Are you looking to add colorful plants to your outdoor patio this summer? Bad at watering or find yourself out of town for extended periods? Consider creating super drought-tolerant container arrangements of succulents for full sun areas outdoors.
1. Select a low shallow container with at least one drainage hole in the bottom
It’s fine to select a container that is deeper but most of the soil below the top 4-8 inches is wasted when planting succulents. They need a lot less water than other plants and thrive on neglect, to a point. Thus, most of the time, shallower containers are better. Succulents tend to have shorter canopies and correspondingly shorter root systems. Just make sure that your container has at least one drainage hole in the bottom. The number one reason succulents die is because they get too much moisture, either because of over-watering or poor drainage.
2. Use a Drain-it Disk.
Even if the container you select has one or more great drainage holes, gravity can cause the soil to pack into the drainage hole(s) over time, reducing drainage. The old remedy, putting gravel or broken terracotta in the bottom, only works if you wrap it in landscape clothe first.
This product, called “Drainit,” made by the same people who make the Planket, is fantastic for that purpose. They come in small, medium, and large and the smallest, pictured in this photograph, is only $4.99. Just take the packaging off and drop it right in the bottom of the container to cover the drainage hole!
3. Use a well-draining potting mix, preferably one made specifically for cacti and suculents.
Regular potting mixes often hold moisture very well, either because of the type of organic matter included in them or because of added synthetic water-absorbing polymers. That’s great for most things planted in containers because it compensates for the higher soil evaporation rate for containers. But, succulents prefer a dryer environment, requiring a different kind of potting mix. Usually, the main ingredient, added to improve drainage is perlite, a naturally occurring substance. Though there are other good cactus and succulent mixes, we really like the “Cactus & Succulent Potting Mix,” by Dr. Earth.
4. Add a base of potting soil on top of the drain-it disk.
Before beginning to put the plants in, add a base of potting mix to the bottom, enough so that when you set the plants in, the root crowns of the ones with the deepest root systems will be just under, maybe an inch under, the lip of the container. Since you will be using a variety of plants, they likely won’t all come in the same sized containers. So, you will have to add soil under some to bring them up to the same level as the ones that come out of the largest containers you use. But, you can do that as you go.
5. Select a mixture of colors and textures for contrast.
Some people like to make arrangements of a single type of plant, for maximum impact. It is also common, in arrangements, to have a thriller, filler, and spiller. The thriller is the tallest vertical element, the filler is shorter than the thriller, and the spiller plant(s), obviously, spill over the side. But, I prefer a variety of colors and textures for these types of arrangements. For the pictured arrangements, I used 3 different varieties of Hens & Chicks, a sedum hybrid called ‘Lemon Ball,’ 4 different stonecrops called ‘Major,’ ‘Coral Carpet,’ ‘Weihenstephaner Gold,’ & ‘Oktoberfest,’ along with a Sedum spurium ‘Red Carpet.’ Although not all succulents are cold hardy enough to leave outside during freezing weather, these particular succulents, I know from experience, should make it through our winters just fine.
6. Loosen roots as necessary.
The specimen I used for this arrangement were not particularly root-bound. But, sometimes the root system is pretty dense, tightly packed. If it is, it can be a good idea to gently loosen the root system with your fingers.
7. Leave some space between plants.
You can get away with packing succulents pretty tightly into an arrangement, but it’s better if you leave a little space between plants, to give them room to grow in and spread. How tightly you fill the arrangement really depends upon how much instant gratification you want and your budget. If you leave a lot of space, the succulents you plant will
eventually spread to fill that space in.
8. Fill the space between plants with potting mix.
After you have arranged the plants the way you want them, use a garden trowel or your hands to fill in the space between them with potting mix. You don’t want the roots of the plants exposed to air.
9. Water to get soil off of plants and remove air pockets.
Next water the soil in to get it off of the canopies of the plants and get it to settle between the plants. A good soil needs macropores filled with oxygen but not large air pockets. This is probably the most water you’ll ever give these succulents. You want to let the top two inches of soil, at least, dry out between waterings, and you can often go a month or more without watering. For succulents exposed to the elements, rain usually provides enough water, though you should be more vigilant in checking them in July, August, and September than in other months. (Succulent gardens can occasionally work indoors if they get A LOT of bright light.)
10. Add additional soil after watering if necessary and water one more time.
Finally, when you watered the soil in, removing air pockets, you may have found you need to add a little more between the plants. Just be careful not to cover the root crowns with soil. Whatever part of the plant was exposed in its original pot, should remain exposed in your container arrangement.
If you’d like assistance in creating your own arrangements, please visit our horticulture building at 2231 Central Avenue and ask a staff member. If you purchase a container, a drain-it disk (if necessary), and the plants, we will gladly comp the potting mix and the labor for potting up the arrangement for you. Similarly, if you’d like to schedule a private container arrangement gathering some evening, please contact our Manager of Horticulture by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would expect your group to agree to spend a minimum of $300 on materials to accommodate a private evening gathering.
The author, John Jennings, is Palladio’s Manager of Horticulture. John graduated from the McCallie School, a secondary school for boys in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1990, graduated from the University of Richmond in 1994 with a B.A. degree in English, graduated from the University of Memphis Law School in 1997 with a J.D. degree, is an ISA Certified Arborist, is licensed by the State of Tennessee to apply chemicals for horticultural purposes, and writes the Garden Variety column for Memphis Magazine.