How to Make Living Succulent Art for Your Outdoor Living Space
Succulents are incredibly common in Southern California, but some homeowners go the extra mile by planting them in the form of wreaths, orbs, and other unique shapes that extend beyond a container planting. All are referred to as succulent topiaries.
Unlike plant topiaries (discussed last week), the nature of succulents is that they can’t be trained to grow in particular shapes. Instead, individual succulents need to be planted side-by-side throughout a frame but this gives the creator a wealth of options in regard to color, texture and leaf combinations.
A fantastic place in San Diego to look for succulent art inspiration (among other landscape design ideas) is the San Diego Botanic Garden.
Sure, the above is an incredibly ornate topiary but cruising through this unique space can give you an idea of succulents used along with potential color combinations.
Start by Selecting the Frame
As the popularity of succulent topiaries rises, gardening supply companies are manufacturing specific DIY kits for this purpose. If you don’t buy a kit, the basis of what you need to start with is a simple frame stuffed with spagnum moss. Succulents will be perfectly happy growing in only moss—no soil is required which can equal less mess.
One of the most common styles of succulent topiaries is a simple decorative wreath that can be hung on a wall or used as a centerpiece. If you’re angling for this look, craft stores like Michael’s carry round frames as well as the spagnum moss needed for stuffing. The same goes for succulent balls, which are becoming popular in weddings in lieu of standard bouquets.
After purchasing a frame, stuff it with moss. If there is risk of the moss falling out of the frame, secure it by wrapping fishing wire (because it’s clear) around the frame, leaving enough room to tuck succulent stems confortably in between the wire. The succulent plants will eventually hide the wire. Anything else necessary for topiary placement—like a hook for a wreath—should also be added prior to the addition of the succulents.
Best Succulents for Topiaries
Succulents that grow large aren’t the best choices for succulent topiaries as you’ll need to replace them as they grow. Stick with succulents that tend to stay small. Sempervivum rosettes—also referred to as hens and chicks—come in a variety of colors and are known for staying relatively compact. Small sedums also make good choices.
Use Succulent Cuttings
If you have water-wise succulents already growing in your yard, use a topiary as an opportunity to trim pups off of existing plants. It’s best to use cuttings in a topiary anyway.
Keep in mind that if you buy potted succulents at the local nursery, the succulent will need to be placed into the topiary frame without dirt. In this case, take extra care in removing the dirt as not to damage roots and stems. Look for pots with mixes of succulents or multiple succulents so that you can get the most bang for your buck.
Cut succulents to use in the topiary leaving about a few inches or so of stem. Remove any leaves from the lower stem. Then, leave the cuttings out for a few days so that a protective coating forms over the cut part of the stem. Water stored in succulent leaves will keep them from drying out quickly. It’s basically the same method you’d use if transplanting succulent cuttings elsewhere in the yard so feel free to cut away as anything not used in the topiary can just be replanted.
Placing Succulents into the Topiary
The frame with moss inside should be moist in order to provide water to the newly-added succulents but also to help keep them in place initially. Use a chopstick, pencil, screwdriver or similar to puncture a hole in the moss that is large enough for the succulent stem to slip inside. It’s O.K. if you accidentally cut a hole that is too big (see the next step).
If there is risk of the succulents falling out—and there usually is—use u-shaped florist pins to hold them in. Otherwise, wait for the succulents to hold themselves in naturally by rooting.
As tempting as it may be to pack the succulents in tightly on day one, it’s wise to give them a little room to grow. If you happen to be making a succulent ball or any topiary where some succulents will grow upside down, let the roots settle for a month or so before hanging it.
Maintaining Succulent Topiaries
As the succulents grow, pinch off new pups and place them back into the topiary after the ends have calloused. If some plants grow too big or unruly for your liking, simply pull out the offenders to plant elsewhere and slip in a new cutting. The versatility of succulents is a big part of their charm. Perhaps start by buying two topiary frames and insert extra cuttings into the second as they grow too large for the first.
Your new topiary will need to acclimate to its placement in the yard unless it will receive the same amount of sunlight as its cutting are used to. Gradually increase sun exposure if necessary and while topiaries can take full coastal sun, partial sun in inland climates might be necessary. Rotate your topiary every week or so to make sure that all sides are receiving a good dose of necessary sun.
If you live in the mountains where temperatures drop in winter, consider moving succulent topiaries indoors until sunshine reappears. In this case, you’ll need to acclimate them slowly.
Pay careful attention to irrigation. Succulents in general like their dirt (in this case moss) to fully dry out between watering. How you water depends on the size of your topiary. Ice cubes are an easy way to water flat topiaries while misting will do for smaller ones. Large topiaries will require a careful soak with a watering can, watering from the top and letting the water trickle down to drain out.
Some gardeners say that seasonal fertilization will help keep succulent topiaries looking healthy while others say encouraging grown cases the overall look to become misaligned.
What tips do you have for making a succulent topiary?
Photo credit: top, Flickr/[email protected]; San Diego Botanic Garden, Flickr/adombrowski; sempervivum, Flickr/gillesgonthier