Going ‘cacti’ for succulents

You have probably noticed the increasing popularity of succulents and cacti in recent years. From potted pin cushions to bold agaves and tiny terrariums, succulents are making an appearance in outdoor garden landscapes, patios, kitchen tables, bathroom windowsills and even offices.

What makes a plant a succulent? Succulents are all plants that store water in their leaves, which are thick and fleshy in texture. They are drought tolerant and thrive in dry, hot climates. They are also low maintenance, hardy and can handle poor soil fertility. This makes them a great option for the ‘brown thumbs’ among us 👍 Cacti are a specific type of succulent, distinct because of the areole nodules that can be found all over the plant – this is where their flowers and spines grow from.

Succulents are perennial evergreens, meaning they can grow and flower over multiple years. There is a wide range of varieties and hybrids across species, providing endless possibilities for shapes, sizes, textures and colours. So there is an option to suit any garden style and any gardener.

Their textures and shapes also make them excellent feature plants, and they are being used more often to provide architectural structure to a garden design.

Add to this list that they are relatively easy to grow and easy to propagate, and you can quickly see why succulents are a great addition to any garden or indoor space.

Popular species

There are thousands of different varieties of succulents. Here are a few options we can recommend as a great starting point and suited to Brisbane climates.

  • Aloes: Aloe vera is the most popular variety of these hardy, waxy succulents but there are over 500 different varieties covering a range of forms and sizes. They produce showy tubular-shaped flowers at multiple times during the year. Aloes are a great option for adding structure to your garden.
  • Agaves: A great option for time-poor gardeners, because they can withstand a good dose of neglect. They feature bold, fleshy leaves in a rosette shape. Some varieties have spines on the edge or tip of the leaves. Very popular as long-living patio plants, but also suited to planting in garden beds.
  • Crassulas: A smaller variety of succulents, great for pots and terrariums. Many of the Crassulas feature tightly bound leaves that grow into columns and unusual shapes, while others have looser structures. There is a lot of variety in colour too. One of the most popular varieties is the Jade plant (Crassula ovata undulata), or money tree. It grows into a low shrub with attractive, shiny, oval shaped leaves and has impressive longevity. It does naturally propagate very easily from fallen leaves, so be on the watch if you don’t want it to multiply.
  • Echeverias: Another genus with the distinctive rosette shape, Echeverias are well suited to the humid summers and dry winters of Brisbane. They can flower several times a year and cooler weather brings more distinct colour to their leaves. They vary in size, with the rosettes growing from anywhere between 2 – 50cm depending on the variety. They come in lots of different colours too, including shades of green, orange, white, red and pink.
  • Haworthias: sometimes described as miniature aloes, Haworthias are small rosette-shaped succulents that are popular additions to terrariums and succulents pots. There is a lot of variety in the shape, texture and colour of their leaves. Some species even change colour to red/purple when they are dehydrated.
  • Flapjacks (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora): Definitely one to plant en-masse for maximum effect, Flapjacks feature paddle-shaped leaves that stack into a rosette form. The outer edges of the leaves change colour in the full winter sun, providing a striking feature for winter gardens. They can be grown under larger plants to provide an attractive understory, but are also suited to pots and bowls. They propagate quickly and easily too.
  • Mammillaria: The largest genus of cacti, these spikey plants are typically low growing and spherical or columnar in shape. Some also feature a dense covering of woolly white hairs. They are popular for pots and rockeries, but because of the sharp spikes be careful of small children and curious pets getting too close.
  • Pig Face (Carpobrotus edulis): an Australian native succulent that is a great ground cover, especially good for sandy soils because it can help prevent erosion. It features bright green leaves with pretty pink flowers which bees love. Given its tolerance for salty conditions, Pig Face is great around pools. The leaves and flowers are both edible, adding a salty taste to salads.
  • Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata): Stunning, sculptural and low maintenance, the Snake Plant’s name comes from the stripey patterns on the tall, slim leaves. It is also known as mother-in-laws tongue – not sure what that is associated with! Snake Plants have been shown to have excellent air-purifying abilities, making them a great addition to offices and indoor spaces. But they are also well suited to outdoor locations and their height and yellow shading make them a beautiful choice for adding a structural feature.
  • String of Pearls (Senecio rowleyanus): A creeping vine succulent featuring fleshy little green spherical leaves (pearls). They are perfect for hanging baskets or in pots on shelves where they can hang over the edge for a lovely soft look. They are mildly toxic though so position them away from small children and pets.
  • Yucca: If you are looking for a larger succulent, then yuccas are a great option. Known for their tough, sword-shaped leaves and large spikes of white flowers, they can grow as large shrubs or trees. They make great feature plants for garden beds, courtyards and patios.

