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Picture of Succulent Bed With Seating
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For far too long most of our back yard has been a disaster zone! More than ten years of ‘indentured servitude’ AKA teaching high school, left me with barely enough time to keep the front yard looking half decent. The back yard was left to its own devices. Every year since my retirement I’ve taken on a fairly large and challenging project. Last year, I started tackling the backyard… a mammoth task not only due to its size but because it had been neglected for so long!

We happened to plant a fig grove (with a lone-ranger plum among them) in a spot that can be seen from the family room, through a large picture window. For several years this area used to be my pride and joy and you’d want to look out the window but it had been a while since that was a reality. So this year, I decided to take on the eyesore. The fig grove is on a slope. Not because we wanted it that way but because the previous owner had been trying to build a French drain (or something) and had piled up the excavated dirt into a huge mound that we were not inclined to undo and so it stayed pretty much ‘as is’ through all these years. The dirt got eaten up in certain areas due to nutrient/soil depletion as the trees were growing. So while it was still mainly a slope, there were large dips and pockets all over the place. I thought it might be a good idea to terrace the area and put down some groundcover. And since it was going to need a retainer of sorts, I figured I could incorporate some seating into the project.

Around the same time, I got hit by the succulent bug. Inspiration suddenly struck and I decided to make a two-layered succulent bed that would double as seating. I chose to make the front edge/face concave, rather than the standard convex that you tend to see on walls and raised beds; which I think are dictated by how most concrete retainer blocks are designed to be used. I’m not sure about this but it seems to be a bit of a chicken and egg issue… Are most blocks designed for convex walls because such walls are more common or are convex walls more common because that’s how most blocks are designed? Either way, using blocks designed for a convex wall in exactly the opposite way called for some creativity. So why not just flip the blocks? Flipping them would not work because the ones I had on hand were finished only on the wider side with fake flagstone veneer. And why make the outer edge concave, again? Because I wanted it to function as seating. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone while sitting on the outer edge of a circular (in other words, convex) seating wall? Not easy - not conducive to interaction.

Step 1: Supplies With Explanation

Materials:

Base Rock Type I: This contains various sizes of crushed rock, from powdered to about an inch and a half. Whatever is not powdered rock, needs to have sharp edges. This is important because pieces of river rock (pebbles) are smooth with rounded edges. As such, they do not lock and bind together but roll around and slip past each other, resulting in an unstable base. Not only would you find yourself redoing the project sooner than you would like to but it could be a safety issue because if enough rock shifts from under the retaining blocks, they could topple over while sitting or stepping onto them.

Base Rock Type II: This contains mostly small pieces of rock and sand but no clay-like particles. A small portion of it may be crushed with sharp edges but the bulk of it has rounded edges. It will be used together with coarse sand, perlite, vermiculite, compost, and some of the original dirt to make a well-draining planting mix, perfect for succulents. You don’t want this base rock to compact. Why? Because then it would not be able to hold air and water (with dissolved nutrients) for the roots. Also, the roots would not be able to grow anyway, as trying to grow through compacted soil would be like attempting to grow through brick...

Concrete Sand: This is laid down over your type I base rock, directly under the retainer blocks. It is also part of the planting mix.

Scrap Flagstone: One could always buy large sheets of flagstone, and cut it (or have it cut) to the precise shapes/dimensions that you require (would like) for this project. But half the fun is in the challenge of finding a way to work with materials that are already around, which includes the form in which they exist. For me, there is nothing more rewarding than being able to use stuff that would otherwise have gone to waste!! And when we are speaking of materials that have come directly out of the earth, I feel we should savor every last morsel - or at least try to... The flagstone will be used both as cap-stones for the seating portion and to form the surface of the terraced area where they function somewhat like stepping stones between the succulent plantings. This area is not very different from a flagstone path/walkway - just one that is on the surface of a raised bed! Finally, one could also view the beds as very big, landscaped stairs.

Concrete Retaining Wall Blocks: They are either cuboid or trapezoid. Some are solid while others have a (single or double) cavity. The least common blocks come with all sides finished/textured, giving you the widest range of use. Some might have two surfaces finished but most commonly, they have just one. The finish or texture might be made to look like it has been hewn out of rock and is known as Splitface or it could be made to look like dry stacked stone and is called Ledgewall.

Concrete Bricks: Used to create solid supports under the flagstone. Why specifically, concrete bricks? If you’ve noticed, terracotta bricks have slight irregularities in shape, size and surface texture. While these very properties are what make them attractive, they are not the best material for a stable, level foundation. Also, concrete bricks are made of concrete foam and are extremely easy to shape with hand tools, if needed. Terracotta bricks, on the other hand, are much denser and consequently a lot more difficult to shape.

