DIY: Indoor Succulent Garden

You can find incredible plant diversity within just 30 square centimetres of desert. Visions come time mind of low-lying, spined cactuses growing neighbour-like on all available surfaces of rocky outcrops, waiting it out through winter and bursting into colour in the spring and summer. On this scale, some of the desert can be easily brought indoors in the form of a tabletop succulent garden.

What you’ll need

To make an indoors succulent garden, you’ll need:

· A shallow container, preferably with a drainage hole
· Cactus and succulent soil mix
· Broken pottery (a ‘crock’), 2-3 medium sized pebbles, or a square piece of fine wire netting
· A selection of succulents
· Landscaping materials (stones, pebbles, etc)
· Gloves (important)
· Tweezers
· Dessert spoon
· Long-handled paint brush
· Gardening scissors
· Gardening fork
· Two pieces of Styrofoam (optional)
· Drop sheet (optional, but handy)

Here is some of the equipment you'll need to make an indoors succulent garden.

1. Choose your plants
For my indoors garden, I wanted to create the impression of a sweeping, desert landscape within a small container. So I started with two iconic cactus species native to Mexico – a compact Queen Victoria agave and the Bunny Ears cactus – and built my selection of other plants around them.

When choosing plants to share the same container, it’s essential to pick types that have similar sunlight and water requirements. This means you can mix cactuses with other types of succulents, as long as their needs are alike.

The succulents used in this example are:

Agave victoriae-reginae ‘Compacta’
This is a compact form of the Queen Victoria agave, which grows to approximately 30 cm. As a slow-growing, small variety, it’s ideal for container gardens. The plant has attractive white margins and produces a red flower upon maturity. It requires full sun and very little water.

Kalanchoe synsepala ‘Dissecta’
The ‘Walking Kalanchoe’ is a flowering succulent native to Madagascar. This variety is called ‘dissecta’ for the deep cuts in its leaves. It will grow to a height of 50cm and is ideal for rocky containers. It requires full sun or bright shade and should be kept dry in winter.

Opuntia microdasys
The Opuntia microdasys or ‘Bunny Ears’ cactus and is native to central and northern Mexico. It has paddle-like stems and will grow to a height of 40-60cm. Beware the golden, fuzzy glochids dotted all over the Opuntia! These polka dots appear soft but comprise of clusters of 2-3mm long, barbed hairs, which dislodge easily when touched and upon contact feel like an electric shock. They can cause skin irritations unless the plant is handled carefully with gloves and tweezers. Opuntias require full sun and very little water.

Parodia magnifica
The balloon cactus is native to southern Brazil. It grows to a diameter of 45cm and up to 15cm high. It has a ribbed form and is covered in hairy spines. The flower is yellow. Requires full sun and very little water.

Pachyphytum compactum ‘Cristata’
This unusual variety of succulent is native to Mexico. It grows to 30cm tall with a branching trunk and has grey-green leaves, the tips of which can turn red in winter or when exposed to dry conditions. Favours full sun and well-draining soil.

Choose succulents that have similar light and water needs.

2. Mix the soil
Most succulents prefer well-draining soil. In their natural environment, many have adapted to contend with poor quality, rocky substrates, which in the main don’t hold water. So keep this in mind when you’re mixing up your soil. I used equal portions of propagating sand, succulent potting soil, and fine stones for my mix.

Combine the different substrates well with a gardening fork.

A good succulent soil mix to try is: one part propagating sand, one part succulent potting soil, and one part fine stones.
Mix the different soil components well, using a gardening fork.

3. Design your desert garden
Before you plant out your container, think carefully about the design. You can shuffle the plants around while still in their plastic pots and experiment with the layout. Typically, taller plants work well at the back, with smaller plants featured up front. You can also think about the interaction of colours between plants in your design.

4. Set up your container
The container you use for your indoors succulent garden should be clean with no remnants of old potting soils. Start by plugging the drainage hole using a piece of broken pottery (called a ‘crock’), a handful of medium-sized pebbles or a square of fine wire netting. Using the dessert spoon, add soil to the bottom of the container and build up a base for the plants. At this stage, only fill with soil to half-height so you can arrange your plants, move them around and see how they physically fit together within the container.

Experiment with your garden design while the plants are still in their original pots.
Set up your container to maximise drainage.

5. Remove plants with care!
Cactus plants need to be handled with care. The obvious dangers posed to indoor gardeners are the sharp spines and glochids, which protect the plants in their harsh environment but don’t discriminate, even in the case of friendly hands. When un-potting them wear gloves. Hold the plant firmly at its base with one hand and invert the pot.

With one or two confident taps on the base of the pot, the plant should be freed.

6. Check the roots
You can put the plant down on a clean surface at this stage, or hold it, to inspect the roots. Most small succulents won’t have extensive or tangled root systems, but check to see if any parts need loosening or trimming. Use your gardening scissors to cut off any bound or damaged roots.

Work carefully when handling cactus (and unlike this picture, please do use gloves).
Check the condition of the root system before replanting.

7. Planting out and landscaping
Now it’s time to repot your plants into the container. With your gloves on, you can settle them into position using tweezers, or the pieces of Styrofoam (by holding each piece like a buffer on either side of the plant). Fill in the spaces around the plants with more soil by the spoonful. Be sure to compact the soil, particularly near the base of the plants, to support them within the new substrate.

You can poke the soil into place using the end of a long paint brush, as well as dust off any soil that’s been caught in the plants gently with the bristles.

Once the plants are in, add the final touches to your garden. I used a top layer of propagating sand to mimic desert colours, and landscaped with two or three character rocks and quartz.

With this, your indoors succulent garden is complete!

Settle the succulents into their new container, making sure the soil around them is compact and secure.
Here it is, the finished succulent garden!

Find the right spot
Keep your succulent garden in a sunny room on a table or, size permitting, on a windowsill where it has exposure to sunlight. The main consideration when choosing a spot for your plants is light. Most succulents are devout worshippers of the sun and grow best with constant light through the day.

Care and maintenance
Through winter, your succulent garden will require only minimal water – if any at all. During the warmer months, you can give the plants a conservative watering once every 7-10 days, depending on the conditions in your space. Over time the garden will develop and plants may outgrow their container. When this happens, you can repot the maturing plants and introduce new ones in their place.

For this project, I used an Anchor Ceramics planter and succulents from Cactusland at the Queen Victoria Markets.

Keep your tabletop garden in a sunny position indoors.