How to choose the best succulents for your garden

With so much variety across the succulent species, it can be hard to choose the best ones to match your garden or indoor space. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Think about the space you have available and the look you what you want to create – are you looking for a ground cover, a bold focal point, a tall structural piece or something dramatic hanging from a pot?
  • Some varieties are better suited to indoor spaces than others, so if that is what you are looking for try to choose plants that do better in indirect sunlight
  • If you will have small children or pets in the garden, be aware of varieties with sharp spikes and thorns, or might be toxic
  • Most species will do well in the Brisbane climate, but our sticky and humid conditions can be overwhelming for some species more suited to dryer Mediterranean climates. Drainage is always key. If you are keen on a particular species but not sure about its suitability, get in touch and we can give you some advice
  • Even in Brisbane’s mild winters, some species may need additional protection from cold

As with any plant selection, it pays to chat with an expert if you have specific conditions or aren’t sure which plant is most suitable.

Planting and maintaining your succulents

We can all be a little guilty of neglecting our plants and even though succulents are popular for being low maintenance, easy to grow plants they do still need some attention to ensure they thrive.

There are three key elements to keeping succulents healthy – water, sunlight and drainage.

Succulents don’t need a lot of water. One of the most common mistakes people make is overwatering. The best way to hydrate your succulents is to water them well, and then wait until they have almost completely dried out before watering well again. Try to water their roots rather than the foliage to avoid water pooling in the leaves and causing rot. If your plants are living in the ground then natural rainfall might be enough. If you are growing them in pots and indoors you will need to check them more regularly.

Succulents and cacti look great when clustered in groups. They don’t need full sun all day, 3-6 hours of direct sunlight is typically enough. So look for areas that provide partial shade and avoid spots that are exposed to the sun all day. This goes for succulents that live indoors as well. If your plant is looking a bit sparse in its foliage it might not be getting enough sunlight. Or if it starts to get brown, scorched leaves it probably needs more shade.

Succulents hate having wet feet. Poor drainage will give them wet feet and this will lead to rot. When planting in pots look to use a specialist free-draining mix specifically for cacti and succulents. If you are planting directly into the ground, sandy well-draining soil is best. If you have heavier clay or loam soil you should add in some sand to improve the drainage. You can also look to plant them in raised rockeries, behind retaining walls and on sloped areas to improve drainage.

Whether you are looking for a low maintenance, drought-tolerant plant or want to add some bold shapes and structure to your garden, chances are there is a succulent variety perfect for you. Have fun in your garden design by mixing and matching different succulent species, and there are even some which can be paired with more moisture-loving plants. As long as you keep an eye on the drainage and sun exposure, your succulents will be sure to bring delight and satisfaction for many years.

If you are designing or creating your dream landscape at the moment and want to find out more about how to make the best use of succulents, get in touch. We regularly use and maintain a wide variety of succulents for our clients and would love to help you bring them into your garden.

Find out how your garden could bloom.

Let us turn your garden into the serene space you’ve always dreamed of, where nature and the built environment seamlessly blend to create functional and beautiful spaces.

Get in touch to find out more about what’s possible.