Recently, I had the pleasure of giving a succulent potting demonstration in my clients Carla and Lennart’s garden to benefit a very worthy cause: St. Vincent’s - The Children of Kibera. A part of the One World Children's Fund, the charity supports orphans and underprivileged children in Kibera, Kenya.
We covered a lot of things in 40 minutes – potting, propagating and container care just to name a few – but for this post, I’m sticking with the heart of the demonstration: designing with succulents in containers.
I consider succulents to be the most forgiving of plants when it comes to container gardening. Not only do they thrive with very little care, but their range of textures and foliage colors allows them to shine in a starring role or as a supporting player. I find that even the most carelessly composed container will still look good. That said, why go for good, when you can go for great?
One is all you need
I’m fond of the minimalist look when it comes to container gardening, and succulents lend themselves perfectly to this design aesthetic. A classic container design strategy is to choose plants to echo the color of the container. With its delicate red stems and green leaves tinged with soft yellow, Sedum tricolor is a perfect choice for a small, simple container. To echo the creamy edging of the leaves, I used a yellow pot, but this would work equally well with red (jade green would be okay, but probably a bit too monotone). While it is true that other plants—coleus comes to mind—also sport multiple foliage colors on the same plant, Sedum’s softly rounded shape is perfect for a small container, and its drought-tolerant habit means you don’t need to worry about watering it every day. Newly planted, this sedum will quickly spill over the sides of the pot.
If one plant is a little too minimalist for you, pop an Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’ in the center of a larger yellow pot to pick up the red in the stems. Gently pry apart the sedum into four sections, and arrange around the Aeonium.
Thriller, filler, spiller works with succulents, too
In the hotly competitive world of garden design, there is some disagreement as to who coined the phrase “thriller, filler, spiller," but regardless, it continues to be a solid strategy when approaching container gardening. For our thriller plant, I used an Echiveria ‘Afterglow’, chosen for its larger scale and softly tinted color (and also because this was previously in my own garden and I was willing to part with it). Because I wasn’t sure where the container would end up, I opted for what I call a wedding cake arrangement (soft and symmetrical) where the thriller is placed in the center and the other plants circle around it. If I knew the container was going into a corner, I might place this slightly off center and place a tall-growing Aeonium ‘Zsartkop’ behind it for additional height. Design tip: For asymmetrical arrangements that won't be seen from all sides, succulent expert Debra Baldwin recommends tipping the rosettes towards the viewing angle.
Fillers include bright silver Senecio haworthii on the left and ruffled, blue-tinted Echiveria 'Topsy Turvy' on the right. In the back where it's not visible, I added an Aeonium 'Swartzop' for a pop of burgundy.
My usual “go-to” spiller is a Sedum for medium-sized containers like this, but I loved the pink tint to the leaves of Oscularia deltoides - pink ice plant, so went with it instead. Plants that spill with a plumper vs. a long, trailing habit work best with short pots.
No pot is an island
An advantage of doing this potting demonstration in a private garden versus a nursery, is that it allowed me to share one final design strategy – incorporate your container compositions into the landscape as a whole. Treating each succulent container as a stand-alone masterpiece will ultimately result in a chaotic look in the very same way choosing each plant individually without considering the rest of the garden does. In Carla and Lennart’s case, we pulled our design inspiration from the existing container collection and the natural colors of their bluestone patio – silvers and blues accented by deeper grays and soft burgundy.
Although I love succulents and my own collection has been steadily growing over the past 5 years, I don’t consider myself an expert by any means. For this presentation, to ensure all the information I shared was correct, I relied on Succulents Simplified: Growing, Designing, and Crafting with 100 Easy-Care Varieties by Debra Lee Baldwin. If you are a beginner or intermediate succulent gardener, I highly recommend this book as a resource.
On a final note, a special thanks to Robin Stockwell of Succulent Gardens for donating a living wall as a door prize.