Growing succulents doesn’t necessarily mean growing houseplants. Outdoor succulents, with their water-storing fleshy leaves, are prized equally for their beauty and function, especially in drought-prone areas. If you’re new to the world of xeriscaping, rock gardens, or drought-resistant landscaping, you’re in the right place. We’ve got several beginner-friendly, low-maintenance outdoor succulents for you to try.
In this piece, we’ll focus on outdoor succulents that thrive in warmer climates. (See FAQ #1 for cold-climate succulents.) We’ll move from the general to the specific, starting with some succulent genera (plural of genus) and families that contain many warm-weather succulents. Then, we’ll move into the specifics by listing some popular individual species to get you started.
- Popular outdoor succulents
- Blue chalk sticks (Curio talinoides var. mandraliscae, formerly Senecio mandraliscae)
- Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)
- Jade plant (Crassula ovata)
- Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)
- Snake plant (Dracaena trifasciata, formerly Sansevieria trifasciata)
- Sticks on fire (Euphorbia tirucalli)
- String of pearls (Curio rowleyanus, formerly Senecio rowleyanus)
- Zebra plant (Haworthiopsis attenuata, formerly known as Haworthia attenuata)
- Things to look for in a low-maintenance outdoor succulent
- FAQ about best low-maintenance outdoor succulents
If you’ve ever heard of a plant called tree houseleek, you’ve heard of the genus Aeonium. Not to be confused with Sempervivum, commonly called a houseleek, species in this genus offer nearly every option your succulent-loving heart could want.
Characteristics of the Aeonium genus
- Tall or short varieties (3 inches to 3 feet)
- A wide range of leaf colors: shades of green, purple, yellow, cream, pink, and variegated
- Bent, woody stems
- Many Aeonium are monocarpic, meaning they die after flowering
- Pyramid-shaped, yellow flowers
- May have fine hairs on leaf edges
- Goes dormant during summer
Aeonium plants are native to North Africa, where winters are mild and wet and summers are dry and hot. Unlike most other succulents, Aeonium need a little extra water from fall through spring (to mimic the cool, wet season) but not during the summer. Why? Summer temps are too hot for this genus, so they go dormant when the temps start to rise.
If you live in a colder climate, you can still enjoy these succulents outdoors during the warmer months. Place them in pots in well-draining soil and make sure they get some afternoon shade (as a general rule) during the summer. North Carolina State University (NCSU) recommends bringing Aeonium inside once temps drop below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but check your plant tag for specific advice.
Pro Tip: Before you go plant shopping (in-person or online), check the USDA Hardiness Zone map to find your Hardiness Zone.
Searching for a statement piece for your water-wise garden? Species in the Agave genus should be on your short list of possibilities. With architectural foliage and striking leaf patterns, they’ll elicit plenty of “oohs” and “aahs” from your neighbors.
Some species in the Agave genus are described as “century plants” because they take so many years to flower (up to 30 years, contrary to what the moniker suggests). Like most succulent plants, there is a wide range of size and aesthetic options within this genus.
Characteristics of the Agave genus
- Many species are very large, while others stay small and compact
- Many (not all) species have teeth along the edges and a sharp spine at the leaf tip
- From a few inches up to over 12 feet in height
- Some are “solitary” or nearly solitary, meaning they produce few, if any, offsets or pups. This is great for low-maintenance gardeners because it means you don’t have to remove the pups from the mother succulent and replant them elsewhere.
- Listed as a fire-resistant plant that can be used as part of your defensible space.
Species in the Agave genus are a favorite for succulent gardeners. Look for solitary varieties (no pups) and know exactly how tall and wide your species will grow. Some expand (wide and tall) while others stay much smaller and are better for most home gardens. This helps to ensure success for you and your landscape.
Although we all love Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis) on our windowsills for the occasional kitchen mishap, there is more to this genus than the beloved houseplant. The Aloe genus contains over 500 species of succulent plants with leaves that range from an inch wide to trees that reach over 60 feet tall (Aloe barberae).
