How to Design a Succulent Rock Garden

Create a Low-Maintenance Rock Garden with Succulents and Cacti

A rock garden full of succulents and cacti is the perfect low-maintenance landscape for California homes, but knowing how to design one can be tricky. Learning the basic design principles for garden layouts can help you to create something visually appealing. Yet, it still allows for some creativity and personal touches to make it all your own.

Here’s an overview of how to design and assemble your own rock garden full of colorful succulents and cacti. You might be surprised how easy they are to maintain!

rock garden oc succulents

How Do I Design a Rock Garden?

Designing a rock garden might seem like a major undertaking. But, if you break it down into tiny, simple steps, it’s a piece of cake! Here’s how you can get started on creating a beautiful and resilient desert landscape at home, in just six simple steps!

Step One: Sketch Your Design

Going in with a plan is essential. You don’t want to just wing it! Survey your landscape and draft it up on a poster board. Take note of which areas have full sun, partial shade, or full shade, so you don’t end up planting your succulents or cacti in a spot where they won’t be happy. 

Seek out inspiration from Pinterest boards, Instagram feeds, and design blogs. This will give you some idea of the kind of theme or aesthetic you’d like to achieve, the color palettes you prefer, and just general ideas for making your design really pop.

Step Two: Create Rock Perimeters

Most larger rock gardens have a layer of pebbles covering bare terrain and several smaller mini gardens throughout. To get this effect, create a perimeter of bigger rocks in which you can plant your succulents or cacti. It helps to keep things looking neat and attractive instead of messy and plunked together. 

Use rocks that are a bit heftier (at least 8 inches in diameter) but not massive—it looks better, and it’ll be easier for you to lift and arrange to your liking! Over time, creeping groundcover plants like sedum will start to grow over the rocks, which creates a beautiful effect that makes the rocks look less out of place. You can also add moss onto rocks to give them a more natural, aged effect.

rock garden oc succulents

Step Three: Fill with Sandy Soil

Once your rock perimeters are in place, you can fill them up with soil. Sandier soils are recommended for cacti and succulents because they’re used to desert terrains, as you can probably guess. Regular garden soil is too rich and will hold onto too much moisture. Sandy soil has excellent drainage, and that’s precisely what these landscape plants like best.

Step Four: Play with Levels and Ornamental Accents

After filling up a larger rock perimeter with soil, you can create additional smaller rock perimeters on top. Fill them with more soil to create a tiered effect, like a wedding cake! If you’ve got any large rocks or boulders that you’d like to integrate as decorative accents, put them in now before adding your plants. Be careful when lifting heavy rocks, and don’t hesitate to call for professional help if you’re worried about hurting your back. 

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Step Five: Choose Your Succulents and Cacti 

With the framework of your garden all in place, you can start filling it with plants! Again, you’ll want to go in with a plan instead of haphazardly planting your succulents wherever. It’s good to have an assortment of plants that serve different functions based on their growth habits. For example:

  • Taller plants with flashy colors and architectural shapes look best in the center of a garden or the very back along a wall or fence – a technique that allows for better visibility.
  • Lush, mounded plants with compact forms are great for surrounding taller plants to achieve a sense of balance. They can also make lovely border plants for pathways.
  • Groundcovers, especially creeping plants, are excellent for filling in the gaps in your rock garden. Over time they’ll spread over the rocks, helping to create a cohesive unit where nothing looks out of place.
rock garden oc succulents

Step Six: Spread Gravel or Pebbles Across Bare Terrain

Go grass-free and spread some gravel across the bare terrain—it cuts down water consumption, and it acts as a natural mulch! By protecting the soil from the sun, water evaporates less quickly, so your plants stay hydrated longer. It also helps to stop weed seeds from germinating, which means less time spent weed pulling!

There are many different types of gravel and pebbles to choose from—some more pricey than others—but really, it’s a worthwhile investment to select the style you like best. Rocks don’t break down nearly as quickly as other additions to the landscape, so you won’t have to top up very often. We recommend finding gravel with a few different colors in the mix to add dimension and interesting texture to the landscape. 

    What are the Best Plants for a Rock Garden?

    Most succulents and cacti make lovely additions to a California rock garden, but we have a few personal faves we want to shout out. These vibrant and distinctive rock garden plants bring the wow-factor your landscape deserves!

    rock garden oc succulents

    Saguaro Cactus: This classic cactus is pretty much a desert landscape OG. When you picture a cactus, you’re probably envisioning a saguaro. No desert rock garden is truly complete without one!

    Cardon Cactus: An absolute behemoth that boasts the title of “Tallest Cactus in the World,” this landscape plant makes a great focal point in a sprawling landscape. Contrasting with its towering stature are its adorable daisy-like flowers, which are sure to put a smile on anyone’s face. 

    Euphorbia tirucalli: Set the scenery ablaze with this ultra-vibrant succulent with fabulous, flame-tipped stems, commonly known as the “fire sticks succulent.” New growth comes in as orangey-red, fades to yellow, and then to green, giving this showy plant its signature style. 

    Agave: With so many interesting varieties to choose from in all sorts of shapes and colors, this desert plant is incredibly versatile. Their perfectly even, spherical growth habit makes them great for lining up uniformly, especially along borders and paths. Larger varieties can also be used as central focal points.

    rock garden oc succulents

    Crassula: Creating an interesting and attractive landscape design requires plenty of contrasting textures and shapes. Crassula is amazing for bringing detail and visual interest to your layout. It’s characterized by intricate growth patterns that grow in mass. Some have perfectly spaced triangular leaves creating 90° angles, forming dynamic cubist sculptures that are always growing and transforming. Variegated varieties outlined with shades of red, white and gold add fabulous definition, emphasizing its distinct 3D shapes. 

    Sedum acre “Gold Moss”: This gorgeous groundcover is precisely the kind of creeping plant you want in a rock garden. Its glossy green foliage stays low to the ground and will slowly climb up rocks, but the amazing visual spectacle doesn’t end there! When it explodes into bloom with sunny golden blossoms, it will take your breath away. 

    Kalanchoe beharensis: The velvety, ruffled leaves of this multi-tonal kalanchoe are impossible to ignore. You’ll be tempted to pet them each time you walk by! It has a lovely, muted sage green color, sometimes with a few yellow and pink hints. What makes this kalanchoe really special is its size—this giant can grow up to 12 feet tall!

    Euphorbia leucodendron: There’s a distinctive architectural quality that this euphorbia brings to the landscape, with its slender, finger-like stems that branch up and outward. Yellow blooms appear at the end of its stems, which give way to adorable red, heart-shaped fruit.

    There are so many other stunning succulents and cacti ready to go home and be planted. If you want to reduce time spent watering, weeding, and pruning, you’re going to love having a rock garden! Visit OC Succulents today, and we’ll be happy to help you get started.

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