What I Wish I Knew Before Planting My Succulent Garden

The key to a happy succulent garden is thoughtful planning and preparation.

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Thinking of planting a succulent garden? Succulents can offer eye-catching blooms, tall spires and soothing shades of green with a variety of surfaces and textures. Your garden will have visual interest from spring through fall, with colors that change throughout the seasons.

Succulents are fairly self-sufficient—but that doesn’t mean a succulent garden requires no prep.

There are a few things I’ve learned through trial and error. This is how to grow a succulent garden that will require minimal maintenance, attract pollinators and create a tranquil place to relax.

What to Do Before You Plant

Hand checking soil on ground for a succulent gardenpiyaset/Getty Images

The first steps should include an evaluation of soil, drainage conditions and irrigation. Then it’s time for plant selection!

Evaluate the Soil

It’s important to understand the soil conditions before you plant—the soil may need to be amended. Dig up a small shovelful of soil and hold it in the palm of your hand. Squeeze the soil sample. When you open your hand, does the soil fall easily through your fingers or hold together? Are there a large number of small rocks? Is the soil grainy or soft? I have good results making adjustments to the soil with a succulent and cactus mix that improves drainage to avoid water retention.

Ensure Proper Drainage

Check the absorption rate for the area where you plan to grow succulents. If the water doesn’t drain well, it can lead to soggy conditions—which spells disaster for succulent roots. The easiest way to check the drainage ability of the soil is by digging a hole and filling it with water. Dig a hole about 12 inches deep and wide. Fill the bottom of the hole with water and allow the water to drain naturally. Does the soil absorb the water fairly quickly or does the water pool and slowly drain? You may need to amend the soil with a product like perlite.

Plan for a Water Source

Many people assume that succulents are extremely drought tolerant and don’t have any particular watering concerns. This is true, to a certain extent—the fastest way to harm a succulent is overwatering. But you don’t want to choose a location that won’t benefit from natural rainfall or is too far from a water source like a garden hose for manual watering.

How to Choose the Right Succulents

Succulent gardenSonali Kumar/Getty Images

Know what succulents you plan to purchase. Then prepare a space that meets the needs of those plants to establish healthy succulents right from the start.

Plan Your Layout

Space is important! Allow for enough space around each succulent to accommodate its growing habit. Will the plant spread out horizontally, form tall stalks or create broad leaf shapes? The size of a succulent when it’s planted will change as it gets established.

Mix up the height of plants. Select space for shorter varieties toward the front and place taller succulents in the middle or back. My garden has done well with a tall succulent known as Palmer’s agave and a snake plant did particularly well in a place where nothing else grew.

Consider the Scale of Each Plant

The height and width of each succulent should be taken into consideration when planning visual interest. If your garden space will have a backdrop like a fence or the foundation of a house, look at the scale in perspective to the background. I like to arrange the plants while they are still in the pots and look at the design from various angles before putting anything in the ground.

Identify Succulents Correctly

You’re strolling through the garden center and looking for succulents to add to your garden space. Many plants may simply be marked as ‘succulents.’ How do you know what you’re even looking at? Ask the garden experts at the plant center for help. They are available to answer questions and offer guidance when making plant selections.

I have had success with echeveria and hens and chicks when I want something with a low growth for the front of a garden.

Plan for a Continuous Bloom Cycle

You want to plant a variety of succulents that will provide visual interest all season long, with buds, flowers and changes in leaf color. Plant early bloomers like aloe and hoyas for spring. Nothing beats sedum for getting the garden to the finish line at the end of the growing season! My sedum has slowly taken over blank spaces in the garden to add late season interest.

How to Care for a Succulent Garden

Water drip system in a garden watering a flowering iceplantPictureLake/Getty Images

Plant your succulent garden after thoughtful preparation and it will reward you with beautiful results for years to come. Throughout the growing season, make notes in a garden journal about what seems to be working or needs a little extra help. Here’s our guide to teach you how to take care of succulents.

Remember, a healthy garden is always a work in progress. Just ask the gardeners who find joy in tending to a garden and they will tell you it is never finished. There is always something new to discover!

Alice Knisley Matthias
Alice Knisley Matthias writes about food, family, education, and garden. Her work appears in The New York Times, Washington Post, Food Network, Delish, The Kitchn and Parade. Her book about healthy kid snacks is published by Scholastic. Other work includes Woman's Day, Redbook, Highlights for Children, Boys' Life, Kids Discover and America's Test Kitchen Cook's Country Cookbook.