Drought-Tolerant Succulents

Hardy and handsome, these drought-tolerant gems are perfect for container gardens.

No matter where you live, succulents can bring a bit of the desert to your backyard. Hardy, drought tolerant and attractive, these adaptable plants have taken up residence in troughs, pots and other vessels in landscapes across the country.

Keep It Low-Key

Native to arid and semi-arid regions, succulents are designed by nature to acquire any available water from the atmosphere and soil and store it in modified stems and leaves. Their drought tolerance makes them the perfect choice for busy gardeners (or those who prefer the benign neglect method of plant care).

Since succulents are subtle in appearance, I prefer to use containers of equally understated beauty, so that the planter doesn’t overshadow the plant. Trough gardens, shallow terra cotta pots or recycled items like a cracked birdbath or leaky fountain can provide the perfect home.

No matter what vessel you select, make sure it has drainage holes. Pick one that just fits the plants. Succulents have small root systems compared to their aboveground growth, so placing them in large pots means excess soil that holds the water and leads to root rot.

Use a well-drained potting mix with minimal organic matter. Commercial cactus and succulent mixes are often not suited to outdoor containers, so you may need to experiment a bit to find a mixture that works for you. Avoid those with water-retaining crystals, as these plants like it dry.

Most gardeners start with a basic potting mix and modify it to meet the needs of the plant. Consider starting with a mix of 2 or 3 parts high-quality potting mix, 1 part coarse sand (do not use playground or foundation sand) and 1 part perlite, crushed gravel, composted bark or rice hulls. Gardeners in extremely hot, dry regions may want to add a bit of loam soil to help retain just a bit of water.

Use a low-nitrogen, slow-release fertilizer for best results, and don’t overdo it. These slow-growing plants need minimal fertilization—another reason they’re good for low-maintenance gardeners.

Shop Around

When you’re ready to plant, select a combination of succulents that provides interesting forms and textures. You may need to shop around, as succulent gardens are just catching on in some parts of the country. An on-line search may provide the best results.

You might want to start with some familiar plants, like moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora), hens and chicks, sedum and yucca. Though hens and chicks—also called houseleeks—all have that familiar rosette shape, the color and size range adds variety.

Add in a few echeveria, with their larger, often colorful or ruffled leaves, for an even bolder statement. Your imagination and plant availability are your only limits.

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Melinda Myers
Melinda Myers is a nature and gardening writer whose specialty is attracting wildlife, especially birds, to the garden. She contributes regularly to the magazine Birds & Blooms, and lectures widely on creating gardens that please both human and avian visitors.