Use succulents as a garden building material

succulent dish garden

A bowl of showy water-retaining plants.

UCanGrowThat 2






Of all the plants for the garden, I believe succulents are the most versatile. They not only come in a wide range of size, shape, color and form, but they are so adaptable that they can become an ornamental garden building material. Use succulents to sculpt beautiful or bizarre focal points, populate sunny or shady garden beds, surface flat areas of different angles, disguise walls, create miniature landscapes in containers or cover roofs. What other plants can boast such versatility?


The Epiphyllum — a succulent called Orchid Cactus — has huge, showy flowers.


landscape cactus garden

Landscape with mature cactus and succulent plants

Succulents in large areas

The cactus is a succulent – a plant with leaves or stems that has adapted to store water. Using cacti and other adapted plants can make a decorative garden ideal for dry climates. Mix in pieces of wood or even cactus skeletons for texture and add some boulders to have this kind of garden paint a picture all of its own. These landscapes are low maintenance and save water in hot areas.  They thrive in poor soils, too.

Use them in small spaces

Since succulent plants come in all sizes, you can find plenty of plants to decorate a small garden, a patio, a balcony – or even build a whole landscape in a pot or dish garden with them.

Living benches

Little succulent-planted benches

Covering surfaces with them

These are fine plants for ground-cover use. The Ice plant (a common name given to several low, creeping succulents with daisy-rayed flowers) are often put to work carpeting large expanses of hillside. Using water-retaining plants is a good way to landscape for wildfire resistance. But remember that due to heavy leaf forms, top-heavy plants can tug on root systems on a hillside where gravity will weigh them down. Large rugs that are superficially rooted can pull lose and slide down steep inclines. They will do better on more gentle slopes or flat spaces. There are plenty of succulent plants with smaller leaves that are good for ground cover, too – many low-growing sedums, for example.

living roof

Here is a partially planted green roof. In dry areas, succulents offer an excellent material for covering a living roof like this.

Flooring is not the only way to use these handy plants. Grow them up in vertical gardens, plant them in pockets on walls, roof small structures like sheds with a top layer of decorative, insulating plants, or spill them over retaining walls.

The succulent as art

There are plants in this group that create their own artistic sculptures. Big, bold specimens can turn into unique-looking trees, single forms become artistic-looking focal points, and rows of them can create an interesting fencing – and a very protective one if you choose plants armed with thorns! Most succulents not only grow with interesting growth habits, but offer fuzzy, spiny, hairy or other textural surfaces. And most have flowers that can rival the showiest of the garden bloomers. In short, you’ll be pressed to find any other group of plants that will offer so much versatility as living building materials for the landscape — no matter what surface you cover with them.

large succulent blooms

Succulents come in large sizes with ornamental flowers like yuccas, puyas and dasylirions.

Lawns or Lawn Substitutes?


We really can come up with something more interesting than this!

As water becomes scarcer – and it will continue so long as our population continues to grow whether there is a rainfall shortage or not – it’s time to reevaluate the habit of one old landscape tradition; the lawn. Realizing that, until the turn of the last century, the lawn was virtually unknown in American gardens, it’s interesting how closed-minded we’ve become about our lawns. The lawn became a stylized competition with England in the beginning of the 1900’s and made perfect sense in areas like the East Coast where rainfall was plentiful, homes built on large lots of land that needed spans of open ground cover, and populations small enough to make no harmful ecological footprints on the land. But things have changed across the country. And lawns have moved into climates that have never been home to abundant green growth or heavy human populations – until now. It’s time to think about landscaping with no-mow, easy care lawns or lawn substitutes.

So, rather than battling nature, water restrictions and escalating water costs, here are some suggestions that might make your landscape into something that works better. By replacing much — or even all — of your lawn, you can get an even more attractive, low maintenance and money-saving garden that happens to be better for the ecology.

You might want to turn your space into something more colorful by planting a water-wise garden. You can go all native or mix in some impressively showy plants from all across the country, the Mediterranean, South Africa, the American West, Australia and other areas. Gardens can be more interesting than flat lawns and can make better use of space, too. Design your garden to have paths that meander throughout your space so you can enjoy a fascinating walk and watch your flowers grow or the birds and butterflies enjoying your garden. Consider placing a hammock or seating area inside the garden as a private spot to read, meditate or just relax and watch nature.

Another great way to substitute that lawn is to turn it into something productive. You can grow a vegetable garden that will feed your family with healthy, fresh food. Your home-grown vegetables don’t have to have pesticides or ever be recalled for contamination. And not only will food be more nutritious when fresh picked, but it will taste remarkably better. Plus you can create fun growing projects that seniors and children can all participate in producing. A vegetable garden will use more water and will require soil amendments. It will also not be all that low maintenance. But it will pay back double everything you put into it! …Not so true about a lawn.

You can also cover wider areas with other choices than lawn. There are colorful ground-cover plants that won’t need mowing and can even offer tinted foliage or cheerful flowers. Some ground-covers are considered to be ‘steppables’ which means they can take some light foot traffic. Or if you prefer, you can design an artistic steppingstone pathway to meander around your planted area.

Another possibility to cover wider areas efficiently is to use non-living materials like permeable paving. You can find stones and gravel in many sizes, shapes and an amazing array of colors. Even decomposed granite is being quarried in a rainbow of colors. Use these non-living materials to fill spaces, draw pictures and designs or outline shapes. You can get as artistic as you’d like and make a whole conversation piece out of filling in an area of your garden.

