Have you tried your hand at gardening and been disappointed with the results? Maybe you don’t have a black thumb, and you just need to find the right type of garden that fits your lifestyle. Designing a succulent garden may be just what you need. Cacti and succulent plants are some of the easiest plants you can grow in a garden, and with a little forethought you can develop that green thumb.
Tips for successful succulent garden design
The first thing you should take into consideration is that all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. One defining feature of cacti is that they have spine cushions called areoles.
"Indoor cacti and succulents" at the garden center via Ramon Gonzalez
The second thing you should take into consideration is that there are winter-hardy cacti and succulents, and they are different from the succulents you usually find in garden centers and greenhouses in that they come back every year. Whereas the smaller, decorative cacti that are referred to as “indoor cacti” would not survive a winter outdoors in most of the United States. The majority of these succulents you find at home improvement stores originate in Africa and the tropical and subtropical Americas. I could not plant an aloe in my garden in Chicago and expect it to survive a winter, but I could plant an aloe in my garden if I lived in Southern California.
Some winter-hardy cacti to grow in your garden
Opuntia via Ramon Gonzalez
Winter-hardy cacti can be hardy down to -40 F, and you’ll need to do a bit of research to see if they survive in your area. But some popular options include Opuntia, Cylindropuntia, Echinocereus, Corynopuntia and Escobaria. Winter-hardy succulents are great additions to drought-tolerant gardens.
Non-winter-hardy succulents are really popular at the moment in garden design. They’re featured in containers and living walls, and if you live in an area that experiences real winters, your succulents should stay in containers and smaller, portable living walls that can be brought indoors.
If you have the money and time, you can grow non-winter-hardy succulents in cold climate gardens provided you treat them as an annual that you know will die when winter arrives, or you make provisions for saving the plant when winter sets in.
Agave plants temporarily growing in Chicago via Ramon Gonzalez
Like with orchid gardening, you can keep succulents in containers that you set into the ground, larger pots and raised beds. At the end of the season simply pull the plants (complete with pots) out of the ground and store them indoors.
The third thing you should take into consideration is the soil. Succulents don’t grow well in soil that has a lot of organic matter. Plant succulents in well-draining soil in containers. If you’re planting succulents in the ground, consider growing them in raised beds and raised mounds with soil that drains fast. You can achieve this by adding gravel and sand in your soil. Succulents sitting in wet soil are succulents that will die soon.
The fourth thing you should consider when planting succulent gardens is if you have enough light. Succulents should be planted in full sun to allow the plants to thrive and soil to dry out.
The fifth and final point you should consider in your succulent garden design is watering. Sometimes it’s exaggerated how little water cacti and succulent plants need. Depending on the type, succulent plant store water in their leaves, stems or underground roots. You can easily kill succulents by being too good to them. That doesn't mean you should let your plants go months without watering, but you should be pretty selective with how much water you give them.
Additional tips for growing succulents:
- When you’re planting a succulent garden, do some research and learn about where your plants come from, and what kind of conditions they experience in nature. Some are spring and summer growers, while others come out of dormancy during winters and should only be watered then.
- Group plants from the same families together in containers and pots. Slow-growing succulent plants should be planted with other slow-growing plants.
- Be smart about when and how you water. Winter-hardy succulents and cacti will require little supplemental irrigation. Let mother nature do the work for you.
- Lastly, don’t be afraid to experiment. Want to grow an agave in Detroit? Place it in a pot in your container garden, or sink it into the ground. Just don’t forget to pull it up in the winter.