By Scott Calhoun
In the ground or in pots, succulents make sense. They are among the easiest plants to care for, and demand little water in the desert garden. Below are a few design tips and horticultural tricks for getting the most from succulents.
Shade and understory planting. The desert sun is harsh, and most garden succulents here appreciate at least filtered shade — this is often true even when plant tags say “full sun.” As the example above demonstrates, a desert tree, such as a palo verde, can serve as a nurse plant for many succulent species. This planting features ghost plant, Texas tuberose, and slipper plant, all thriving as understory plants.
Mixing succulents with perennials and wildflowers. Mix your sun-hardy succulents, such as the Queen Victoria agave, pictured, with perennials and wildflowers. I like to have groundcovers, such as verbena and lantana, grow around and through the leaves of succulents such as agave and yucca species. Other perennials to include are salvia species. Wildflowers, such as Mexican gold poppy, also are excellent companions.
Using strange-looking succulents. Plants similar to the carrion plant, pictured, are great conversation starters. The strange flower, which smells to some like rotten meat, is large and unusual. Although you might not want it adjacent to a porch or outdoor living area, it makes a great spreading groundcover in the filtered shade of desert trees.
Front porch pots. More so than any other category of plants, a wide selection of succulents tolerates planting beneath porches and other areas that receive little or no direct sunlight. This makes succulents perfect candidates for planting in attractive containers near entryways, where it is difficult to grow flowering plants. I’m not suggesting that you plant them in dark, north-facing corners, but porches with overhangs are fine. As the photo illustrates, plants such as elephant food, Gasteria, and Senecio species are good choices.