Concrete Scalloped Edging: To serve as dividers within the beds. They will help line the planting holes, especially in places where concrete bricks cannot fit. You want to create distinct little planters so that your planting mix doesn’t seep out from the planting pockets. They also help tie together long stretches of brick.

Outdoor Foam: Either open or closed cell. This is to make cushions for the seating area. You could have one continuous semicircular cushion or create individual cushions and just for fun, make them the same shape as the larger pieces of flagstone that cap the wall (capstones). These cushions can be covered with outdoor fabric like Sunbrella or the surface can be painted over directly. And if you want to have even for fun with the project, paint blown-up images of succulents on the cushions!

Perlite: This is a white naturally occurring inorganic material that is mined from the earth. We call these material minerals. It is chemically identical to sand (made up of silica) but physically very different in that it is highly porous. Its porosity is achieved by heating it to very high temperatures in a blast furnace until it pops much like popcorn! Being so porous, it can hold great amounts of air and water. Just like little reservoirs, they release water to the roots as they need it without the plants becoming waterlogged.

Vermiculite: This is somewhat similar to perlite in that it is made up of compounds related to silica, called silicates and is also produced by the heating of a mineral. It is also light, thus making the soil texture light and airy. Vermiculite holds a lot more water than perlite does so use it sparingly in planting mixes meant for succulents.

Compost: This could be homemade - it’s the best kind - or bought. It does not take very much place or time but I can appreciate that if your space is limited, the last thing you want is to have precious real estate occupied by a compost bin. (Compost piles only belong on acre lots or larger. They have their advantages and disadvantages which we won’t get into here.)

Succulents: Where you get yours from and the type that would thrive for you, will depend upon where you live. You might already have some in your yard or you could scrounge some of friends and neighbors. All you need to do in that case is take some cuttings. I’ve even seen them offered on Freecycle! My main sources were a brick and mortar store in San Carlos, California, called Succulent Gardens and an online store called Mountain Crest Gardens. Both places have an interesting variety of plants at fairly reasonable prices. I also bought a few from J&P while they were on sale - I would not have paid their full price!

Black Mulch: You can get this from any big box store or garden center. You can use whatever color you like but I think black makes the pastel colors of the succulents pop!

Tools:

Pick: For picking up dirt - just kidding! You'll need to do some leveling and removal of dirt. Before attempting to use the shovel on hard and compacted soil, it helps to first break it up with a pick.

Shovels: (both square and spade-shaped, if available): The spade helps with moving materials around and when you need to work in a confined area. The square shovel is great for simultaneous removal of dirt while leveling.

Pry bar: Helps if you have one, for quickly getting rid of roots that might be invading your space and for making fine adjustments to the position of your retainer blocks

Sledgehammer: For tamping down on wood to level the type I base rock, as well for nudging retainer blocks into position and to help with their final leveling

Rubber mallet: For adjusting their position and for leveling of the concrete bricks - which would crumble under a sledgehammer...

Regular hammer (carpenter’s type): To use with the Mason's chisel

Mason’s chisel: For shaping stone or concrete brick by chipping away at it with the help of a hammer

Spirit level: To check the level of your spirits... JK, you know what it's for!!

Old Flathead screwdriver: For creating little openings in the planting mix to help plant the succulents

Small (about 1 sq foot) flat, preferably square piece of wood for tamping down the base rock

Piece of cardboard, discarded fabric or an old pillow to dampen the impact of pounding down on retainer blocks and chipping away at flagstone or concrete bricks

Protective Gear:

Safety glasses: Because you only have one pair of eyes!

Leather gloves: So you can have more skin in the game!!

Dust mask: Since your lungs are not dust bags...

This is wonderful. It would satisfy a number of needs in my garden...retaining wall, seating surface, and attractive planter. (I've wanted a succulent garden for ages, and I live in a boggy area...hence the need for a raised planting area!) Thank you so much for your detailed instructions and photos. I've voted for you!
doing2much (author)  OutofPatience1 month ago
THANKS a ton! So glad you found this useful! I'd love to know how your project progresses and if you have questions regarding something I forgot to address, don't hesitate to ask. At worst, I might not have the answer, but we'll find out!
antioch1 month ago
Wow, this looks so awesome!
doing2much (author)  antioch1 month ago
Thank you very much! A vote would be great... :)
Such beautiful seating for your backyard :)
doing2much (author)  Penolopy Bulnick1 month ago
Thanks, Penolopy!
attosa1 month ago
It's beautiful-- would love this in my garden :)
doing2much (author)  attosa1 month ago
Thanks, Attosa!