Most species in this genus have a rosette shape and put out pups (baby plants) from the mother plant. Some Aloes produce red, pink, orange, or yellow flowers after a few years and set blooms several times throughout their lifespan.
Characteristics of the Aloe genus
- Aloe vera is used for medicinal purposes
- Bloom many times
- Contains a wide array of small to large plants
- Produce pups
- Originate in Africa
These plants prefer warm temperatures and don’t enjoy prolonged temps below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Check your plant tag for your plant’s sun requirement. Some larger varieties require an outdoor space with full sun, but indoor varieties may do better with bright, indirect light. If your winters are a little too cold, plant them in pots and bring them indoors for the winter to enjoy, yes, on your windowsill.
If you love to add different shapes, colors, and textures to your outdoor succulent landscape, you must have at least one variety of cactus. Cacti come from the family Cactaceae, with 139 different genera (plural of genus) within it. There are a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors within this family, but the defining characteristic is its unique flower pattern.
Characteristics of the Cactaceae family
- Most cacti have no leaves
- Flowers with multiple tepals, stamens, and stigma lobes
- Most cacti species live in semi-arid climates with a rainy season. A few species survive in deserts, tropical areas, and areas with below-freezing temperatures
- Most have shallow root systems, which is common to all succulents
- Cacti are pollinated by bees, moths, birds, or bats
If you want to add a cactus to your succulent landscape, look at other cacti in your area. As long as they aren’t invasive, these are likely the species that will yield the best results in your yard.
Echeveria are popular, rosette-shaped succulent plants that are prized by homeowners and landscape designers alike. As desert-area natives, they are very drought tolerant and are often used in xeriscaping. Because they are easy to grow and compact (under 1 foot at maturity), houseplant newbies often find success and enjoyment with these plants.
Characteristics of the Echeveria genus
- Pointed tip on each leaf
- Most are pastel in color
- Grow pups on stolons, which will form a colony if given enough room
- Have a “farina,” or powdery white substance covering the leaves
- Some species have ruffled leaves
Check out some of the newer hybrids for greater hardiness outdoors. Most varieties are hardy to Zone 9-10 (20-30 degrees Fahrenheit).
These African and Asian natives are prized for their showy flowers and eye-catching leaf shapes. Many species have paddle-shaped or upright waxy leaves and are a popular plant indoors or out. You’ll need to bring these in during winter unless you live in Zone 9 (20 degrees Fahrenheit) or warmer.
Characteristics of the Kalanchoe genus
- Showy, long-lasting flowers
- Is monocarpic — dies after flowering
- Foliage is often paddle-shaped or upright
- Tolerates light frost
Kalanchoe luciae is one of the most popular varieties. If grown outdoors, leaf edges turn a bright red, making it an attractive option for home rock gardens or succulent gardens.
Senecio wins the superlative for “Genus with Most Unusual Shapes.” Here are a few of the common names given to species in the Senecio genus:
- String of Bananas (Senecio radicans)
- String of Pearls (Curio rowleyanus, formerly Senecio rowleyanus)
- Chalksticks (Curio talinoides var. mandraliscae, formerly Senecio mandraliscae)
Characteristics of the Senecio genus
- Colors are mostly blue, silver, and green
- Will live outdoors in Zones 10-11 (30-40 degrees Fahrenheit)
- Not frost hardy
- Some have appealing aromas (The flowers of Curio rowleyanus smell like cinnamon)
- Only 100 of the 1,000+ species in this genus are succulents
Check out some of these more unusually-shaped succulents to add texture and interest to your outdoor succulent garden.
Popular outdoor succulents
Now that we’ve walked through the most popular genera of succulents, let’s dive into some of the favorite species for homeowners. The following is a short list of succulents that are popular in home succulent landscapes:
Blue chalk sticks (Curio talinoides var. mandraliscae, formerly Senecio mandraliscae)
Are you feeling blue? If so, blue chalk sticks are a great way to add a blue ground cover or filler in your succulent garden. These coral reef-like plants complement yellows and reds to create a broader colorscape in your garden.
