I personally favor gardens that combine different types of plants in the informal manner of cottage gardens. I am also a fan of succulents, with an appreciation for their use in “California-friendly” gardens. While succulents (and cacti) are generally marked for drought tolerant yards, don’t over look them as ornamental additions in any California garden, for these plants can add visual depth and interest when contrasted against the textures, color, and character of many garden perennials and shrubs.
In planning your water-wise garden, there are several factors to consider when adding succulents and cacti:
1. Match your plants’ watering needs by zones: Don’t assume all drought tolerant plants have the same watering requirements. The cultural needs of succulents, for example, are as diverse as the number of plant species found in its broad category.
2. Consider the soil: Water is not the only consideration for a garden’s success. A water-efficient garden begins with the soil. For example, the National Capital Cactus and Succulent Society recommends this tip: “A soil mixture for succulent plants should have a good crumbly structure. To test your soil mix, moisten and then squeeze with your hands: the mixture should not form a lump but crumble loosely.” So if you are interested in water conservation, the natural sciences, or simply having a green thumb, then take the time to learn about the plant/soil/water cycle. You will be a better gardener for it.
3. Factor in scale and spacing: Aloes, Agaves, Aeoniums, Echeverias and Senecios are among the most popular succulents in use today. These plants can add architectural structure and beauty to gardens when designed appropriately for its scale and site conditions. Leave enough space between larger succulents, such as some of the Agave species, and they can stand out as features.
4. Mixing in planter arrangements: Cacti and other succulents also make excellent container plants. So if you must have a particular species that does not fit in with other plants in your garden, select a special pot or planter, make an arrangement with it and—voila!—you have a feature in the garden.
5. Consider placement: If you plant succulents in the front of your home, be careful where you place the ones with sharp points, spines, or prickly hairs. Certain agave species – such as the Agave americana – can get quite large with sharp points along its leaves’ margins and terminal spines. In my garden, no matter how lightly I move around my Opuntia (prickly pear cactus), its tiny hairs manage to attach themselves onto my gardening gloves, clothes, or skin.
Locate these types of plants away from edges where people or their pets may walk by, run, or play. I also recommend you leave such plants out of parkways—those strips of green between the curb and the sidewalk. I remember an unexpected visit to my veterinarian to remove thorns from my dog’s paw after he stepped into a cacti-planted parkway. Parkway planting ordinances do vary by city. So educate yourself before you dig. But then, isn’t that what gardeners tell themselves all the time?