse group of plants fits beautifully in containers that range from narrow upright pots to hanging baskets. For upright succulents, select a pot that is at least ½-inch larger than the base of the plant. For plants with trailing growth habits, a pot 1 inch larger than the original pot works well. Fill in with exquisitely shaped rosettes of aloes or agaves.

    The easiest way to pair plants with pots is to have both available when making your selections. Use your creativity when choosing a container — colanders, boots, metal buckets, or whatever strikes your fancy. The more porous the container, like unglazed terracotta, the more quickly it dries out. Appealing designs often utilize repeating and contrasting shapes, textures and lines. For example, pair the striking red-tipped green rosettes of Sempervivum tectorum (hen and chicks) with a red-glazed pot. Line the pot with cactus mix or use any quality potting medium amended so that the final mix consists of equal parts of crushed volcanic rock (pumice), coarse-grained sand or perlite or both. Add a half strength dose of slow release granular fertilizer once in the spring to replace the beneficial salt and minerals that are leached out when the plants are watered.

    Make sure that all the plants in your container garden share the same sun, soil and water requirements.

    Read the plant's tag to see if any of your succulents have special needs. Arrange the plants using the Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers design technique — the tallest in the back, filler plants in the middle and spilling plants draped over the front and sides of the pot, clustering similar shapes together. Sprinkle dark-colored aquarium gravel or other small colored rocks around each plant so the soil is covered.

    The basic rules for caring for succulents are simple: plant in well drained soil, provide bright light four hours a day, protect from frost and hot, scorching sun, fertilize minimally, keep warm and on the dry side and maintain good air circulation. In the spring while growing, succulents thrive best if they get as much light as possible. In their dormant phase, they need much less sun exposure and water. Water your succulents from once a week to once a month depending upon plant type, container size, pot design and the weather. Keep the soil as moist as a wrung out sponge letting it dry out between waterings. Provide shelter from drenching rains because too much water causes roots to develop black stem rot. A helpful rule of thumb is the fatter a succulent's leaves, body or stems, the more water it stores and the less water it needs. All is not lost if you neglect your succulent, however. Succulents are quite forgiving and have amazing survival skills.