This project is an extract from our debut book 'House of Plants' (and probably our favourite project included!). Photography by Erika Raxworthy. Please do share any photos with us on instagram; we would love to see your own desert garden creations!
Open container gardens are a great way to create a miniature desert scene, especially if you only have one really bright surface to display your favourite succulents. More elaborate than grouping potted plants, a container garden allows you to play with adding textured elements such as dried lichen, pieces of preserved wood and precious crystals and rocks, which add a magical dimension to the scene while breaking up the complex geometric forms of different desert-dwelling species of succulents.
Since desert cacti and succulents as a whole are slow-growing and require similar care, they work very well arranged together in one container. We try to include plants of different shapes, colours and textures to give each one its own focal point. For example, try contrasting juicy aloes with spiky cacti, colourful echeverias with hairy haworthias or low-lying lithops with sculptural euphorbias. Most importantly, pick plants that have similar needs for light, water and humidity so that the container is easy to care for as a whole.
When it comes to choosing a container, there are a few factors to keep in mind. These plants do not like to be enclosed and prefer to feel free surrounded by warm, dry air, so pick something relatively open. Try to select a watertight container (if you are using one made of wood, either apply a thin layer of polyurethane varnish or line the base with a sheet of plastic). Alternatively, a simple metal or plastic tray, dish or bowl will work too: young cacti and succulents have very shallow root systems, so the container doesn’t have to be deep, around 10cm/4in.
Tools & Materials
Fine Drainage Stones
Cacti and Succulent Compost
Selection of Cacti and Succulent Plants
01 Put on gardening gloves, if you like. Fill your container with stones to a depth of around 5cm/2in. Add a generous scattering of activated charcoal and mix it into the stones so that it is evenly distributed. This base will allow drainage for your plants, filtering any stagnant water and protecting their roots from sitting in water and developing rot.
02 For the next layer, add 5cm/2in of cacti and succulent compost. At this point it is a good idea to consider the final position of the container: you may want to rotate it as you begin planting to make sure the plants will be visible from the angle you are displaying the container. You can add different depths of compost in different sections of the container to create a more contoured scene.
03 Use your fingers, spoon or a small trowel to make a hole in the compost for your first plant to sit in. You can play around with positioning if the plant does not look right immediately. Secure compost around the plant’s roots once you are happy with how it looks. Repeat with your next plant. Make sure to leave enough space between each plant to allow for some root growth and a good circulation of air. Gently press down the compost around each plant, removing any large air pockets, and secure them in their final positions.
04 Fill in any holes with extra compost. Add a final layer of drainage stones or other decorative elements to complete the scene. Once you have added all of your plants and decoration use a soft paintbrush to clean off any soil that may have collected on the plants.
05 Carefully water the entire surface with a spouted watering can or pipette. Make sure not to splash any leaves or stems. To determine when it is time to next water the container, check the moisture level of the soil with your finger and only water once it feels completely dry. Remember, desert cacti and other succulents are at their happiest in direct light, so choose the brightest spot in your home for your desert landscape, perhaps next to a window or under a skylight.
After a few months, you may find that some plants are growing while others stay seemingly unchanged. You can prune any overgrown areas with some clean, sharp scissors, eventually replacing those that outgrow the container. If any plants start to suffer, simply remove them and replace.