Pro Tip: Another famous blue-hued plant is the Agave “blue glow,” which has blue-green leaves, is solitary (no pups), and its small size won’t overgrow onto your sidewalks.
Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)
Golden barrel cactus is a popular cactus used in xeriscaping and succulent gardens. Its spherical shape and spiny exterior make it an unusual specimen in most succulent gardens. Combine this small cactus with a few taller varieties for a spectacular show.
The golden barrel cactus lives in Zones 10 (30 degrees Fahrenheit) and higher, so bring your spiny friend indoors in the winter if you live in a cooler climate. Golden barrel cacti grow very slowly, produce bright yellow flowers after about 14 years, and live for several decades. If you’re new to growing succulents, a golden barrel cactus is an excellent option.
Pro Tip: Plant barrel cactus at a slight angle so rain runs off and doesn’t settle on the top of the plant.
Jade plant (Crassula ovata)
If you’ve heard of a money plant, friendship plant, or silver dollar plant, you’ve heard of jade plant. Jade plants are often grown as houseplants but can grow outdoors in milder climates. If you have frost forecasted in your area, bring your jade plant inside for the winter, as it cannot tolerate temperatures below freezing.
While jade houseplants usually don’t flower in late winter or early spring, outdoor plants in warm, frost-free climates may produce star-like pink or white flowers. More recent species have special features like variegated leaves, leaves that are tube-shaped or rippled, and smaller statures.
Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)
Red yucca or hummingbird yucca is a true desert native. Found naturally in Texas and northeastern Mexico, red yucca loves sandy, limestone, and other well-drained soils. Plant this species in full sun in a desert garden, rock garden, or pollinator garden. (Hummingbirds love its yellow, red, or pink flowers.)
Snake plant (Dracaena trifasciata, formerly Sansevieria trifasciata)
Also called mother-in-law’s tongue, snake plant is a popular succulent in both indoor and outdoor settings. The tall, upright leaves grow up to 4 feet tall and include different shades of green as bands across the leaves. Some species include white to yellow borders on the edge of the leaves as well, giving a striking impression in your landscape.
Sticks on fire (Euphorbia tirucalli)
The top green branches of the sticks on fire plant turn bright yellow-orange when the plant gets enough sunlight. It can grow up to 30 feet tall in the right conditions. Don’t worry, though. To keep it small, pull it out of the ground, divide it, and cut the root ball once or twice per year to keep the size in check.
String of pearls (Curio rowleyanus, formerly Senecio rowleyanus)
It can be very difficult to look at a succulent and name the species you see. String of pearls is an exception. Its rounded leaves are about ¼ inch wide and look exactly as their name suggests. This plant is often used in a hanging basket to allow it to cascade down the planter. String of pearls can be grown indoors, outdoors in Zone 10 (30 degrees Fahrenheit) or warmer, or both.
Zebra plant (Haworthiopsis attenuata, formerly known as Haworthia attenuata)
Also known as Zebra Haworthia, the zebra plant is native to South Africa and is often grown indoors. However, zebra plants are good outdoor plants for beginners, as well. Like most succulents, they need well-drained soil and may tolerate a light frost. These plants live up to 50 years and do produce pups, which you may want to remove periodically. The white spots on both sides of the leaves are striking and will add a different pattern to your garden.
Things to look for in a low-maintenance outdoor succulent
1. Water needs
Some succulents, like large agaves, don’t need supplemental water once established. But many other succulents need watering every week or so during the hot months, depending on the species, placement in your garden, climate, and soil type. If you want to do zero supplemental watering, read the fine print before you buy.
Pro Tip: Overwatering often causes leaves to look translucent or yellow and feel mushy. Too little water and your leaves may look dehydrated or thin. In general, water only when the soil is dry.
If you must plant on a south- or western-facing slope, make sure your succulent can handle the afternoon sun. If not, choose another variety or provide shade. Boulders, trees, and other structures can provide afternoon shade and prevent scorching.
