Sunday, June 10, 2012

Rock mulch for succulent bed

When we built the large mounded succulent bed by the front door, we fully intended to top-dress it with rocks. It certainly would have been easy to do in the spring of 2009:

Front yard succulent bed in April 2009

However, thanks to inertia and indecision, we never got around it. In the meantime, the succulents we planted matured and the need for mulch decreased somewhat.

Still, there were uncovered patches here where the soil dried out very quickly.

Same bed in May 2012

In addition, bare dirt is not very exciting visually. Still, it’s amazing how long you are able to live with a situation until you final make that long-planned change.

Before rocks, April 2012
Before rocks, April 2012
Before rocks, June 2012
(Yes, that is another planter made from a hollowed-out pumice rock,
planted with an Agave polianthiflora)

A couple of weekends ago, my wife and I went to a rock yard in Sacramento to finally buy some rock mulch. However, the gravel mix I liked at the rock yard didn’t look good when we brought it home: too small and too rounded. It reminded me too much of what you’d find along the banks of a river, not in a desert environment. So I nixed the idea of putting it on the succulent bed and it will be used as top dressing for potted plants instead.

Last weekend, I finally found the rocks I wanted. Approximately 1½ inches in size and a fairly neutral color, with flecks of gold and black. The color was a compromise. My wife wanted a darker gray or brown and I wanted a lighter desert gold. What we finally settled on is called California Gold. This is a fairly good closeup although at a distance the color looks more like a light gray.

Here is the finished product:

Succulent bed after top dressing with California Gold rocks

I found it to be fairly difficult to set the correct color balance in these photos to show what California Gold looks like. 


It is definitely a neutral color that allows the plants—after all, they are the stars of this area—to take center stage. The rock we got was very dusty so after a good rain shower (many months away for us) or a good hosing down the golds and tans will be more visible.


Now that we’ve finally gotten this area mulched, I’m thrilled with the results. The plants that grow toward the front and bottom of the mound where the soil dries out quite quickly are sure to be happy as well—especially as we’re heading into a spell of temperatures in the upper 90s.

P.S. I’ve noticed that many photos of rock and gravel products show the product when wet. What’s up with that? Isn’t the color when dry more important? It certainly is here in the Central Valley where our annual rainfall total is less than 20 inches and it doesn’t rain at all for six months out of the year.


  1. Yeah the showing it when wet thing is pretty annoying because it almost always looks better wet. I like Mexican beach pebble. I haven't gotten around to mulching my garden yet because of the expense. I should probably start doing it bed by bed.

    1. Bed by bed is a great approach, especially if you can get bagged material. Buying it by the cubic yard would have been cheaper but I didn't need that much.

  2. Love it! Great color and texture. I know what you mean about it being dusty though, we bought more gravel to cover the thin spots where I dug out the Bishops Weed and the color difference between new and old was alarming. Of course it's fading fast here since we've had several strong downpours.

    1. Dust is an eternal problem down here in the summer. You should see our outdoor furniture! It's impossible to keep it dust free. And just yesterday I was marveling at some new leaves on our variegated shell ginger. They look so much more vibrant than the super dusty old leaves :-).

  3. That looks fantastic Gerhard! The colour of the gravel is perfect and sets off the plants very well. How true is it that sometimes there are things you never get to finish and learn to live with it, then in an instant you get the spark to do it and it's done.

    Good observation about gravel nearly always being presented when wet, when most of time it's seen dry. Especially with slate mulch this is the case.

    1. I'm motivated now to bring in some larger rocks as accent pieces in other areas. If only all rock were as light as pumice/tufa. I'm limited by what my wife and I can lift.

  4. Great choice! I usually *hate* rock mulches, but in this case it makes sense and looks really nice. If I ever get around to creating my succulent bed I'm going to be hard-pressed to find something that looks deserty enough I think.

    1. Rock mulch is really the only option for succulents; organic mulches would retain too much moisture and promote rot. But since removing rock mulch isn't trivial, I wanted to make sure I picked a type and color I could live with for the longer term.

      To me, a warmer rock looks more desert-y. But I looked at many photos of desert landscaping, and you see all kinds of colors used.

  5. I love the new look Gerhard! It looks finished and actually makes the succulents pop. It will also help when it rains with any dirt excaping on your sidewalk. I love it and I should do it myself but the front side planter is about to have a major overhaul!