Succulents; Adapting Big Ideas to a Small Space

Even if we don’t all have the means to take advantage of succulents on a grand scale, like some of the West’s famous estate gardens, most of us can find a pocket of space to enjoy a bit of nature’s drought-tolerant botanical-sculpture. The lack of rain in California makes this a good year to have fun with water-wise plantings but even gardeners in wetter and colder climates can enjoy the style that succulents add.

Here are a few of my favorite features from the famous Lotusland gardens, near Santa Barbara, and suggestions for how to use the design ideas in a smaller space.

Quantity; How much is enough?

Big Idea; More is more. Yes, if you have lots of space, succulents are spectacular to use in mass quantity. The individual sculptural form of succulents take on another level of texture and importance when repeated in the landscape.


succulent lined driveway

Aloes and Agaves line a driveway at Ganna Walska Lotusland. Photo by Joy Albright-Souza.


Take Home Tip; One is enough. An individual plant can hold its own, especially with the play of light on broad fleshy leaves. Bump up the close-up interest by choosing a succulent with a contrasting band of color.


echevaria close

Orange-edged leaves on this Echevaria invites close inspection and highlights the plant’s form. Photo by Joy Albright-Souza.


Scale; Size matters.

Big Idea; Sure…big is better, if you are creating a landscape from scratch and have the space for oversized specimens.


blue agave

A pair of huge Blue Agaves flank the entry to a path at Lotusland. Photo by Joy Albright-Souza.


Take Home Tip; Contribute rather than dominate. The forms and colors of succulents can be used to draw attention to a special detail or the “borrowed” landscape beyond.


blue succulent deck planter

The blue tones in Senecio mandraliscae (aka Blue Chalk Fingers) were specifically chosen to contrast with the redwood deck and repeat the blues of the ocean view beyond. Design by Albright-Souza Garden Design. Photo by Joy Albright-Souza.


Pattern; Plant and repeat.

Big Idea; Using contrast in color and texture is spectacular on a large scale. The variations in low-growing succulents make for fun shapes in the landscape and a grand update to the Victorian idea of “carpet bedding”.


succulent clock

The large succulent “clock” is a popular feature at the historic Lotusland. Photo by Joy Albright-Souza.


Take Home Tip; Contrast in texture and form works on a small scale too but when creating smaller features, consider sticking to the same form in different colors or using similar colors in contrasting forms. Too many variables can make a small composition visually busy.


succulent wreath

Using only green succulents shows off the textural contrasts on this 15” centerpiece that was a gift from my friend Lori. Photo by Joy Albright-Souza.


Illuminate; Let there be light.

Big Idea; The morning or evening sun can transform almost anything it touches. On a grand scale it can turn a group of tall cactus into a cathedral-like image, at the right time of day.


cactus backlight

Backlighting catches the hairs and spines on the specimens in the cactus garden at Lotusland. Photo by Joy Albright-Souza.


Take Home Tip; A single pot of succulents can be placed to catch the light, setting a simple form aglow for a moment of wonder.


succulent pot lighted

Pale colored succulents intensify the effect of a little back-lighting. Photo by Joy Albright-Souza.


Focus; Have a point.

Big Idea; A beautiful pot can draw the eye for landscapes large and small. In a big garden, focal points are especially important to organize a view and direct your attention.


succulent pedestal

The importance of a view of a pedestal pot, with cascading succulents, is reinforced by the circular brick pattern and the framing of evergreens. Photo by Joy Albright-Souza.


Take Home Tip; On a small scale, even a simple terra cotta pot can hold the eye on a table top.


succulents with pebbles

Shiny “pebbles” of glazed clay add detail to a small table-top pot of succulents. Photo by Joy Albright-Souza.


Visit some of the most spectacular succulent collections in California at these favorite gardens;

– Gana Walska Lotusland in Montecito

– Huntington Library Desert Garden in San Marino

– Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek



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Categories: Garden Inspiration, Places to See


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2 Comments on “Succulents; Adapting Big Ideas to a Small Space”

  1. Susan
    June 5, 2014 at 10:35 am #

    Love all of the tips and photos…thanks for introducing me to Lotusland.

  2. June 5, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

    Stunning designs by both Lotusland and Albright-Souza Garden Design! Great ideas.

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