If you love succulents indoors, wait until you plant them in a large-scale outdoor tapestry. Outdoor succulent gardens are works of art that can be simple, DIY installations or landscape design masterpieces that cover your entire yard. Whichever you choose, we’ve got tips you need to know before you get started.
Note: In this article, when we say “succulent garden,” we mean an in-ground garden. Succulent container gardens (AKA houseplants) have slightly different needs for water, fertilizer, sun, etc.
- 1. Manage your growing conditions
- 2. Choose plants that fit your climate
- 3. Sculpt your succulent garden
- 4. Plant your succulent garden
- 5. Water your succulent garden
- 6. Maintain your succulent garden
- Benefits of a succulent garden
- FAQ about succulent gardens
1. Manage your growing conditions
“Succulents need well-draining soil.” You’ll read that a lot, especially for indoor succulents, but soil is just one part of the puzzle for how well your soil drains and how well your plants will grow outdoors. Other factors include sunlight, airflow, and how often you water.
Succulents that grow in the wild usually grow in soil with high amounts of sand and gravel. If you don’t have sandy soil, don’t worry, you can still grow succulents outdoors.
Succulents grown outdoors are much more adaptable in terms of soil type than container succulent plants. Heavy clay soil is one notable exception. If you have this soil type, you’ll need to plant in a raised bed or outdoor pot.
Mountain Crest Gardens notes that building a mound in your succulent garden will increase drainage without amending your soil. Plants on a mound will have better draining soil due to gravity and the increase in sun and wind exposure. If you have heavy clay soil, use potting soil or another well-draining soil mix to create a mound to plant on. (If you don’t have heavy
soil, mounds are still a good way to add artistic flair to your garden. See step #3.)
Most succulents need three to four hours of sun per day, but where you plant your succulent garden is important. Many succulents prefer morning light but will not survive in the heavy afternoon sun. Check on this before you buy.
If your planting area gets afternoon sunlight, buy species that are adapted to those conditions. As an alternative, use rocks or taller plants to provide afternoon shade.
Excess wind will dry your soil faster. If you live in a windy area or near the ocean, keep this in mind as you plan your garden. To compensate, you can use slightly heavier (but well-draining) soil or plan to water more frequently.
How often do I water succulents? A general rule is once a week during the growing season, but that rule doesn’t take into account other factors:
- What climate do you live in? Rainy, humid, dry, seaside, etc.
- How windy is your climate?
- How much (and at what time of day) will the sun hit these plants?
- Do you have heavier soil with a higher clay content or lighter, sandy or loam soil?
- What time of year is it? Dormant succulents need watering less frequently.
- Are these new plants or mature plants?
As you can see, many factors come into play. The best guide? Stick your finger in the soil to check the moisture level. Is it dry? You can water. Is it still moist? Wait until the soil is dry before you water again.
It is better to water too little than too much. As one Master Gardener explains: [Succulents] “are the camels of the plant world,” so don’t be afraid to err on the side of too little water. Too much water that doesn’t drain properly is detrimental to the root systems and will lead to root rot.
Finally, when you water, give them a deep soak. Like grass, succulents need “deep but infrequent” watering.
Signs of overwatering
- Leaves break off under light pressure.
- Leaves turn translucent or yellow.
- Leaves lose firmness and feel mushy.
- Signs of underwatering
- Newer leaves (not the old ones on the bottom) look thin or dehydrated.
- Pay attention to your succulents and adjust your watering if you see any of these symptoms.
2. Choose plants that fit your climate
Succulents live in a variety of different climates. Although they are often found in semi-arid environments, many types of succulents thrive in areas with cold, below-freezing winters as well.
Succulents come from many different plant families, but they are more popularly known by their genus names. Here is a list of genera (plural of genus) where you’ll find popular succulents:
- Dracaena (formerly Sansevieria)
Read the plant tags or ask your local Cooperative Extension office which varieties thrive in your area. If you live in a cold climate, check out these five genera as many will survive outdoors in colder climates year-round:
- Opuntia: O. fragilis is hardy down to Zone 3b (-35 degrees F)
- Rosularia: Hardy to Zone 5 (-20 degrees F)
- Sedum (AKA stonecrop): Tolerates temps to -20 degrees F (Zone 5). Some will tolerate -30 temps (Zone 4)
- Sempervivum: Hardy to Zone 5 (-20 degrees F)
Pro Tip: Know whether the plants you choose are monocarpic (Mono- “once”; carpic- “fruit”). Monocarpic plants die after they flower, but most will have set new plants before they die.
