In the 2014 Australian Garden Show Sydney we had the opportunity to experiment with trying something different in our garden. We wanted to use plants to create a sense of a different environment – one not normally associated with plant-filled gardens. The result was a ‘coral reef’ garden, created using a wide variety of cacti and succulents for colour and texture.
This environment is one that Australians are lucky enough to know all so well, as it reminds us how we can all escape to our own piece of paradise…
This ‘coral sea’, I created using an array of succulents in one part of the planting for my show garden ‘My Island Home’. The planting was designed to replicate a reef like the Great Barrier Reef, or a similar island situation such as the wonderful coral around Lord Howe Island.
I created this succulent ‘coral’ after being inspired by a passer by at the Melbourne show (MIFGS) in early 2013, a lady from Warnambool who wandered over and started to chat with me about her recent trip to the Great Barrier Reef. She said that it was so inspiring to come back and see a little section of the garden that we had created in ‘Cubeism’ that year which had reminded her of her trip, unintentionally this time I might add. I thought that this was wonderful (and it turned out that she was so very impressed by my jokes) and we were lucky to be invited to follow her back to those windy cliffs of Warnambool to create the first ‘coral sea’ planting to go with her funky, yet natural, seaside garden setting.
Her invitation, and then designing for her garden, sparked in me an interest in using plants to make scenes that copy the forms and colours you can find in nature. It’s amazing to feel like you’re ‘painting a tapestry’ with plants, and also how you can use them to create emotions and evoke ideas that are beyond being in a garden.
I find coral such an amazing part of nature and I was delighted to see that replicating its look through the wonderful world of succulents can bring joy to everyone, from young to old. You could see it first-hand by the people’s reaction when they came up to see closer what was in the garden. People would come over and ask, “How did you do that Phil?” and I would just tell them:
“I’m just one of those lucky guys that gets to follow the patterns that nature shows us everyday…”
Here’s a plant list to help you get started on your own succulent coral garden. But you can just go along to a succulent nursery and choose what you like. Just check that it doesn’t grow into too a large plant or you’ll need to regularly cut it back or take new cuttings to replant. Look for a mix of green, blue, gold, purple, pink and red (and plants that look like coral), as well as a range of different rosette styles – rounded, spiky, and frilled, some softer textures fine-leafed sedum and some height with Euphorbia. While all these plants do flower, their foliage is spectacular all-year-round.
If you buy small cuttings you’ll need to reposition some of the bigger-growing rosettes as they mature so that you can still see every plant clearly. And some that slowly grow taller on a stalk, like Aeonium, will need to be chopped off and replanted – don’t worry, they quickly make new roots!
All these plants will grow well in poor, sandy soils that have good drainage, and they won’t need watering, except after a run of exceptionally hot days if you’re in a warm climate. I also used some pieces of pale coloured sandstone as a smooth texture contrast.
Echeveria colorata ‘Mexican Giant’ – large 30cm rosettes, whitish leaves
Echeveria ‘Zorro’ – pinky red leaves with curled edges
Echeveria ‘Tuttifrutti’ – rosettes with a frilled red edge.
Echeveria ‘Afterglow’ – rosette of powdery pinkish-purple with dark pink edge
Echeveria ‘Golden Glow’ – large yellowish rosettes
Echeveria ‘Mauna Loa’ – large frilled edge rosettes colours turn to deep red in sun
Echeveria ‘Violet Queen’ – grey rosette with pinkish tones
Agave parryii (compact form)
Haworthia attenuata – striped stiff green leaves in a small rosette
Euphorbia trigona – angled stems, narrow upright form
Crassula ‘Living Coral’
Sedum rubrotinctum – red jelly beans
Sedum pachyphyllum – jelly beans
Sedum ‘Gold Mound’ – fine golden foliage in mounds
Crassula ovata – spoon-shaped greeny blue foliage
Senecio mandraliscae – blue chalksticks
Senecio serpens – chalksticks
Aeonium ‘Velour’ – loose rosettes with velvety leaves turn dark maroon in cool weather
Kalanchoe thyrsiflora – flap jacks – bluey-green paddle-shaped leaves with red edges