Liberating succulents from smothering grasses

A few years ago—before I started this blog, which is why I have trouble remembering—I bought a six-pack of blue fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’) and planted them in the two small succulent beds in the back yard. At that time, the succulents were small and there seemed to be a lot of space between them that begged to be filled.

Fast forward to 2012. The blue fescue plugs are now clumps 12-18" across and, while attractive in their own right, are covering some of the succulents. After the recent rains, now is a great time for transplanting, and that’s exactly what I did.

Succulent bed 1

In the first set of photos, you’ll see the succulent bed in the northeast corner of the backyard. It is shaded by a row of four bay trees planted against the fence so it only receives about 2-3 hours of direct sunlight in the summer, virtually none in the winter. This is not a logical spot for succulents, but to my surprise they’ve done well—except the fescues and the variegated feather reed grass (Calamagrostis × acutiflora 'Eldorado') have done even better. Time for the grasses to go!

Small succulent bed in the northeast corner of the backyard
”Before” photo with fescues and variegated feather reed grass
(Calamagrostis × acutiflora 'Eldorado')

Fescues dominating the foreground, hiding several aloes, a dyckia, an agave and a yucca

The difference after removal of the grasses is astounding. You can see plants that were all but impossible to see before.

“After” photo

Small dyckia species with many offsets

This Agave montana ‘Baccarat’ was all but invisible. It’s easily doubled in size (it was planted from a 4" pot) but due to a lack of direct sunlight, its form is much more open than it would otherwise be. Still, beautiful coloration and nice scalloped edges.

Agave montana ‘Baccarat’

For comparison, here are a couple of mature specimens of Agave montana ‘Baccarat’ (photo taken from the website of Yucca Do, the nursery that introduced ‘Baccarat’ to tissue culture). If my smallish plant ends up looking like that, I’ll be very pleased.

Mature Agave montana ‘Baccarat’
Photo: Yucca Do Nursery

Here’s another agave that was partially covered: Agave funkiana ‘Blue Haze’. From the photos I’ve seen, it has an open habit like that even in full sun. More evidence that many succulents are able to handle shade remarkably well.

Agave funkiana ‘Blue Haze’

What did I do with the fescues I pulled up? I planted them 15 feet away in the same general area, just behind the bamboo fence. Here you can see two of them. The others (from the succulent bed described below) are to the right.

Relocated Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’

Succulent bed 2

In the same corner of the backyard as our Asian-inspired woodland garden there is a narrow (12” deep) planting strip that in the past proved challenging to use. A few years ago I planted a combination of aloes and agaves, and they’ve thrived in this mostly shady spot. But, as was the case with the bed above, so have the fescues.

“Before” photo with fescues completely hiding Agave parryi ‘Truncata’

This Agave parryi ‘Truncata’ was almost impossible to spot between the two clumps of fescue. Not surprisingly, it’s a bit etiolated but I’m hoping that it will tighten up over time and eventually form its trademark artichoke look. (This area might be too shady, resulting in a looser habit.)

Uncovered Agave parryi ‘Truncata’

The same thing happened to this Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’.

Fescue hiding an Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’

I had no idea it had grown to such a nice size—it was a pup I took off the mother plant next to our front door.

Uncovered Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’

While not obscured by the fescues, this Aloe cameronii × maculata hybrid has positively exploded. I love its long, strappy leaves and its rich green color.

Aloe cameronii × maculata

Here are two more aloes at the head of this narrow planting strip. They have thrived as well. Aloe nobilis, in the foreground, was a 1-gallon plant on special at Target, and Aloe glauca came to me as a cutting. I love how their different colors complement each other.

120127_Aloe-glauca- -nobilis
BACK: Aloe glauca
FRONT: Aloe nobilis

Aloe glauca

The next aloe, Aloe microstigma, is at the other end of this succulent bed. It think it’s one of the nicest looking smaller aloes. It used to be relatively hard to find but its availability has improved in recent years. I even saw one at Home Depot last year, and there’s nothing more mainstream than that.

120127_Aloe-microstigma_05 120127_Aloe-microstigma_06

Aloe microstigma

And finally here is a stitched panorama of the entire bed, post fescue removal.

Backyard succulent bed outside the dining room


  1. I love a little garden archaeology once in a while. It's so satisfying clearing up the mess and letting everyone have a chance at some sunshine. Some beautiful specimens.

  2. I'm really surprised the buried succulents look so good considering the lack of light and air circulation.

    1. Me too! But I've been having this suspicion for a number of years that succulents (like bamboos) are able to tolerate a lot more shade than people give them credit for.

  3. Totally shocked that there was another plant under some of those grasses!

    And I was trying to figure out how you got such artistically funky siding, until I realized it was an image stitching artifact. :-)

    1. Yep, stitching artifact. I was too lazy to try and correct it :-).

  4. Boy that fescue can really grow big and take over can't it. I have a couple and they went nuts over some echeveria's last year so I yanked one out and chopped the other two in half. Grasses can be difficult. The Mexican grass in my front side planter I yanked out finally! It reproduces like crazy. Your planter looks so much better with the fescue removed. And the aloe's are looking good. I am sure those aloe's will perk up in the spring and summer when they get more heat and sun!

    1. Candy, I like grasses combined with succulents but it only works in larger beds where there is plenty of room for both. By Mexican grass, do you mean Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima)? I think it looks great with succulents, but it self-seeds polifically. Easy to pull out though.

  5. I do love your succulent collection, they look great is some of them were a bit smothered by the grass. Wish we're able to plant out more agaves here without needing to build shelters over them.

    That's one of the wisdoms of being a gardener, knowing when to remove plants that have outgrown their spaces :)

    1. Mark, I'm getting ever more ruthless. But I try to never throw plants away. When I can't reuse them elsewhere, I give them away.


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