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Top Dressing for Succulents ~ Why Use It?

Have you ever wondered why so many succulent arrangements have a layer of decorative pebbles on top? Have you heard people talking about top dressing for succulents and wondered what it is or what it’s used for? Using a layer of pebbles for succulents is more than just fashion — the pebbles serve several purposes. Read on to learn all about top dressing and why you should use it for your succulents.

Why Use Pebbles for Succulents

What Is Top Dressing?

succulent top dressing - echeveria perle von nurnberg shown with tan rock

Top dressing is used throughout gardening and agriculture. Generally, a top dressing is a fine, even layer of rich soil, compost, manure or worm castings applied on top of the soil of a garden bed, lawn or field just before planting. It is then tilled into the soil, ready to receive the seeds or plants. A top dressing for succulents is a layer of inorganic matter like pebbles, gravel, crushed rock or crushed seashells applied in an even layer over the top of the soil after the plants are in place. A succulent’s top dressing completely covers the soil to a depth of about a 1/3 inch, and is left in place. This provides many benefits for plants in containers or growing in the ground.

Benefits of Top Dressing for Succulents

using scoop to apply top dressing for succulents TSE

Inorganic top dressing for succulents has several benefits:

  • Top dressing for succulents helps to regulate the temperature of the soil, insulating the roots from wide temperature fluctuations.
  • Dark pebbles or gravel absorb more heat, warming the soil and stimulating root development; while light colors reflect the heat — useful in hot climates.
  • Pebbles break up the heavy force of water, either from rain or watering, preventing soil erosion. This keeps soil from splashing up to the leaves of your plants.
  • At a layer of at least 1/3 of an inch, an inorganic top dressing prevents insects from laying their eggs in the damp, organic soil. This is the most reliable way to rid your home of pesky gnats.
  • Top dressings act as a weed barrier.
  • It adds weight to plastic pots and containers to keep them from blowing away.
  • Top dressing can help to keep newly planted succulents upright until they fully root into the surrounding soil matrix.

And let’s face it — a layer of decorative pebbles looks more attractive than exposed soil. With all this value, is it any wonder I include adding top dressing in my guide to how to plant succulents?

Top Dressing for Succulents

succulent top dressing - variety of colors and textures

Top dressings for succulents come in a wide array of colors, textures and sizes. We usually think in terms of decorative pebbles, but you can use sand, pebbles, gravel, crushed granite, crushed glass, fire glass, seashells, crushed coral, small stones, semi-precious gemstone chips like amethyst, tiger eye, quartz and more.

Take a little care with your choice of top dressings. If you use sand, take care it is clean or washed. Sand straight from the beach will have a high salt content that will damage your plants. And be sure the “colored rocks” you use are colorfast and are not just powder-coated. Some landscape rocks sold at home stores are coated with a color that comes off, staining the plants and making a mess. Use any labeled as “top dressing”, though you’ll also find great products in aquarium shops or even fire glass for decorative fire features. Check out the collection of succulent top dressings in my Amazon store for ideas! Each is safe to use for your succulent plants.

succulent top dressing - held in hand

The colors of top dressings and pebbles for succulents run the gamut from dull to shiny, subdued earth tones to neon-bright shades of green, blue, yellow succulent and purple that are seldom found in nature. So — which should you use? The best answer is the one that looks good to you. Seriously. I will show you and describe what I consider when I choose top dressings, but who’s to say you’ll like my taste? I like a natural look that enhances the plant and pulls the colors and textures of the succulent and its container together. But if you love the look of DayGlo pink pebbles with a silvery-green succulent, rock on!

Choosing Top Dressing for Succulents

succulent top dressing - echeveria perle von nurnberg shown with tan rock, caramel sand and black sand

I think of top dressing for succulents like jewelry for an outfit. It should enhance the look, add interest, but not dominate it. Perhaps Debra Lee Baldwin says it best. She likens decorative pebbles for succulents to the mat for a painting. She considers the succulents the artwork, the container as the frame and the top dressing as the mat.

Above, I took a ceramic succulent pot planted with an Echeveria Perle von Nurnberg and photographed it with three different top dressings to show you the difference it makes. Because the pot has a black, glossy rim, I chose black sand with a bit of sparkle to it. The pot also has a glossy tan color lower down. I chose a matte finish tan pebbles and a caramel-colored sand. Isn’t it remarkable the difference each makes? Imagine the Echeveria PVN with a plum-toned top dressing.

As you consider your choice of top dressing, always keep in mind the effect you want to achieve. If the pot is super cool and you want to highlight that, your choice of pebbles, sand, rocks may be different than if you want to enhance the plant.

