Soft green succulents for a lush green garden

Bill Bampton transforms Heronswood’s gravel garden

Drought-tolerant succulents flow together, providing rivers of colour

Smack bang at the front of Heronswood house is a garden bed occupying prime garden paparazzi position.

It pops up in nearly every shot of the garden. It is pivotal to the gardens success. It is also built on the old drive with no real soil, surrounded by gravel, and narrowly missed, (sometimes hit) by delivery vehicles.

It originally took the form of a display bed surrounded by a box hedge. In the past, when water wasn’t an issue and the climate was more benign, it put on a great display of everything from Cardoons through to cabbages and Cleome. It has always been hard work to make this area look good. It requires feeding, watering and, on very hot days, shading.

Regularly giving tours of the garden I become very aware that, on hot days, if I rambled on for more too long, how hot the reflected heat of the gravel could get ... and those poor plants are stuck there all day. It gets exhausting having to work so hard to keep a display of flowers that are just one missed watering away from disaster.

We don’t need this stress in our garden, so out it all came. The replacement plants had to thrive on minimal water, withstand the odd trampling, blend with a cottage garden and cool down this hot spot. The answer: a drought-tolerant succulent garden.

Drought-tolerance initially conjures an image of cactus land or inland scrub. Many drought tolerant plants make their strategies too transparent.

They look dry, prickly, twiggy, dusty or grey. This is fine if you are creating a garden celebrating the arid look, but if you want a green oasis they will disappoint.

This is where succulents come to the fore; they use a waxy cuticle to minimise water loss.

Yet how can succulents be made to relate to a cottage garden surrounding an historic house? While the cottage garden revival of the 1980s relied on inspiration from Britain and America, the home-grown cottage garden tradition of Australia was more cosmopolitan.

Succulents didn’t earn the badge “granny plants” for nothing. Colonists loved succulents. They were easily propagated, transported and survived without a garden tap. They originated in stop overs en route to Australia; Aeoniums from the Canary Islands, Aloes from the Cape and, for gold diggers, Agaves from California.

In Australia’s botanic gardens, Guilfoyle, Schomburgk and Maiden all used succulents in bold ways; the most outstanding example of this being Guilfoyle’s “Volcano” in the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne.

The key to getting a succulent look that blends with a traditional garden is to build on this tradition. Don’t set them apart from other plants; in the way that roses are always best combined with others rather than exiled on their own, so too are succulents incorporated into the garden. Look at succulent foliage in the way you would the flowers of other plants. For many, like Blue Chalk Sticks, it is the foliage that offers the colour, not the flower.

Don’t be too attracted by the weird and wonderful show ponies, use mass plantings of simple ground covers like Jelly Bean Plant to unify the design with the odd fireworks of an Agave or giant Aeonium.

That is how we approached our planting relying on cool blues that echo the colour of the bay and house trim combined with bright green. The effect is almost submarine in effect. Added to this is the odd hint of bright pink Kalanchoe pumila, or acid yellow Euphorbia myrsinites flowers to add interest and harmonise with the surrounding Pink Primrose. I think our conundrum garden now avoids the low maintenance humdrum trap.

It has transcended the former display bed because it goes with the current site conditions rather than fighting against them. When you stop fighting the site and make the most of what these spaces have to offer, problems become solutions. Low levels of nutrients and organic matter mean fewer weeds and give competitive advantage to succulents. The gravel provides drainage.

What is more, in summer, instead of running round with a hose, we gardeners can actually enjoy the bed on the way to a more worthwhile task like growing more organic vegies for the table.

Key succulents used:

1. Agave attenuata — We used the beautiful blue form ‘Nova’. These are the bold foliage plants par excellence. Particularly useful for creating a subtropical look in the dry. ‘Silver Trim’ is another variety useful for brightening dry dark areas of the garden.
They flower only once, but will provide hundreds of pups along their stem and flower spike that will give many new plants.
2. Blue Chalk Sticks (Senecio serpens) — Create a uniform carpet of steely blue foliage. We regularly remove any flower heads, as it is the foliage we are after and flowers promote leggy growth.
3. Puya mirablis — Most Puyas are rather vicious creatures with recurved barbs designed to entrap you with the hope that you stay long enough to become fertiliser. P. mirabilis is different, it has spines but they have no bite and its soft, green leaves are accompanied by long spires of creamy, green flowers.
4. Kalanchoe pumila provides the dominant floral display, yet its dusty pink foliage alone make it a worthy addition. The hot pink flowers are a great foil for the foliage of the Blue Chalk Sticks.
5. Euphorbia myrsinites is a stunning plant that makes the bridge between cottage flower and succulent garden. Its flowers go on a journey from blue-green to acid yellow to red as they fade. A great plant in the gravel garden.
6. The design used several Aeoniums: the wine dark ‘Schwarzkopf’, the lush green cabbage-sized Aeonium undulatum and ‘Velour’. ‘Velour’ provides the plum tones but with a balance of bright green. The higher the irrigation the greener it becomes. The added attraction of ‘Velour’ is that it keeps a low dense form. All Aeoniums benefit from regular replanting. Always best to take fresh cuttings and replant than to hard prune the original plant.
7. Jelly Bean Plant (Sedum rubrotinctum) — This plant turns red in the summer sun, but with water and reverts to a bright green. It is a great plant for multiplying as each leaf can become a new plant.

Tips for designing and maintaining a lush succulent garden

Plant densely. Use succulents as living mulch. If you use too much gravel or pebble mulch, it will smack of cactus garden and require more weeding.

Deadhead regularly. Remove damaged leaves. Any damaged or diseased foliage destroys the illusion of lushness.

Succulents are drought-tolerant, but they do benefit from regular watering over the summer months. Stressing them can enhance the foliage colours, especially rusty tones, but at the expense of green.

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Bill Bampton

Bill was the Director of the Diggers Trust Gardens and has spent time at Burnley College and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. He grew up on a farm on the Yorke Peninsula which gave him a deep understanding of drought and drift sand.

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