Garden Design Essentials

These are crucial for a great-looking garden

SucculentsWhen you see a garden that makes you want to linger but you’re uncertain why, it likely exhibits one or more of the garden design elements listed below.

These tips come from long-time Sunset magazine contributor and garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin’s newly revised and updated Designing with Succulents, a 400-photo, 300-page guide to landscaping with low-water, plump-leafed plants.

1. Scale and proportion.
A landscape with properly proportioned elements feels inviting. Intimate areas lend themselves to frilly echeverias and jewel-like sedums; large areas, to majestic agaves, yuccas and aloes, and companion plants such as phormiums, cycads and ornamental grasses.

2. Repetition.
This can be a difficult principle for plant collectors who want one of everything, but it’s essential for unifying a landscape. Large agaves, in particular, illustrate repetition: just three of them, all the same and strategically placed, will lend continuity to a garden.


3. Contrast.
Repetition by itself is effective up to a point and then becomes tedious, which is when contrast comes into play. In a multiple planting of agaves and yuccas, for example, the addition of airy ornamental grasses is refreshing. You also might add a succulent that contrasts with the agaves’ blue-gray such as an orange-leafed aloe or a red crassula.

4. Emphasis.
Hardscape and fences, intentionally or not, create sight lines that point to what lies beyond. A bend in a pathway or a view-embracing gap in a hedge will do so as well. Use such aspects of your garden to call attention to specific focal points and destinations like sitting areas, gates, doorways, plant vignettes or an inviting allée.


5. Shape and texture.
Use forms and textures to enhance contrast and repetition and to create or call attention to focal points. It helps to think in terms of shapes—for example, large agaves resemble fountains; small ones, artichokes. Cacti are paddles, globes or columns; aeoniums, daisies; echeverias, roses; and sedums, beads, bullets or beans.

6. Color.
Grown en masse, succulents with bronze, blue, silver, gray, crimson, yellow, chartreuse, lavender or variegated leaves make an unforgettable display. Individual plants can serve as the centerpiece of a potted arrangement or as garden focal points. Certain succulents, such as the blue senecios, retain their color regardless of growing conditions. Others, including most crassulas and many aloes and sedums, turn from green to shades of rose, red and orange when grown in full sun or stressed by cold or drought.

Designing with SucculentsWant more tips? Check out this best-seller or either of Debra’s other two—Succulents Simplified and Succulent Container Gardens—on her website ( or her YouTube videos.




Categories: Gardening, How-To Guides, Tricks of the trade