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Designing a succulent garden


Neville Passmore


4 October 2018

If you are planning a waterwise garden then one group of plants that is well worth considering are the succulents.  There are about 50,000 different varieties so you are spoilt for choice.Succulents are riding a popular wave at the moment because they can be low maintenance, low water use, even drought tough, they have many different colours in foliage as well as flower, plus attractive architectural shapes.

Start your plan with the biggest items, as these will dominate the landscape. The Mauritian hemp is bold in form as well as colour and in my garden it frames the view of the pond and garden beyond. This can grow to 2 to 3 metres high with a similar spread.  It is a terminal flowering plant, which means it will die after flowering.  This may sound worrisome however it will send up many babies as sucker before this happens so you will not be without a plant or a replacement.

This slow growing giant saguaro cactus could eventually top out at around 15 metres and sport a few branches. This rare plant was obtained from a collector and will one day make an iconic show in the garden. Native to Arizona and New Mexico the cactus is under threat in its home range from unscrupulous collectors for use in landscaping throughout the United States.

The fire stick plant is one of Africas euphorbias and is close to un-killable.  The near-leafless stems change colour through the year and in response to stress such as dryness or full sun exposure. These can get to 3 to 5 metres high but respond well to pruning too. I like these plants because they light up the garden with colour all year round but particularly in winter. Once you have one plant in your garden you can break off stems and plant these straight into the ground to start another.

I am particularly proud of the collection of different aloes, which I have planted over the past 4 years.  While all have medicinal values for indigenous Africans, it is the flowers and form that I find really attractive.  Some flower in summer and autumn but the majority light up the landscape in winter and spring when colour is at a premium. These are the ultimate in easy care plants.  The only maintenance I do is to cut off spent flowers stalks at the end of the season.

Native nectar feeding birds as well as bees find these aloes irresistible and during the flowering season the plants are visited many times a day.

There is a huge range of different varieties with some spectacular additions thanks to the work of breeders and selectors.  A collection brought from Zimbabwe some 20 years ago has been the subject of intense breeding and the progeny are sold under the Aloe-Aloe label. While there are tall so-called tree aloes most fit into the form of shrubs with a few miniatures, which are good value in pots and vertical gardens. 

Another family of winter flowering plants with succulent natures is the kalanchoe tribe.  In particular the florists kalanchoe is a reliable winter performer and the flowers form in response to shorter days coming into winter.  The colours are simply electric and include dazzling pink, purple, red, yellow cream white shades. While mainly used as potted flowering plants they will adapt quickly to growing as groundcovers in the garden, in sun or shade. 

Covering the soil is important for conserving moisture and improving the fertility of soil. The round leaf pigface is an Australian native groundcover, which flowers all year round with the best show in spring. Called disphyma this tough low growing succulent grows in rocky coastal locations as well as desert areas.  I encountered it on Phillip Island in Victoria as well as the Woodlands areas near Norseman in WA. 

It has been crossed with an African relative to produce Disphyllum Sunburn and Sunpeach. These brilliant groundcovers have burnt orange and bright pink flowers respectively. 

As a bit of a succulent challenge I planted out an un-irrigated verge garden with succulent cuttings (no roots) two years ago.  While I did improve the soil the bed received no irrigation since planting. The result today is quite stunning with colour coming from the Firestick plant and aloes.  I used cuttings of the aurora daisy to establish ground cover, which has worked very well.  It is rapidly filling in the spaces and will help in conserving soil moisture and even without flower the silver foliage looks great.   

So succulent plants are not just practical and tough, but have many attractions as garden plants. Succulents can be planted at any time of the year so you could make a project for this weekend. Popularity has hit an all-time high and as a result most garden centres can offer a good selection.