You’ll need to plant the baby plants and remove the mother plants periodically. This may be too much work for some homeowners, so keep this in mind before you buy. (Fun fact: The baby plants go by a few different names: offsets, pups, babies, or chicks.)
3. Sculpt your succulent garden
A well-planted succulent garden is a living work of art. Here are a few principles to keep in mind before you plant.
Hills: Not only are hills useful for good drainage, they provide needed height and interest in a succulent garden installation. Avoid building a succulent garden on a flat surface. The result will be bland and uninteresting.
Rocks and lawn ornaments: Larger rocks are another way to add height, texture, and interest to your succulent garden. Practically speaking, they can create afternoon shade and crevices for your plants to grow.
Lawn ornaments are a fun way to add humor or color to your garden. Make sure the features (size, proportion, color, etc.) complement rather than detract from your succulents.
Proportion and size: When you add plants, rocks, lawn ornaments, or anything else, make sure the size is proportionate to your succulents. In a garden with tall succulents, choose something larger, and vice versa.
Movement: Using colored gravel mulch, hills, and rocks are key techniques to add movement in your garden. Planting your succulents in curved lines, rather than straight ones, is another key technique to make sure your installation doesn’t look stagnant.
Color and texture: Succulents are loved, in part, for their endless array of colors and textures. Choose a variety of succulent plants that complement each other and bring life to your property.
Laura Eubanks often explains how to create beauty in your succulent garden using these and other artistic techniques that will give your garden a finished look. Check out her videos for more details.
4. Plant your succulent garden
Planting succulents is the easy part. (The work you did in steps 1-3 is the hard part.) You don’t have to dig a deep hole as you do with other plants. As succulent expert Laura Eubanks says, “If it stands up, you’ve done your job.” In other words, only plant as deep as you need to so that the plant stays vertical.
After you plant, get creative and add a gravel or lava rock topdressing. You can experiment with different colors, textures, and sizes of rock to create a pleasing design.
As you plant, use the principles we discussed in step 3 to create movement, balance, and beauty in your succulent installation.
5. Water your succulent garden
We’ve already discussed the factors that influence how often to water your succulents, but here’s another watering tip: Use acidified water. Succulents prefer water that is in the 5.5-6.5 pH range, which is slightly acidic. Slightly acidic water helps the succulents to absorb nutrients better, leading to better plant health and growth.
Use a pH meter to test your tap water. If it’s too alkaline, add vinegar or citric acid to lower the pH level.
6. Maintain your succulent garden
Pests and insects
In general, succulents and cacti shouldn’t give you too much grief from pests. However, pest problems come to every plant lover eventually. Scale and mealybugs are two of the most common succulent pests that succulent lovers see.
What is scale? Scale is named for the scale insects that feed on the tissues of your plant. If you see “cottony or dome-shaped shells” on your cacti, this could be scale. Cochineal scale insects release a red dye when you squish them.
How to get rid of scale: Soak a cotton swab or cotton ball in isopropyl alcohol (70% or weaker) and wipe them off. This works well for small areas.
If you have more than a few patches, use a long-handled cleaning brush dipped in natural insecticidal soap and scrub them off. You also can hit the plant with the hose to dislodge some of the insects.
If a few patches are more severe, you can remove those stems completely. This will also increase air circulation, which helps prevent these bugs in the first place.
It is key to catch this insect early on. If the infestation is severe, you may want to remove the plant, bag it, and discard it. Clean the soil well and let the soil rest for six months before you plant another succulent in that spot.
What are mealy bugs? Mealybugs are grayish-white bugs with a wax-like, cottony outer appearance. They are ⅓-inch long or smaller and like to hide in the crevices and junctions of the plant (often starting in the center).
