Hardy Succulents in California

– Posted in: Garden Photography

I have been unexpectedly ambivalent about telling California gardeners about the Hardy Succulents book I co-authored with Gwen Kelaidis (Storey 2008).   The reason I have been cautious about promoting the book in my home state is because for most people a hardy succulent is a small plant such as this Houseleek, Sempervivum ‘Faramir’ on the cover of the book.


While Californians can, and certainly do, grow plenty of hardy plants, they all tend to grow much larger than in cold climates.  It would be really unfair to show California gardens as examples in a book about hardy succulents.  The camera does always lie but I do take my job as a garden photographer seriously and want gardeners to get information that guides them to success.  Not only does that mean not showing California gardens in a book aimed at the rest of the country, it means being careful about showing photos taken in cold climates to gardeners here, especially to Southern California gardeners.

So, when the Southern California Horticultural Society recently asked me to make a presentation about my book, I took it as an opportunity to highlight the different ways succulents are used throughout the country.  I hope GGW readers will enjoy the comparisons.

Here is a hardy succulent garden in Delaware.

Eve Thyrum's hardy succulent garden

Eve Thyrum's hardy succulent garden

Like many expert gardeners, Eve Thyrum pushes the limits of her garden and will find a way to grow plants she loves.  In a rock garden protected by a west facing wall of her house she can grow Opuntias and Yuccas – and worries every winter if it will be too cold or too wet.  The path through her succulent garden is a series of flagstone pavers that encourages a slow thoughtful look at her collection.

A path through succulent garden Southern California garden might invite a long stroll:

Patrick Anderson's garden

Patrick Anderson's garden

In Patrick Anderson’s garden near San Diego there is no reason to look down at your feet while you walk along the path.  With just these two examples it becomes clear that the extreme differences of climate make for radically different ways to use succulents.  In the zone 10 California garden there is no limitation to hardy succulents, and in fact tender Aloes become shrubs.

Sometimes gardeners in cold climates want the look of desert succulent garden:

Connecticut desert

Connecticut "desert"

The only way this garden survives in Connecticut is by moving all the plants indoors in winter.  All these cactus are in pots placed behind the low rock wall on the patio, then back filed with gravel.  A wonderful testimony to the gardener’s passion and commitment to taking care of choice plants.

This same look is a low maintenance look in Southern California:

San Diego succulent garden

San Diego succulent garden

California gardeners sometimes don’t quite understand the great lengths some other gardeners will go to use succulents in their gardens.  While succulents have undeniable appeal for their diverse shapes, colors, and textures, it takes a lot of effort to treat them as annuals as in this border of tender plants (with a non succulent Astelia).


In California, a border of succulents can look like this, the 35 year old Ruth Bancroft garden in Walnut Creek:

Ruth Bancroft garden

Ruth Bancroft garden

I used my presentation to remind the Southern California audience that succulents, like so many garden plants we fall in love with at a nursery, will get much bigger.  Used as annual plants, succulents can make a fabulous single season summer display in a cold climate:

Succulents used as annual plants

Succulents used as annual plants

Note the Agave attenuata in the upper part of that photograph – a fine bold foliage plant in a precious garden of tender succulents.  Agave attenuata really becomes a bold foliage plant in Southern California:

Agave attenuata 'Boutin Blue'

Agave attenuata 'Boutin Blue'

I suppose the real lesson here is, for those who expect photographs to inspire their gardening –  use a good bit of critical thinking when seeing a garden photograph.  A small plant in a picture can become a big one in the garden; and a big plant in photograph may have been taken in a warmer climate than your own.

And when it comes to hardiness, unless you live in a tropical zone 11, there are always hardiness issues.  I too, in California zone 9 have to be concerned about hardy succulents, or I would be growing Kalanchoe as a garden plant.  Wouldn’t I like to add this to my border ?

Kalanchoe thyrsiflora

Kalanchoe thyrsiflora

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic.com, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at www.photobotanic.com. https://photobotanic.com
Saxon Holt

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Sylvia (England) February 19, 2009, 6:09 am

Saxon, this is really interesting and illustrates the huge differences in climate you have. The only time I have seen a display of succulents and cactus, bedded out for the summer, was at Cotswold Wildlife Park. Thank you for a lovely pictures and post.