A Matter of Scale

chunky succulent top dressing - Susan Aach handmade ceramic pot with ferocactus latispinus
Susan Aach handmade ceramic Fossil Pot with Ferocactus and chunky top dressing

When people discuss top dressing for succulents, they almost always mean pea gravel or decorative pebbles of approximately 1/5 – 1/4 -inch. That is the size of the tan pebbles I used, shown in the center of the trio above, with the Echeveria PVN. I really like the look of the sand, though, don’t you? It is more difficult to reuse for other plantings than the pebbles, but for a single planting, I think it looks great.

Most people would not consider using such a chunky to dressing as this, bit doesn’t it look magnificent? This is a handmade ceramic pot by Susan Aach. She planted it with a Ferocactus and used a rough-textured, chunky top dressing that really pulls the two together. I love this look!

chunky succulent top dressing - Susan Aach handmade ceramic pot with variegated echeveria Compton Carousel
Susan Aach ceramic Fossil Pot with Echeveria Compton Carousel and chunky top dressing

This is another combo pairing a Susan Aach pot and a chunky-sized top dressing. Together, they enhance this gorgeous, variegated Echeveria Compton Carousel to perfection. She really brings her artist’s eye to pairing her pots, plants and top dressings. She balances the beauty of the plants and the pots to achieve a genuine synergy. Learn more about Susan Aach handmade pottery on her site, and check out my visit with her. Thanks, Susan, for the use of your beautiful images!

Are There Problems Using Top Dressing for Succulents?

how to plant succulents - use scoop to add top dressing

If adding pebbles for succulents to your planters is a new idea, there are a few questions you may have:

Do the pebbles make the soil retain moisture? As regular readers know, choosing a fast-draining succulent soil is an absolute must for the health of your succulents. This is non-negotiable. So what about adding the pebbles? It’s true that top dressings for succulents prevent the soil losing water to the air through evaporation. But you want the water to travel down through the soil, past the plant’s roots, where it can be absorbed. The small amount of evaporation lost is more than compensated for by the value of the to dressing and a good soil.

Does the top dressing impair air circulation for the soil and roots? Succulent roots need oxygen for the plant to live. Small pockets of air in the gritty soil hold air, allowing the roots to access oxygen. A top dressing of gravel, pebbles or even sand does not prevent the air from reaching the soil and benefiting the plant’s roots. Too much water with insufficient drainage saturates the soil, driving out air pockets and “drowning” the plant. Top dressing in no way impairs your plant’s access to oxygen.

How to tell when your succulents need water if you can’t touch the soil? Many succulent growers determine when to water their plants based on when the soil feels dry. I certainly prefer this method to following a set schedule. Even better is to water when your succulents indicate they need water, and not before. If you truly need to judge the water content of your soil, a chopstick is my preferred “moisture meter”. Insert the chopstick into the soil. If it comes out feeling or looking wet or with soil particles sticking to it, do not water. When it comes out clean and dry — it’s time to water!

Where to Buy Pebbles for Succulents?

succulent top dressing by Mountain Crest Gardens
Top dressing light crushed glass from Mountain Crest Gardens

Now that you understand why and how to use top dressings for your succulents — where to buy them, right? I have a few, good resources to recommend. First, my Amazon store has a section devoted to top dressing for succulents. I’ve included a range of colors, styles and sizes from sand to gravel. Mountain Crest Gardens also has an excellent selection of sand and pebbles for succulents. Consider home stores, with the caveats above in mind as well as pet stores and aquarium supply shops. Get creative with your choices!

how to plant succulents completed with top dressing

Now that you know all the benefits of finishing your succulent planters with top dressing, will you use it? I’d love to know! Please take a moment to leave me a comment and let me know what you think or if you have any questions!

Have fun planting your succulents!

P.S. For more information about all things succulent, please subscribe to The Succulent Eclectic. You’ll receive my FREE e-course, 7 Steps to Succulent Success!  Thanks!

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P.P.S. Why not join my Facebook Group for succulent-lovers? We talk succulent care, propagation, succulent identification and design. It’s a warm and welcoming group that would love to meet you!

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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Bobbie Sherman

    When I pot up aloe vera babies, my top dressing helps stabilize the plants until they are settled in their new home!! This is another reason for using a top dressing!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Bobbie,
      Yes! That is another great use of succulent top dressing I should have included. I’ll have to go back and add that point.

