Un-Flower Pots: Designing & Caring for Spectacular Succulent Container Gardens

May 9th, 2011 § 12

Beautiful Container Gardens are all about Color, Form and Texture. Great Designers Work with both Contrasts and Harmonies to Create Stunning Results. Hanging basket available at Walker Farm.

Saturday morning I spent the better part of an hour and a half listening to enthusiastic oohs and ahhs at Walker Farm’s Succulent Container Gardening & Hanging Basket Design seminar. I had so much fun watching Karen Manix demonstrate how to create a container garden of succulents and listening to Daisy Unsicker talk about how to care for these gorgeous plants, that I just had to share a bit of my experience with all of you here today…

Pretty, dark-violet hued Aeonium arboreum and orange-tipped, chartreuse leaved Sedum nussbaumerianum (opposites in the spectrum of colors) make a stunning color combination

Last week I mentioned how much I’ve come to love succulent container gardening. My new-found obsession started innocently enough a few years ago, while expanding my indoor gardening pursuits during the cold winter months. Because I am so busy with gardening during the growing season, I’ve traditionally kept houseplants to a minimum; with only windowsill herbs, and a few tough ferns to satisfy my horticultural-urges from December through March. Then, after creating a Secret Garden Room, and experiencing much joy and success with my expanded indoor garden pursuits —and a passion for epiphytes and terrariums— I began to develop an interest in succulents…

Click on the photo above to read a previous post on indoor gardening with succulents

I’ve been teaching myself about cold-climate container gardening with succulents as I go along. And much to my delight, this expanding indoor-outdoor collection of tropic, sub-tropic and desert region plants has thrived and grown, thanks to a lot of research and a little help from my friends. I’ve discovered that succulents are remarkably easy, undemanding plants to grow —even for cold-climate gardeners— both indoors and out. But like all living things, succulents and cacti do have specific requirements and preferences all their own. Getting the container, potting mix and combinations right are the first step toward success with succulents. By learning about each plant, and continuing to provide these beauties with what they need —and never more— a gardener can achieve long term success and satisfaction from their investment.

And here are two of the plants pictured from the previous photo, now transferred to a larger pot which I’ve moved outdoors

Lucky gardeners in attendance at Walker Farm’s free seminar last Saturday got a real head-start on the subject by learning how to care for succulent containers from real pros! I’ve mentioned before that local Walker Farm is a world-class horticultural destination for rare plant connoisseurs throughout New England, New York and even further afield. Beyond the fact that their plants are unusual, healthy and beautiful, we hortimaniacs love Walker Farm because their staff is incredibly friendly, unpretentious and truly knowledgable about what they sell. The owners and staff at Walker Farm have a real passion and enthusiasm for what they do and generously share their experience without a trace of the dread ‘high brow’ attitude that so often tuns new gardeners away from horticulture. The excitement and creativity at Walker Farm is downright contagious, and it’s one of the many reasons why their loyal fans keep coming back for more.

Karen Manix began the talk by covering the basic principles of container garden design, with succulents in mind. Quickly covering the five most important aspects of composition —scale and proportion (finding correct sizes and structure for the container), balance (creating a sense of unity and point of view), contrast (using different colors, textures and forms to create interest), rhythm and flow (repeating color, form and texture plays) and fullness (giving a sense of lushness to satisfy the senses)— Karen immediately jumped into a wonderful demonstration from a dynamic display of containers and plants…

Karen Manix, owner of Walker Farm, demonstrates the basics of container garden design, using a variety of succulents in different sizes, shapes, textures and colors. Isn’t that clam-shell container gorgeous? Perfect for topping an outdoor living room table…

Succulent Container Design in Action. Isn’t this a beautiful pot?

