How to Make an Easy Succulent Container Garden

  • 01 of 08

    Planning Your Succulent Planter

    Succulent garden
    Claire Cordier / Getty Images

    Growing a succulent container garden is easy and immensely satisfying. By nature, succulent plants are tenacious, vigorous plants with low-moisture needs. They have evolved to thrive in some of the world's harshest conditions so they are generally very easy to care for. In fact, the biggest challenge to most succulent plants is avoiding excessive nurturing—they don't do very well if they are overwatered and overfed. This makes them perfect for the gardener who doesn't have a lot of time to spend on tending plants.

    Design Considerations

    Although most succulents are not typically grown for their blooms, they come in an amazing array of colors and leaf textures, and combining them in interesting ways is a big part of the fun. Colors and textures that you wouldn’t think would go together can make beautiful arrangements.

    The plants you choose and how you arrange them is a personal choice, but it is important to choose plants that are in scale to one another and to the container in which you'll plant them. Small containers call for miniature varieties, while huge pots can take very tall specimens.

    Because succulents store their nutrients and water in their leaves, the root systems are quite compact. This means that you can crowd plants quite close together in containers.

    Choosing a Container

    Perhaps more than with any other container garden, the choice of pot is key. Because the roots of succulents are relatively shallow, they can thrive and look fabulous in a shallow, wide bowl or dish. Just make sure that your pot has good drainage, or be prepared to drill your own holes in the bottom of the container. Standing water in a container can mean death to succulent plants.

    Getting the Right Soil Mix

    Equally important is the soil used in a succulent planter. You can buy any number of potting mixes designed expressly for succulent container gardening. Look for words like "cactus mix" or "succulent mix" on the packaging.

    You can also easily make your own succulent potting soil. Ordinary potting soil is usually a bit too fluffy and not gritty enough for a succulent planter. Instead, blend equal parts potting soil, coarse sand, and perlite or pumice for an ideal mix.

    Selecting Succulent Plants

    There are hundreds, if not thousands, of succulent plants to choose from. When choosing your plants, be aware that they may have varying light and care requirements. It’s best to check the plant tag for specifics and to make sure that the plants you intend for the container have similar needs.

    Although virtually all succulents do well in hot, dry conditions, that doesn't mean they all thrive in direct, hot sun all day long. Contrary to popular belief, most succulents do best if they are in the direct sun for only a few hours a day. Although all need some bright, indirect light, many need protection from getting scorched in the mid-day sun.

    Succulents can actually suffer from sunburn, so when you first buy them, it's best to give them an adjustment period. Similar to the “hardening off” process by which tender plants are acclimated to the outdoors, succulents should be hardened off by exposing them gradually to increasingly long periods of direct sunlight.

    Most garden centers today have entire sections devoted to succulent plants, and the plants are often organized by size. Sample planters may be available for you to copy, or you can experiment with arrangements of different plants right in the store to see how they look together.

    Continue to 2 of 8 below.
  • 02 of 08

    Gather Your Supplies

    Women gardening in backyard on a sunny spring day - low to ground, soft focus
    MajaMitrovic / Getty Images

    You should be able to find everything you need at a local full-service garden center, or you can order plants and materials:

    • Container with drainage holes (shallow containers are best)
    • Succulent plants
    • Plastic window screening (or a piece of landscape fabric or a coffee filter)
    • Scissors
    • Cactus or succulent potting soil mix
    • Soft-bristled brush (optional)
    • Stones, gravel, sea glass, or marbles
    Continue to 3 of 8 below.
  • 03 of 08

    Cover the Drainage Holes

    Container gardening picture of succulent plant container garden with drainage hole
    Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    Cut a piece of plastic window screening big enough to cover your pot's drainage holes. This will keep your potting soil in the pot while letting excess water drain out. Alternatively, you can use a piece of landscape fabric or commercial pot screens (sold by garden centers and online retailers).

    Continue to 4 of 8 below.
  • 04 of 08

    Add the Soil

    Container gardening picture of adding soil to succulent plant container garden
    Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    Cover the bottom of the container with enough succulent-mix potting soil so that when the plants are placed, the soil line on their stems will remain about 1/2 inch below the rim of the container. This will make it easier to water without overflowing the sides of the container.

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Test-Fit the Plants

    Container gardening picture of designing your container
    Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    Place your plants, still in their nursery pots, into the container to get a general idea of the container design. Move the plants around until you are satisfied with the arrangement. One classic arrangement includes a central "thriller" specimen and a group of "filler" plants as well as "spillers" that flow over the edges of the container. But this arrangement is entirely up to you. Wonderful containers gardens often result from breaking traditional design rules.

    Continue to 6 of 8 below.
  • 06 of 08

    Plant the Container

    Container gardening picture of removing succulent plants from their pots
    Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    Once you are happy with the arrangement, remove the plants from the container, take them out of their nursery pots, and place them back into the container, one-by-one. The soil in the nursery pots may be fairly coarse and loose, so be careful when removing the plants. Hold the plant gently at the top with the stem between two fingers. Turn the pot over on its side and gently tap the bottom of the pot and ease the plant out. (If you are handling a spiny succulent, make sure to wear gloves).

    Once all plants are placed in the container, duplicating the design you want, gently pack additional soil around each plant. As you do this, make sure to keep the plants at the same level they were growing at in their nursery pots—don't bury them deeper than they were already growing.

    Confirm that you have filled in all the holes and spaces between the plants and also between the plants and the sides of the container. If you don’t, the roots will dry out, which can be lethal to your plant.

    Continue to 7 of 8 below.
  • 07 of 08

    Add the Finishing Touches

    Container gardening picture of brushing off succulent plants
    Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    Gently remove any soil that is covering leaves and stems of the plants. You can do this with a soft-bristled brush, even by gently blowing on the plants.

    To give your container a finished look, cover the surface of the potting soil with a topdressing of coarse material, such as fine gravel, pebbles, sea glass, or marbles. The topdressing material can be brightly colored or neutral, depending on the look you want to achieve. Using a contrasting colored material for a topdressing can add zing to a pot; a more subtle topdressing can add elegance. The right topdressing can tie all the elements in your pot together or it can make plants stand out in contrast.

    Continue to 8 of 8 below.
  • 08 of 08

    Caring for Your Succulents

    Container gardening picture of succulent plant container garden
    Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    To care for your succulent container garden, the goal is to mimic the conditions they would experience naturally.

    During spring and summer—the growing season for most succulents—keep the soil moist but not wet. It's better to let the soil get a little dry between watering than it is to over-water. During the winter, when succulent plants are normally dormant, water much less frequently, keeping the soil on the dry side but not letting it dry out completely.

    Fertilization should be fairly minimal with succulent plants, and may not be needed at all. It will depend largely on the type of plants you are growing—research each species to learn its needs. If feeding is called for, do it only during the active growing season, using a diluted liquid fertilizer designed for succulents.