One more idea, if you really like grass, is to build yourself an ornamental grass garden. There is a wealth of different colors, sizes and textures in the grass family. You can find soft, mounding, low-growing clumps in blues, reds, oranges, grays, yellows and more in Festuca and Carix. Or you can go for the graceful wild oats or swaying Miscanthus family with members that offer colored design patterns in every leaf. Or create a focal point with a giant grass like the Pampas grass (preferably a sterile variety), the tall Arundo (some can be invasive) or the Vetiver. Mix in a lot of drought-tolerant grasses and you will have little upkeep and a garden filled with interesting shapes and forms that dance gracefully in the wind.

You don’t have to give up on lawn altogether. Lawns can be very useful for play, sports and picnics. Keep a lawn where it earns its ‘keep’. But if you are going to have to fuss, feed and pour a lot of water into it – all for the honor of mowing and edging it – you might just as well get value back for all your effort. We don’t need to be constrained by out-dated styles. Not too many people feel wearing a bustle or a top hat is appropriate today. Perhaps we should look at our attitude toward lawns and lawn substitutes, too. It’s been a hundred years of mindlessly filling in with lawn grass and we can choose better now. Or at least be a little more discerning.

Garden Maintenance and the No-maintenance Landscape

Garden flowers

Design your garden for the look and the upkeep that will fit well into your life.

If you want a good looking landscape, be advised that there is no such thing as a no-maintenance garden any more than there is a permanently picture-perfect landscape. All gardens need regular care. They are constantly in a state of change. Plants are living things and continually grow so there is nothing that looks good and stays the same short of plastic or silk – and even artificial plants tend to fade over time! The most successful gardens are designed with forethought and planning. Take into consideration your budget, your lifestyle and be realistic about not only what you want your landscape to look like, but how much time you are willing to devote to caring for your garden.

Good design involves laying out the right plants in the right place so they not only look good, but grow easily without a lot of fussing. You are setting up a living system that needs to function well and in harmony with itself, your environment and your lifestyle. That’s why just picking out some nice plants and plunking them down will never work for long. Putting together the permanent features of a garden with the plant material is a complicated project. This is one reason it is often a good idea to hire a knowledgeable garden designer or garden coach for professional landscape help.

Part of a good consultation should involve talking about what solutions will give you the closest fit possible. If you decide to work with a professional, make sure you make your views known. You don’t want someone who will tell you what you are getting without your input. And you want your garden to be designed to your tastes and lifestyle, not someone else’s.

Sadly, there is no such thing as a no-maintenance garden. But there are interesting alternatives. By using a combination of living and non-living materials an artistic eye can create a perfectly lovely landscape that will require minimum garden maintenance while providing maximum beauty and utility. Using local native plants – or at least plants from similar ecologies – is one way to make upkeep easier since these plants will be naturally adapted to your conditions. But a garden is a man-made creation and if you want your garden to be a successful landscape that is controlled to fit your vision, expect there will be weeding, pruning, occasional replacements and other work involved in even a low-maintenance garden.


Use Trex® to build low maintenance raised garden beds

Part one: Trex® and the raised garden bed

Recycled plastic and wood board

This recycled form of compressed plastic and wood handles heat, cold, wet and other weather conditions without damage.

Raised bed gardening has become popular, and rightly so. By building elevated garden beds you can avoid dealing with imperfect local soil, help protect your plants from invading pests (and even your over-enthusiastic pets), and allow you to concentrate water and plant food where it is most needed. Raised beds are helpful for the handicapped and, because they relieve much of the bending and stress of ground-level gardening, can keep the rest of us from injuring ourselves, too

One problem with building raised garden beds can be the toll that outdoor weather can take on the container materials. Wood can rot or be invaded by termites. Cedar and redwood are the two most commonly resistant woods, but they eventually break down too, and still need regular applications of oil, paint or waterproofing. Treated wood like railroad ties and possibly ‘green wood’ can potentially leach chemicals into the soil so should be used with caution, especially around edibles. Vinyl can be a good solution but may be too flimsy for most uses unless it has a hard core added. Stone is another good choice, but needs to be lined or sealed so water and soil don’t filter out. Cement blocks can work well, but they can harbor pests in the holes, add lime to the soil and may not look very attractive. One more alternative as a building material is to use Trex®

Trex® is not the least expensive of materials since it is fabricated and requires more money to produce than something that is simply ‘harvested’. But it is made from recycled wood and plastic that would otherwise be filling up our landfills. It also is highly durable so the initial expense will be recouped in the first few years by savings in labor, repair, preservation treatments and overall maintenance. It makes an excellent material to build low maintenance raised garden beds.

One historical note about the company which carries the name of its product, Trex, is that it was formed as a division of the oil giant, Mobil Corporation. Organic chemist Roger Wittenberg independently discovered that compressing shredded waste plastic with sawdust could produce a superior building material. Mobil, being the country’s biggest producer of disposable plastic products was attracted to Wittenberg’s concept and worked up the timber application which was called Timbrex, later shortened to Trex®.

Using Trex® is Eco-friendly saving non-renewable or slow-growing resources and helping to reclaim waste. For the homeowner, using it will require little maintenance since it doesn’t need to be painted – ever – and will not split, warp or rot. On the downside, it is more costly than wood, but will make up the difference over time with its lack of care. It is also heavier than wood, and it is not structural. It was formulated for walking surfaces, railings and trim rather than for supporting beams. This means that if lengths are too long on the sides of your raised garden bed and lack enough supporting posts, they may curve or bulge slightly.

Use Trex® for a long-lasting, easy care material that is safe for using in vegetable gardens and for use with children and even mouthy pets. Unlike other materials that will require painting, washing, replacement and other maintenance, once your garden is built you can focus on growing your plants rather than caring for the container.

Check out the second part of this article, Part Two: How to build a Trex® raised garden bed, for directions on constructing the elevated garden.

Raised planter ready to be filled with soil.

How to build a Trex raised garden: the posts have been cut and filled with concrete, the bottom lined and this planter is ready to be filled with planting soil.