While filling a gorgeous, clam-shell inspired planter with growing medium, Karen discussed the importance of proper planting mix for succulents. Because these fleshy, shallow-rooted plants need to dry out between waterings, it’s important to choose a light-weight, fast-draining container medium; such as cactus mix or a home-made equivalent. Regular potting soil is too dense and holds too much moisture to keep succulents and cacti happy. As a general rule, planting medium for succulents must contain 1/3 to 1/2 pumice or coarse sand —such as builders sand or poultry grit— for proper drainage. Some succulents prefer slightly more porous planting medium than others. Always read up on the plants you are growing and know their soil preferences prior to placing them in pots. Before you begin designing your succulent container, Karen recommends filling the pot 3/4 full of growing medium, and adding a small amount of time-release fertilizer (which you can mail order or pick up at most garden centers).

Just a few of the beautifully tempting terra cotta pots available at Walker Farm

And speaking of pots, getting settled in the right home, with a location you love,  is just as important for your plants as it is for you! Although terra cotta is the best choice for succulents and cacti, due to its porous nature, it’s equally important to choose a pot that suits your plant’s style, and satisfies your eye. Try playing the colors and textures of your chosen pot against the colors and textures of foliage, as well as your overall design and composition. Check to be sure that your chosen pot has a good drainage hole (although pots without holes can be modified with a base of pumice, but this is more advanced). Karen mentioned covering the drainage hole in pots with screening, rocks or broken pottery. Although this isn’t always necessary to prevent soil-loss, it can definitely come in handy when you are moving pots in and out of your home, or when you are dealing with large sized drainage holes.

This spiky, ice-blue Senecio serpens would be nice in combination with a terra cotta pot or another plant with peachy toned foliage or flowers. Red-orange and green-blue are opposite on the color wheel, and they make beautiful music together…

Once you have your container and growing medium ready, feel free to play around with individual plants while they are still in their nursery containers, until you find a combination you like. Perhaps you might combine a dramatic upright specimen with a mound shaped plant and a couple of trailers in colors chosen to contrast with your pot. Like a dusky-purple echeveria? Look for a chartreuse colored species to settle in next to it, and make that violet color sing. New to container design? Don’t be afraid to look at photos for ideas or imitate other gardeners until you get the hang of it. The process should be fun and relaxing. And remember, you can always move the plants around and try again if you aren’t quite happy.

Choose pots to bring out the best in your plants. Walker Farm has incredible selection in their potting shed, but if you live far from here, you can find some real beauties online in Etsy shops; such as those made by Vermont artist Virginia Wyoming (click here to visit her lovely shop). And there are plenty of gorgeous containers melting my heart at Terrain as well.

Satisfied with your arrangement? Karen advised us to tuck in all the plants; gently adding potting mix to fill in gaps, and bring soil level approximately 1″ below the container rim. Top dress the container with a decorative mulch to help keep soil stable during watering and conserve moisture. Some designers like to use glass pebbles or marbles, others prefer to use colored gravel or natural stone. Whatever you choose, when you are finished, brush growing medium away from leaves and gently water, rinsing dust and soil from the foliage as you go.

At this point in the seminar, focus shifted to long-term care of succulent containers. Both Karen and Daisy (pictured below) emphasized that over and under watering —particularly in tandem— are a recipe for plant woes. Keeping soil moist —but no wetter than a wrung-out sponge— and allowing the planting medium to dry out a bit between waterings is key to success. Keep in mind that these conditions mimic the natural environment of these semi-tropical and desert region plants. The foliage of plants like succulents and cacti has evolved to hold moisture, in much the same way as a camel stores its water in humps to provide hydration between stops at the oasis!

