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The new rules of growing succulents

Garden designer Franchesca Watson shares planting tips and design thinking for a fresh approach to succulents

By House & Garden South Africa | June 21, 2022 | Gardens

There are so many succulent plants available on the market these days, and many gardeners are turning to them for their water-wise qualities and sturdy form. Succulent plants have such a different feeling and effect in the garden that some care and knowledge are necessary to use them to the best of their advantage.

Pick the right plant for the job

As with all plants for landscaping, it is helpful to think of them in terms of the required effect. For tree-like specimens or groves, think Frangipanis, baobabs or Ceiba speciosa ‘Kapok’, all of which are bold and beautiful. If you want large bushes or clumps, I find Senecio barbetoniensis wonderful, as it has a most pleasing rounded effect. I often use Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Fire Sticks’ for a shock of colour or Kalanchoe beharensis for a silvery otherworldly chunky look. Aloe arborescens is gorgeous for hedging and will be impenetrable given the time and space to develop. And Portulacaria afra (spekboom) is the wonder plant of the moment that you can hedge and shape to your heart’s desire, and also comes in a ground cover form that works exceptionally.

Aloe maculata and flowering Sempervivums. Photographed by Heidi Bertish

Know when to go big…

I am not one for architectural plants, but, when necessary, I like to use Agave attenuata, which is most useful as it takes both sun and a little shade. Our grand local Euphorbias, such as Euphorbia ingens and E. cooperi, are perfectly gorgeous. Tree aloes, too, are lovely when properly integrated into a garden that complements them, but I dislike them used out of context. Aloe barberae has changed its name to Aloidendron barberae, and Aloidendron dichotomum ‘Quiver tree’ is incredible if your climate is dry enough. I love a stand of Sansevieria cylindrica ‘Elephant’s toothpicks’, strange, otherworldly plants – many succulents seem to have this effect. Exceptional plants include Pachypodiums from Madagascar and Tylecodon paniculatus from our Karoo, along the southern and western Cape coastline, and in the Auas Mountains in central Namibia, both of which you need to understand to care for them properly.

Kumara plicatilis (formerly Aloe plicatilis); Euphorbia caput-medusae; the rounded leaves of Cotyledon orbiculata; blush-coloured sempervirens; aloe sp. adds interest and dimension to a flat space. Photographed by Heidi Bertish

… and when to go low

I find succulent plants for general shrubberies trickier. Some of my favourites are Kalanchoe thyrsiflora, which is very pretty, and Cotyledon orbiculata, whose form, with its staghorn-like leaves, I admire. If one wants a softer, more herbaceous look, then Euphorbia wulfenii and Sedum spectabile are great – the Sedum comes in apricot, pink and white forms (remember they die down in mid-winter). I like Aeoniums, especially A. ‘Zwartkop’ – remember to take them up and reorganise them every couple of years, otherwise, they can tend to look tired. And I love small clumping aloes such as Aloe striata and the Aloe cultivar ‘Hedgehog’.

Have you tried a rockery?

Rockeries – or rock gardens – are back in fashion, and there are large quantities of succulents suitable for this application but remember, you want ones that are disciplined by nature and stay in their place, not ones that ramble all over and cover the rocks entirely. I always try to include the fairly rare Euphorbia caput-medusae, and Gasterias are a joy, as are all the Sempervivens.

Mother-in-Law’s Cushion Cactus up close. Photograph by Heidi Bertish

If you need groundcover, try these succulents

Groundcover succulents are very useful for quick covering. Many Echeverias form spreading mats with good texture, and I love the effect of Crassula muscosa ‘Rastafari’, as it looks remarkably lush. Lampranthus, Delosperma and Aptenias spread quickly and put on a great show when they flower and numerous Crassulas are useful in the shade, such as Crassula spathulata.

Hanging gardens are the next big thing

There are also good climbers and cascading succulents.We are all mad for the epiphytic cactus Rhipsalis baccifera that originates from Central and South America, the Caribbean and Florida and forms graceful curtains of green. Another that makes curtains is Senecio rowleyanus ‘String of Pearls’. Our local Senecio macroglossus is a good creeper for the shade and has a pretty, pale yellow daisy flower. And for a wonderful show in a pot, try Schlumbergera truncata ‘Christmas Cactus’.

Text by Franchesca Watson