How to get rid of mealybugs: Soak a cotton swab or cotton ball in isopropyl alcohol (70% or weaker) and wipe them off. The hose trick also works for mealybugs. Hit them with a stream of water to wash away some of the insects.
General pest prevention tips for succulents
- Good air circulation: This is usually not a problem in outdoor succulent gardens, but it helps to prevent many critters from causing an infestation.
- Regular health checks: Pests will come eventually, but if you remove them early on, you can avoid having an infestation or having to remove the plant and start over.
- Beneficial insects: Ladybugs (AKA lady beetles) help prevent and control scale and mealybugs.
According to succulent author and expert Deborah Lee Baldwin, fertilizing in-ground succulents is optional. If you think you’d like to try it out, here’s how:
Late fall or early winter: Apply Ironite before a soaking rain.
Spring: Spread fertilizer granules from a balanced fertilizer (You’ll need equal parts N-P-K, such as a 15-15-15.)
Benefits of a succulent garden
An in-ground succulent garden has many benefits:
Financial incentives and rebates
In the western United States, many cities offer rebate programs for xeriscaping or installing water-wise lawn alternatives. Succulents are often used in xeriscape designs since they require little supplemental irrigation. As part of a larger lawn alternative scheme, succulents and other water-wise plants help you qualify for these rebates.
Saves you time on maintenance
Succulents are happy to take care of themselves (for the most part). Think about it: If you have a lawn, you have a chore list a mile long. With a succulent garden, your list is shorter and less intensive.
Lawn vs. Outdoor Succulents Chore List
year at most
|Weekly at most,
less often in
|Monthly: Pull weeds,
check for bugs
remove spent plants,
and replant chicks
Saves you money by using less
When you use less, you save money. Succulent gardens require less fertilizer, less water, no yearly application of grass seed, and no machines to mow, aerate, or dethatch. That’s money in your pocket.
Protects scarce resources
Cities in the western U.S. have been stewarding scarce water resources for eons. As a 21st century homeowner, you fall into this long line of water stewards. Use succulents and other water-wise plants to conserve water for today and future generations.
Many homeowners will hire someone to install a succulent garden, especially if it is part of a larger project to remove a lawn and install xeriscaping.
However, if you have a smaller plot you’d like to renovate, planting a succulent garden is well within reach for most homeowners. As long as you can get down on the ground and haul a few bags of dirt and gravel, this is a doable DIY project, even for gardening novices.
Ideal for fire-prone landscapes
Do you live in an area that is prone to wildfire? If so, proper landscaping is second only to proper home preparation. Succulents are often included in lists of fire-resistant plants because they store water in their stems and leaves, an ideal situation for a drought or fire-prone landscape.
FAQ about succulent gardens
There are a few tools that may be helpful if you want your succulents to be closeup-ready at all times:
–Succulents lose their bottom leaves as new ones grow from the center. As these leaves shrivel and die, use a pair of long-handled tweezers for easy, precise cleanup. Tweezers are also helpful for pulling weeds around your succulents without being impaled. (Green thumbs are better than red, right?) These are available from bonsai suppliers or large online retailers and come in several different lengths.
–If you’re a girl, you probably have this already. A jumbo makeup brush helps you clear the soil particles off of the leaves after you put your succulents in the soil.
Dust blower or blower brush
–These are best for very small indoor or outdoor succulent installations. You can find them at any online succulent store or camera store (blower brush).
Lava rock (AKA volcanic rock) works as a gravel substitute. Lava rock comes in many sizes, so choose the size that works best for your area. For example, if you have wood chips already in the soil, you’ll need a larger size rock. Conversely, if your soil is on the sandy side, a smaller diameter may be a perfect fit.
Got leftover rocks? Use them in a rock garden.
Any plant with similar water and sun requirements. Rosemary is a popular addition to succulent gardens because it loves quick-draining soil, infrequent watering, and lots of sun.
If a succulent garden is on your Instagram-inspired “must-have” list, contact one of our local lawn care pros. They’ll install a succulent garden worthy of the most ardent #succulent followers.
Main Photo Credit: Skitterphoto | Pixabay