Daisy, head propagator at Walker Farm, discusses the maintenance and care of succulents and container gardens…

Daisy covered all of the keys to success with container garden maintenance. In addition to balanced watering and regular fertilizing —probably the two most important chores in gardening— one of the major points Daisy covered in her thorough over-view was container size as relative to plant size. It’s always important to educate yourself about the plants you are working with. How big is that cute little button going to get in a year? How long will that enchanting vine trail… Will it visit you in your bed at night? With scissors in hand and orders to clip away at plants for fullness and to promote flowering, Daisy declared: “You control your plant, your plant doesn’t control you”. Now there’s some advice worth taking! Potted plants looking scraggly or leggy? Then it’s time for a haircut. Prune and pinch plants frequently, she advised, to keep them looking great and in proportion with the container. There’s no reason to struggle with an unmanageable plant.

Keep hanging plants attractive and manageable with regular pruning. Manage growth in confined containers, such as wreaths or baskets, by limiting fertilizer.

Of course, Daisy emphasized the importance of knowing both yourself, your location, and the plants you choose. Are you away from home a great deal? Lower maintenance, drought-tolerant succulent species are the best choice for your containers! Sunny spot with six or more hours of direct sunlight? Choose plants that can tolerate such hot, dry conditions. Cacti and many succulents from the American desert regions are a good choice for full sun. Partially sunny location? Most container plants thrive in this situation; including many succulents from the tropics and subtropics. Shade? The vast majority of succulents do not like full shade, and with a few exceptions —such as sansevierias— plants other than succulents will be a better choice for containers in shady situations.

Aphids are sometimes a problem for succulents, particularly when they are brought inside to overwinter. A lack of natural predators allows outside pests to grow un-checked when carried indoors. Here, they cluster and feed on a Kalanchoe in my studio. Click on photo for details on how to deal with succulent garden pests….

Pests aren’t usually a big problem for succulent container plants outdoors, but aphids, scale and mealy bugs can occasionally trouble some plants; particularly during and just after over wintering. Daisy, Karen and I all strongly advise using organic methods to deal with pest problems, and always try the least aggressive method first. During summer, try removing aphids by spraying plants with a strong blast of water from a hose. Often this will knock back pests long enough for natural predators —like ladybug larvae— to take on the battle. For particularly troublesome container pests —like mealy bugs or spider mites— or serious infestations, try insecticidal soap with neem oil or hot pepper in the mix. See my previous post (click here) for more ideas.

The Jewel Box Garden – Thomas Hobbs

Looking for more design ideas and care tips for succulent containers? We’re all big fans of Thomas Hobbs’ gorgeous books. I especially love his colorful Jewel Box Garden (pictured above). And of course, as I recently mentioned, Debra Lee Baldwin’s Succulent Container Gardens is a wonderful resource for the creative container gardener. Walker Farm’s seminars and the regular support of their friendly staff are a great resource for local gardeners here in southern Vermont. I’ll be reporting more from their wonderful gardening seminars in the coming weeks. And if you live in the area, I encourage you to take advantage of these fun and free events for gardeners of all ages and stages…

Succulent Container Gardens – Debra Lee Baldwin

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Gardening Seminars at Walker Farm are Free and Open to the Public. The Gardener’s Eden received no compensation, of any kind, for editorial mention of businesses or products in this post.

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§ 12 Responses to “Un-Flower Pots: Designing & Caring for Spectacular Succulent Container Gardens”

  • Sherry K. says:

    I really enjoy reading about plants on your website. I also enjoy the beautiful images.
    A friend in Horticulture.

  • Michaela says:

    @ Sherry – thank you so much for the kind and generous feedback, both here and on the site’s FB page. I always love hearing from you, and I’m so glad that you enjoy this blog. It’s great to have the support of fellow horticulturalists! xo M

  • Emily T. says:

    Oh my GOD! I love this post. Thank you for the tutorial on succulent containers. I am so excited to experiment with a big pot of my own. Do you think hypertufa containers are good for succulents? I’d love to see a post on that, Michaela.
    Thanks Emily :-}

  • Michaela says:

