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A potted plant may be attractive on its own, but nestled in a bed of polished river rocks or surrounded by tiny succulents and it becomes sleek and sophisticated. Landscape designers call this treatment 'top-dressing'—essentially covering the exposed soil in a container with bark mulch, gravel, moss, or sand. We'll show you three ways to use this technique to take your container compositions to the next level.

Lauren Dunec Hoang / Sunset Publishing

 

1. Go graphic

Channel your inner Andy Goldsworthy and create a geometric pattern with polished river rocks. The stones hide the potting soil and cut down on water loss through evaporation. Start from the center and work outwards, stacking the stones along the edge to create layers of concentric circles or a loose spiral pattern. The cool, meditative style is best appreciated on containers that will be viewed from above, such as those placed on a lower terrace or down steps.  Below, the blue tones of the stones pick up the silvery needles of a 'Blue Atlas' cedar.

Lauren Dunec Hoang / Sunset Publishing

 

2. Add more succulents

Steal a leaf out landscape designer Joshua Stenzel's book and underplant potted succulents with tiny, rosettes of SempervivumS. 'Cobweb Buttons', and trailing sedum for a jewel-box effect. The baby succulents thrive with the same light and water conditions as their larger relatives and form a living mulch under bronze Kalanchoe orgyalis and variegated agave.

Thomas J. Story / Sunset Publishing

Thomas J. Story / Sunset Publishing 

As the co-owner of Potted Store in LA, Annette Gutierrez never fails to wow us with her container designs and creative top-dressing.  The crush of echeveria, sempervivum, and pencil-like Euphorbia tirucalli used as an underplanting for a small potted shrub steal the show.

Thomas J. Story / Sunset Publishing

3. Keep it clean 

Cacti and gravel are a match made in heaven. The tiny stones are reminiscent of the cacti's native desert environment and give an overall natural look. Dark gravel works particularly well to show off tiny white thimble cacti (Mammillaria gracilis v. fragilis) and miniature golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii).

Thomas J. Story / Sunset Publishing

Thomas J. Story / Sunset Publishing

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