From Ratty to Regal: Circle Garden Gets Succulent Redo


By Debra Lee Baldwin

When I saw Meadows fitness coach Amy Van Liew’s circular garden a year ago, I envisioned how the area might look replanted with colorful, low-growing succulents. The donut-shaped bed was overgrown and its spherical fountain nearly hidden. The area, mere steps from the front door, needed a more appealing focal point.

Already aware of this, Amy and husband Ed agreed it was time for a redo. So Amy and I collaborated on replanting the 100-square-foot garden. The project took about two days, including time spent rounding up plants and materials.

The fountain’s 14-inch-deep basin now is filled (and concealed by) aqua-colored crushed rock that suggests water. This appears to overflow, creating rivulets between mounded planted areas top-dressed with pea gravel in a contrasting orange hue.

A year ago, the Van Liew’s circle garden was home to leggy aeoniums and, in the fountain’s basin, tadpoles.

These S-shaped sections radiate from center to circumference, and each features a different kind of low-water plant, all from Waterwise Botanicals nursery in Bonsall. Most have rounded leaves or a globular form to echo the fountain’s and create circles within a circle. All save one are succulents.

The plants we selected are:

— Sedum ‘Firestorm’, a ground-cover succulent with red-orange leaves massed with clusters of tiny white flowers in spring.

— Echeveria ‘Sahara’, a new cultivar bred to be heat-tolerant, and therefore suitable for our area’s scorching summers. It has a circular shape, lavender-pink-blue leaves, and produces dainty flower stalks in autumn.

— Portulacaria afra ‘Minima’, a diminutive, ground-hugging cultivar of common elephant’s food, has small, oval green leaves and red stems.

— Blue fescue (Festuca glauca), an ornamental grass (not a succulent), forms bowl-shaped mounds of slender, threadlike leaves that are truly blue.

— Kalanchoe luciae. Amy had had good luck with flapjack plants, so we used them again, this time massing them. A bonus is that their red-edged leaves are rounded.

— Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) was an obvious choice because of its globular shape. I was thrilled Amy wanted it; people often protest that the plants are too spiny. But like most cacti, barrel cactus is not treacherous if you understand how to handle it.

It has been six months, and the plants are well established. They’ll continue to grow and spread, but not unmanageably so. “It always looks good,” Amy says of the fountain garden. “It needs almost no care at all.”

To see highlights of the installation, view my 5-minute video, “Circular Succulent Garden Start to Finish,” on my YouTube channel.  Additional photos, the garden plan (drawing) and materials list are in my website’s article, “Amy’s Circular Succulent Garden Re-Do.” For more about Amy Van Liew and classes at her home studio, visit

Garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin is a 25-year resident of Hidden Meadows and author of three bestselling books about designing with succulents in gardens, landscapes and containers.  Visit her website at