Steven Gunther

Create a “painting” with succulents

Sharon Cohoon  – November 15, 2005 | Updated May 23, 2019


Three-dimensional paintings composed of succulents. That’s how Arree Thongthiraj describes her container creations, which pair small, shapely Crassulas and Echeverias with pieces of frosted-glass tile or stone. Succulents are good container subjects, says the artist, because their foliage comes in a wide range of colors, and young plants have clearly defined forms. They’re like tiny pieces of sculpture. Put them together with imagination, she adds, and you’ve got art. Thongthiraj has been painting since she was 6 years old, and she practically grew up in her family’s nursery ― California Cactus Center in Pasadena (626/795-2788). But the idea of combining her two passions and using plants as an artistic medium is fairly new.

While skimming an art book, she came across one of Claude Monet’s water lily paintings. “It suddenly occurred to me I could ‘paint’ the same image in a pot,” she says. “I could already picture which plants to use.”

Now the nursery is selling her 3-D artworks as quickly as she can make them. Her creations have also inspired customers to duplicate her designs or make up their own. And that’s just fine. “If Arree’s pots inspire customers to look at succulents in a new way and use them differently, that makes us happy,” says her sister Molly, who manages the nursery.

Keep in mind that succulents, like all plants, grow. So this art form by nature is temporary. As Thongthiraj suggests, “Think of your containers as performance art.” 

Caring for succulents

Provide good drainage. Succulents insist on it to grow their best. Use a light, fast-draining cactus mix made for these plants. If your container retains moisture (glazed pots do, for example), you may want to mix in additional pumice―up to one-half of the total blend.

Withhold fertilizer. Since you don’t want to encourage your carefully placed plants to rapidly outgrow their precise form, don’t feed them. Go light on the water too―once a week is plenty.

Remove flowers. Succulents lose their neat shapes when they bloom. To prevent this, nip off flower buds as they develop.

Prepare to renovate. The plantings shown here will hold their shape for at least a year. After that you’ll probably need to root-prune and replant. Or start over with new young plants, using the smallest size you can find; Arree Thongthiraj works mainly with 2-inch succulents.