  2. Elliot Pilshaw

    Hi, Kat. I really enjoyed your blog post about top dressing. This is something I’ve been experimenting with and learning about through trial & error over the past few years. Are you familiar with the color wheel? It’s a simple tool used by artists & designers to figure out combinations of colors that work well together. I look at the color(s) of the pot and the succulent & try to find a top dressing that is complimentary to those colors. For example, if the plant is blue-green, then colors in the yellow-orange-tan family will make the plant stand out. I might accomplish this by planting the blue-green succulent in a container that in in the yellow-orange-tan color range. If my pot doesn’t contain those colors, then I’ll use a top dressing that is in that color range. For a natural look, tan pebbles look great. But I also love to use crushed glass in different colors. This can create a very vibrant effect that really makes the plant stand out. It helps to have a basic understanding of color theory, but this is not difficult to learn. There are good color wheel iPhone apps. The one I use is called “Color Wheel – Basic Schemes.” Also, on Amazon look up Creative Color Wheel or Cox Color Wheel, for a hands-on color wheel that is very useful and easy to understand. I discovered color wheels through my own explorations with grownup coloring books and art. I then realized I could apply this knowledge to plants, in figuring out color combinations for plants, pots and top dressing. Another great online resource I found for crushed glass is American Specialty Glass. They have a gorgeous, wide range of colors. You just have to make sure you’re getting the right size pieces – otherwise you may wind up with huge chunks or glass that is too finely ground. They have a numbering system that indicates size. I found it a bit confusing at first. But I wrote to the company and asked about it and they explained it to me. So that’s just something to be aware of.
    I’ve often looked for articles and blog posts on the topic of top dressing, but only a handful of people seem to have written about it. So, I was delighted to read what you wrote. Thanks very much.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Elliot,
      Yes! Using color theory and complementary colors for the top dressings for your succulents is an excellent way to ensure you have a really effective color combination that enhances the look of the pot and the succulent! It’s also a great idea to take color theory into account when selecting the succulents to combine with one another or to choose pots and plants to coordinate well.
      I’m actually planning a blog post or two to take a look at this exact topic, and I am shopping a book proposal that relies heavily on color theory. Wish me luck!
      Thanks so much for fleshing out suggestions for how to choose top dressing for your plants and containers!

  3. Joanna McGuire

    Hey Kat,
    I want you to know that I appreciate your generosity of spirit in sharing the knowledge you’ve amassed over the years about succulents!
    It’s apparent that it’s important to you to develop an approachable and encouraging rapport with your readers, and it is for those reasons that I enjoy reading what you have to say.
    I have a lot of interests and wind up getting way too much email, so hearing from you once per week is a good fit for me.
    Thank you so much, Kat … sorry to hear you had to go through that hacking situation.
    Best regards.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Joanna,
      Thanks SO much! The hacking nearly drove me out of my mind! I am SO relieved to be back! 🙂
      Thank you for the words of encouragement. I do love this subject and I understand all too well how confusing some of the questions and information around gardening can be. I try to make it clear and easy to understand.
      Thanks so much for the comment Joanna! You made my day!

  4. Nichole/Blue Chalk Gardening

    This is great information. I’ve been learning about succulents through trial and error for several years, and continue to be fascinated by all of them. I am trying to learn as much as I can, however I am able and this weekly email is one of the most informative and to the point. I’m starting my own business selling succulents in containers. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Nichole,
      This is awesome! Thanks so much!
      I have recently started a Facebook group for succulent lovers. We would LOVE to have you join us and share your ideas and questions! We’ll be happy to give you feedback and tips on your succulent designs, too!

  5. Cleara

    I’m from South Africa and have to say I really enjoyed this post and found it useful. I have recently bought some baby succulents and planted them in a long, rectangular planter. The planter is an off white/brushed white and the 5 succulents are all different species with different shades of green, one with red tips, two that are flowering with bright green and bright pink flowers. To really make them all “pop” I used white pebbles which aren’t as small as the ones you used, probably about 1cm, (sorry we use the metric system here) is this something that is often used? They were the only pebbles I could get when I was looking but I feel they might be a bit big for the size of the succulents at the moment, is this a problem or is it up to preference?

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Cleara,
      It sounds wonderful!
      While it seems that most people tend to use top dressing that’s about .6 – .8cm, I do think it is mostly a matter of preference. I have seen some chunky top dressings used that look fantastic! If you like it, I would go with it.
      But I confess – now, I am curious! I’d love to see a photo if you would care to share? Send me an email – or better yet, why not join my new Facebook group for succulent-lovers? We have members all over the world and we’d love to see what you’ve done!
      I hope to see you there!

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