How to create a South African succulent garden

Too long has the succulent garden been dominated by an oasis of exotic Echeveria. As a South African landscaping company we are thirsty for an indigenous planting palette and feeling a bit hangover from all tequila-brewing cactuses.

succulent gardens and xeriscapes

Exotic desert roses © Selena N. B. H.

Life Landscapes has decided to explore what it takes to create a completely indigenous succulent garden. The current water issues in South Africa means succulents have become really appealing, leaving water intensive gardens high and dry.

What most gardeners don’t know is that a succulent garden lends itself to one of the trendiest words in landscaping right now, xeriscaping.

Xeriscapes and succulents

You never miss the water until the well runs dry, and that is when you start xeriscaping. Xeriscaping is a method of landscaping, developed in arid countries, that uses dessert-adapted plants, stone and limited irrigation. Succulents are what landscapers refer to as desert-adapted plants, scientifically known as xerophytes, meaning they flourish in desert conditions and will die with too much watering.

Installing a succulent xeriscape

Now that we understand what a xeriscape is, we sat down with Oscar Lockwood to learn about the fundamentals of an indigenous succulent garden.  

A xeriscape should be a robust, low maintenance landscape that is well suits to dry conditions; however, when installing a succulent garden, you need to do your homework as it is very detailed gardening. The more thought that goes into the xeriscape in the beginning the easier it is to maintain and looks better. 

Mounding and soil selection for a succulent garden

Mounding creates relief and breaks the callousness of all the stone, crusher stone and succulents. Absolutely no topsoil and compost should be utilised in the creating of the mounds.

In areas with a high precipitation levels, mounds in succulent gardens make for water off a camel’s back - letting water drain fast and effectively, preventing root rot. The higher the average rainfall, the higher embankments of course river sand should be. 

Rocks for a Xeriscape

“Rocks have shadows and give natural feel. They also radiate heat like a hot water bottle at night which in nature is important for keeping plants alive.” – Oscar Lockwood

Microclimates hug rock shadows because of the moisture and shade they provide; this can be an important factor for some of the more delicate succulents. This is why you see clusters of plants daisy-chaining around rock formations in deserts. 

Loosely placed large boulders make for excellent focal points. In a more structured xeriscape use crusher stone to create patterns and lines with succulents.

Features of a succulent garden

A succulent garden can have a natural feel to it, with of mirage of rocks, cotyledons and aloes. Alternatively, a xeriscape can have a very baroque, structured look to it. The use of old farming equipment such as: wagon wheels, rusted steel and empty water features, all contribute to the dry western scene. A scene Clint Eastwood would be proud to walk into.  

Solar panels for environmentally-minded landscapers can be incorporated into the design of a xeriscape.

succulent living wall Cape Town Life indoors

Succulent green wall in Cape Town, installed by Life Landscapes

Garden maintenance for xeriscapes and succulent gardens

Rot caused from over-watering and incorrect soil use is the number one killer for succulents. Succulents like:

  • Full sun
  • No irrigation
  • Well drained soils
  • Course river sand
  • Do not compost
  • No fertilisers
  • Frost can be a limiting factor 

A succulent garden is not suited for every province in South Africa, they are ideal for landscapes in the Northern Cape, Western Cape, North West, Bloemfontein and parts of Gauteng. A little bit of water in growing season will keep the xeriscape flourishing in their preferred parched terrain.

Indigenous succulent garden planting list

Time to explore the sun-kissed world of indigenous succulent plants.

  • Starfish flowers (Stapeliads) – Oscar Lockwood’s recommendation
  • Cotyledons
    • Pig’s ear (Cotyledon orbiculata)
    • Bear’s paw (Cotyledon tomentosa)
  • Aloe species
  • Euphorbia species
  • Living stones (Lithops)
  • Crassula species
    • Red flames (Crassula capitella)
    • Fairy crassula (Crassula multicava)
    • Red pagoda  (Crassula capitella ssp thyrsiflora)
  • Ground lily (Ammocharis coranica) – add some seasonal colour, although not a true succulent it likes to be treated as such.

Indigenous trees you can use in a Xeriscape

Some of these have plants have succulent feel but do not handle cold or frost. A lot of these xerophytes have exquisite flowers.

  • Chinese lantern (Nymania capensis)  
  • Karoo Rhigozium – adds a tumble weed effect and gets bright yellow flowers in Spring.
  • Add an oasis of Pachypodiums, these plants love thirsty environments.
    • Pachypodiumhorombense
    • Kudu lily (Pachypodium saundersii)
    • Pachypodiumgeayi
    • Dikvoet (Pachypodium succulentum)
    • Pachypodiumlamerei 
    • Elephant's trunk (Pachypodium namaquanum)
  • Quiver tree (Aloe dichotoma Masson)
  • Spekboom – SA’s most famous succulent.
  • Tree aloe (Aloe barberae) – makes for an excellent focal point
  • Candelabra tree (Euphorbia cooperi) - statuesque cactus-like plant that gets very large.
  • Pencil plant (Euphorbia tirucalli)