    @ Emily – I’m so pleased to hear that you enjoyed the post! Karen and Daisy had so much to offer, I just felt it was right to share their wealth of information with gardeners outside the immediate area. As for hypertufa containers… YES! In fact, if you live in a cold climate like mine, and use hardy succulents (I will be writing more on this subject soon) you can leave those containers outside over winter (some protection may be necessary for certain species). And if you make your own hypertufa containers, you can really control their weight and size to make them easily transportable if you end up filling them with tender, tropical or sub-tropical succulents and desert cacti. I’ve been wanting to do a tutorial on hypertufa for years. If only I could find the time (wish I’d had a reminder from myself in January!) Thanks for stopping by and commenting. xo M

  • So sorry I missed that. Ten thousand thanks for the post. And thanks for your generous kind words.

  • Michaela says:

    @ Virginia – Oh, I so wish that you’d been there. It would have been so lovely to see you! I can’t wait to see what you have fired up in your studio over the past few months. Your pots are just perfect for cacti and succulents. Do you have an email list for upcoming shows, Virginia? As you know, I feel a strong need to build a collection of crows. I see places for two more: I’ve found the perfect spot for them! Now, I just need to come up with some name(s) for my beautiful, ebony-colored friend(s).
    xox M

  • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    Hi Michaela, I was surprised to see you answering at this time of day. Bad weather down there this a.m.?
    This may sound like a dumb question, but how do you know if a succulent is hardy or not? I don’t think that I’ve ever seen one with a tag with anything more specific than “succulent”, never mind subspecies or zone information. xo D

  • Michaela says:

    @ Deb – Hello friend! We have beautiful weather. I’m off work today and in my garden. Hard to believe but my veggie garden is one of the few places where I get consistent iPhone reception. Maybe because I am close to the satellite dish. Anyway, to your question: How do you know if a succulent is hardy. If it’s untagged —with no species and cultivar name— then it might be hard to know. If it does have the species and cultivar listed, I would simply Google the name. Many will turn up at Dave’s Garden site, which is user edited and pretty reliable in terms of plant information. Some listed as “hardy” are only safe to 20 degrees F, or so. I leave those out longer toward the end of the season (almost ’til Christmas). If you find a sempervivum, sedum, yucca, etc. at your local garden center in the perennial section, then I’d say that is a good indicator that the plant is hardy. If it’s something in your house, and you don’t know what it is, then I wouldn’t bring it outside. One option (if you can propagate it) is to bring a small bit outside and see how it fares. I’ll be writing more on hardy succulents for cold climates (to be left outdoors) soon. This post was geared more toward the tender species, which I bring inside during cold weather.
    Hope that helps a wee bit! xo M

  • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    Yes, thanks. I’ll continue to keep them in pots until I find out for sure and hopefully I’ll spot some of them in your posting! In the meantime, the weather here is also amazing… and it must be time to plant, ’cause the black-flies and mosquitoes are out in full force! ; ) xo D

  • Perfect timing! I just purchased a handfull of succulents to use on my antique plant stand this year. The stand has 12 arms to hold pots, I purchased 12 pottery cereal bowls in 5 bright colors, drilled holes in the bottom. And tomorrow I start potting them up. I do plan on keeping them in a sunny window during our zone 3 winter.

    I love your blog, it’s one of the few I consistantly read, and can relate to. Although I do wish I had access to some of the places like Walker’s Farm.

    Thank you!

  • Michaela says:

    @ Jenny – Great! I absolutely love seeing outrageous succulents paired unexpectedly. An antique plant stands seems like the perfect set for a sensational summertime show.
    Thank you for sharing the fun of gardening. I so appreciate the time you took to comment, and for your generous and kind words.
    xo Michaela
    {ps If I could bottle walker farm and send it to you, I would. They really are fabulous}

  • Candy Suter says:

    Hi! First time visitor! Wonderful post. You give some wonder advice and ideas! I did want to let you know that in your paragraph regarding the books you said Debra Lee Miller instead of Baldwin. Just a heads up!

    Thank you so much for showing us this great place and the super photos!