Best wishes Sylvia (England)

Thanks for the kind words Sylvia. While bedding out succulents is an impressive trick, the book points out many hardy succulents that work in colder and wetter climates than California. When I give presentations elsewhere I do not have to make apologies for not showing huge specimens. 🙂 Saxon

Ally February 19, 2009, 5:31 pm

What incredible photos and gardens. THis year I hope to purchase my first succulents for my garden here in Ga. I’d like to try them in some interesting containers. My grandmother has longed for these delightful plants but never had much luck with them. I’m hoping if I can figure them out I can give her some pointers. 🙂

You shouldn’t need too much luck in Georgia. I visited Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina for the book and there are lots of great, even big succulents you can grow. The biggest need is drainage, use plenty of loose gravel in any soil mix. – Saxon

Marty Ross February 19, 2009, 8:04 pm

Hello Saxon: I finally found Gardening Gone Wild. You all have a lot of depth here and it is interesting to poke around. I have had a lot of fun with Hardy Succulents, congratulations to you and Gwen on a great book. It is also beautiful, as Storey’s books always are, and full of inspiration. I am going in for more Opuntias this year. Thanks for all these extra pictures. Marty

Marty – glad to have such a distinguished garden writer dropping in, hope you will come back and join us for some of our feature discussions. – Saxon

Nicole February 19, 2009, 9:37 pm

Gorgeous photos and plants. I am collecting succulents for my new garden, it is trying here as though we have the perfect clime and well draining soil for these plants, most people don’t “get” succulents. I actually got my attenuata and aloes in San Francisco. The cool part is that many succulents propagate so readily, eg. I bought one Kalanchoe thyrsiflora a few months ago and now have 5 more plants.

Well, Nicole, they propagate readily for you since it is so warm . . . and you seem to understand drainage. The San Francisco climate never ceases to amaze me, so cool yet so many tropical plants. – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin February 20, 2009, 3:33 pm

Hi, Saxon — I’m a huge fan of yours! There certainly is a lot of succulent lust going on here in California and elsewhere. Per Amazon, “Hardy Succulents” is the book bought most often along with my book, “Designing with Succulents”—which shows gardens primarily in CA and the Southwest (although I do have a chapter on Growing Succulents in Colder Climates).

Interest in these fascinating plants continues to grow worldwide, and consequently I’m working on my next book, “Succulents in Containers” (to be released a year from now). In the meantime, I’m developing a new website, and (at Fran Sorin’s invitation) also will guest-blog on GardeningGoneWild. Stay tuned!

Debra – Thanks for the comments. Hopefully the interest in succulents will continue, though my book will never outsell yours, especially in California ! I look forward to seeing your posts here at GGW – Saxon

Hap February 23, 2009, 11:37 am


Your book sells equally well as Debra’s at our nursery… but then we are in Northern California. And we do get a lot of foothills customers stopping in and it is easy to suggestively sell “Hardy Succulents”. All it takes is opening it up to one of your amazing photos.

I will admit that it was sort of a surprise to us when going over the yearend sales figures that you were tied, since we thought “Hardy” was our “third or fourth best seller” but we sold as just as many copies as “Designing with Succulents” so don’t count yourself out of this market. Great work is always popular.


Hap – Thanks for the comments. I certainly don’t count myself out of the CA market, it is just there are many other books to compete with. But what is so distinctive about Hardy Succulents is the collaboration of writer and photographer. My collaboration with fellow GGW blogger, Nancy Ondra, “Grasses”, is an ongoing success now in its 10th printing – Saxon

Josh February 23, 2009, 2:53 pm

Will definitely look into your book! Succulents are so fun and fascinating…even for us northerners! I certainly am envious of those amazing Cali gardens, but my container plantings are a good substitute. I really like the seasonal garden display pictured above!

Josh – Sounds like you have figured out that containers allow you to use even the most unusual and tender succulents. The book also has a section on containers and making your own hypertufa planters. – Saxon

LINDA from EACH LITTLE WORLD February 26, 2009, 11:17 am

Thanks for that nice lesson! I often try to put something in a photo for scale esp. with very large or small plants. Can’t believe the gardener who takes all those plants indoors and then recreates that garden! What some folks will do — can’t decide if it’s inspirational or crazy! As for Opuntias, they grow wild on the hilltops out in the country in Wisconsin. Mine is currently buried under about four feet of snow in the garden but will pop back when spring arrives.

Thanks for stopping by Linda. I think Opuntias are native to something like 48 states. Hardy indeed. I learned from my co-author Gwen that the snow is actually a good thing for many hardy plants that would other wise die in wet weather. And snow keeps bitter winds from dessicating them. – Saxon

Tara March 21, 2009, 5:21 pm

As a far-northern Californian, I have found the need for hardy succulents, as though we experience 110 degrees commonly in the summer, we also generally dip into the 20s in the winter, thus freezing some of my more tender succulents. I am currently in the idea stage for converting our front yard to a more water conservative succulent garden. Your book was the one I bought and is such an inspiration! The photos made me realize I could have a GREEN yard and be water-wise.

J.J. July 5, 2009, 9:42 pm


J.J.- If you are in Sunset zone 24 you are USDA Zone 10 where it rarely ever freezes. You surely know Debra Lee Baldwin’s great book Designing with Succulents which is perfect for you.
While a couple pictures in this post were in California, my book was written by Gwen Moore Kelaidis in Denver Zone 5. None of the photos in my book were taken in CA so all the plants pictured are smaller than what would happen in your garden. Don’t get me wrong, almost all would do quite well for you, they would just get much bigger, and you have so many more choices than are represented in my book. – Saxon

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