Oh So Succulent

One of my recent garden passions is making little dish gardens of cacti and succulents. They're great for tabletops, since it always bugs me when some centerpiece is so big I can't see the person on the other side of it. And since I use mostly rather small plants --anywhere from an inch to less than foot in height--a tabletop provides a good display spot where it's easier to admire them close-up. These mini mash-ups are very low maintenance: they need virtually no trimming or deadheading, no fertilizing, and they don't care much if you skip watering now and then. Plus they take me back to my garden roots-some of the first plants I grew and loved were cacti and succulents, which I admired for their outlandish sculptural shapes and exotic textures, and for their ironclad constitution-even neglect never seemed to threaten their rugged nature.

Color is another fun component for designing these dish gardens, which look, as Thomas Hobbes once remarked, like little pizzas. While in the old days the palette for these botanic wonders was limited, far as I knew, to greens and silvery greens, it's now possible to find beauteous burgundies, awesome orangey or bronzey hues, and even a few with shadings of chartreuse. I'm always in the lookout for these little treasures, and have found all sorts of great players in unlikely locations such as Home Depot. Good candidates include Kalanchoes, Euphorbias, Echeverrias, Aeoniums, Agaves, Sedums, Aloes, and whatever cacti might catch your eye. I'm looking for everything but flowers. I even collect these guys in the dead of winter, the better to have a grand assortment when spring--and pizza time--comes round again.

Drainage and sun are really the only things these plants demand, so I usually need to drill a few extra holes in the bottom of whatever container I'm using. I especially like using saucers, you know the low dishlike things you'd nomally place under a more traditionally shaped pot. For soil, I use my traditional container mix of 1/3 compost, 1/3 good commercial potting soil, and 1/3 bark mulch, but add to that an equal part of pea gravel. So it's half mix, half gravel. I usually mound the soil on the container so the crowns of the plants are above the edge of the saucer or whatever, so they stay high and dry.

When it's design time, I just play around, moving this plant in, that plant out, until I get a good mix of shapes, textures and colors. Then I just mash them into place-since the pots are usually shallow, there's not a lot of room and I just cram it all together. Hey, cram and jam is my preferred garden style anyway. Low growing sedums--'Angelina' is a good one-- make a great groundcover and are often a welcome addition, then sometimes a mulch of fine gravel or a cool looking stone or two provide a finishing touch. As an alternative, you can go more for a one plant/one pot approach and arrange the pots, as in this scene from Chanticleer

Then I'm free to enjoy my creation all season. Since I use a mix of tender and hardy plants, fall's arrival means I usually bring them indoors and try to overwinter the little gardens. In winter's limited light, some stuff gets leggy or otherwise unappealing. So I might try some cuttings of any real favorites, but the idea is to keep at least some of the plants going so the next season I can tear those planters apart and add their contents to my collection of candidates for a new dish of goodies.


Chandramouli S said...

Wonderful collection of succelents, Steve. What a splash of colors! Impressive.

Kit Aerie-el said...


Wow, seriously breath-taking beauty.

Little-to-no-care plants, pizza (who doesn't like a little pie now and then), cram-and-jam (works for me!), and a (container mix) recipe to boot--fantastic facts, fabulous photos--can't wait to see what's next!


Anonymous said...

It'll do;) just kidding. You know I love it. Lots of money you got tied up in all that. I know, I use to work at a nursery. Pity though as no one knew what to do with them. I just had to take some home when the sale came.

Steve Silk said...

Thanks Chandramouli-They are fun and forgiving plants to play with. There must be some incredible ones where you are.

Steve Silk said...

Thank you so much Aerie-el. It's all fun--give 'em a try!

Steve Silk said...

Flowergardengirl-Poor you, can't imagine a fate worse than having a to take home a few of these beauties. I've done the next best thing. White Flower Farm is not far from me, and they have an amazing summer sale where I've collected many of my treasures for just a couple bucks apiece.

Gail said...

I am trying to grasp the cram and jam concept and your pretty garden! Whatever...it looks spectacular!

Steve Silk said...

Hi Gail--Jam and cram is simple--where two plants will do, just put four or five! I sometimes mash a rootball into more of a disk shape to cram it in somewhere. The advantage is your container looks good from the get-go. And if it gets overgrown, you just yank any plant that's getting hidden.