3. Winter hardiness
Do you mind bringing some of your succulents indoors (or into a greenhouse) during the winter? If you don’t mind bringing them inside, you’ll be able to grow a wider range of succulents because you can save them from frost damage when the mercury drops.
If you want all your succulents to be in-ground, look on one of the advanced online plant catalogs and filter by Hardiness Zone. Or, find a friendly face at your local succulent nursery and get good advice for what grows best in your area year-round.
Outdoor succulents don’t require fertilizer, according to succulent author Debra Lee Baldwin. Fertilizer generally makes plants grow faster, so unless that’s something you’re after, let nature take its course.
Furthermore, some succulents thrive in poor soils. This is one more reason succulents are ideal for low-maintenance gardeners.
5. Other benefits of outdoor succulents
If you want your landscape to be beautiful, low-maintenance, and functional, many succulents will check each of those boxes. Succulents are often used in fire-resistant landscaping, and don’t forget that gravel and prickly plants can be used to enhance the security around your home.
Make a list of all you want to accomplish. If your goals are many, you may want to hire a professional designer. If not, check out these other resources on Lawn Love to help you DIY your aesthetic and functional landscaping goals.
6. Low maintenance doesn’t mean no maintenance
Low-maintenance plants like succulents still need periodic TLC. Expect to do an in-depth cleaning in your succulent garden about twice per year. (A monthly check to remove spent leaves and check for bugs is also a good idea.) Here’s a typical biannual chore list for your low-maintenance succulent garden:
- Pull out dead leaves
- Remove weeds
- Snip off flower stalks
- Trim root balls
- Prune to maintain plant size
- Cut leggy stems
- Treat for insects or pests
- Remove dead plants
- Remove or replant pups
If you’re a beginner or if you prefer to hire out maintenance work, contact a local company that specializes in succulents to keep your succulent installation healthy and growing.
FAQ about best low-maintenance outdoor succulents
There are a few genera that work well in below-freezing conditions.
—Prometheum and Rosularia
Out of all of these, Opuntia, Sedum, and Sempervivum are the best known. The Opuntia genus contains the prickly pear cacti or paddle cacti, many of which can survive below-zero temps. One species, O. fragilis, even survives down to Zone 3b (-35 degrees Fahrenheit).
Sedum species, also known as stonecrop, are often used as ground covers and are prized for their variety of colors and textures. But the scope of the genus is wider than ground covers alone. If you’ve ever seen a Burro’s Tail (Sedum morganianum) cascading down from a hanging basket, you’ve seen a popular sedum container plant with its showy, flowing stems. Sedum plants are hardy to Zones 5 (-20 degrees Fahrenheit) or 4 (-30 degrees Fahrenheit).
Sempervivum or the charmingly named hens and chicks is another genus that is wide-ranging in color, texture, and aesthetic. Most mother plants put out pups (or, in this case, chicks), making them prolific spreaders. Most Sempervivum species are frost tolerant down to Zone 5 (-20 degrees Fahrenheit).
Xeriscaping is a landscaping method often used in drought-prone areas of the country. Landscapers use seven principles that help them create a space that is beautiful but requires little or no water to maintain.
Since succulents are low-water-use plants (some more than others), landscape designers often use native succulents in their xeriscaping designs.
We have two articles to help you learn more:
—“What is Xeriscaping?”
—“Benefits of Xeriscaping”
Native plants, whether succulents or otherwise, are a good place to start if you live in a drought-stricken area since they are adapted to local conditions. In addition, we have other articles on drought-tolerant landscaping for homeowners in drought-prone areas:
—“Drought-Resistant Landscaping for Phoenix”
—“12 Reasons You Should Grow Native Plants”
—“16 Best Native Plants for Your Phoenix Yard”
Don’t want succulents to suck up all your time? If you’re spending all of your time planting new succulent beds, let our local lawn care pros take care of your lawn. They’ll mow, edge, and weed your succulent beds throughout the growing season.
Main Photo Credit: chris1947 | Pixabay