Top 5 Succulent Shapes for Garden Design

by Lynn KirkApr 26, 2022

shapes for garden design


A succulent garden, and even a planter, is a gallery of living sculptures when arranged with flair. Each plant exhibits creativity and beauty as a natural masterpiece in its own right, and when combined with artistry, they can push the boundaries of beauty through wide-ranging color palettes, wide-flung quirky characteristics, and widespread small-to-super sizes.

This applies to succulents’ shapes and growth forms, too. Their varied structures are one of many reasons that succulents are so popular. Different structures work in different applications: from outdoor landscapes that beg for focal points + variety . . . to container planters that need thrillers + fillers + spillers . . . to rock gardens that rely on distinctiveness + complementing combos. Recognize the top 5 succulent shapes, and you’ll be ready to maximize their design potential!

Here are the top 5 succulent shapes for garden design and more, based on the leaves themselves, as well as the formations they create during growth.

1. PADDLES. Succulents’ fleshy leaves and stems are often paddle-like, taking on the shapes of spades, pointy ovals, and even pseudo hearts. The prickly pear cactus (Opuntia) is a paddle-pusher with ping-pong-shaped stems, while the Crassula Arborescens Silver Dollar boasts a standing series of 'oversized coins.' Other succulents’ paddles can be pancake-thin (Portulacaria) or fat-and-fleshy (Adromischus Calico Heart). Sometimes those leaves are all aligned in vertical rows (Crassula Ivory Tower), randomly scattered (Jade Plant), or situated in a star-like pattern (Peperomia Dolabriformis Maxi). There’s even a succulent appropriately called the Paddle Plant or Flapjack Plant (Kalanchoe Thyrsiflora).

Applications: As for landscapes and container plantings, the ‘paddlers’ offer design elements across different planes. Some pads reach upward and outward with freedom (Catcus), other pads partner to create attractive spiral rosettes (Aeonium), and some even line up in rote fashion (Stacked Crassula). These disc shapes work well as a garden or container centerpiece if size is sufficient. If smaller, they can serve as fillers alongside showcase plants.

2. COLUMNS. Whether thick towers or spindly spikes, succulents sporting tubular growths deliver their own brand of architectural appeal. While some are lone rangers (Cactus), most are multi-spike producers (Haworthia Fasciata and Aloe Vera). The columns’ texture and tips vary, too. Some are erect, firm, and spikey (Senecio Stapeliaeformis Cactus and Pilosocereus Pachycladus); others are loose, soft, and rounded (Blue Chalk); and some wire-like, spiral, whirlers that are borderline eerie (Trachyandra tortilis).

Applications: Columnar succulents offer vertical height, especially as garden and container backdrops. They also do well as standalones, especially when they carry significant height, unusual texture, or vibrant color (Sticks of Fire).

3. TAILS. Some succulent leaves overlap and trail along lazy stems that hang down like an animal's tail (Burro’s Tail). Those hanging vines may resemble bananas (String of Bananas), peas (String of Pearls), or even rubies (Ruby Necklace) — all strung in a row along trailing vines that overflow with ease.

Applications: These vine-producing succulents are perfect as ‘spillers’ for large pots, hanging baskets, tall pedestal planters, and wall pots that allow their trailing stems and leaves to dangle down. Some even double as  options for groundcovers of interest.

4. BALLS and BARRELS. Windowed, translucent leaves of the Haworthia Cooperi resemble half-filled balloons in a star-shaped pattern. Meanwhile, the lithops  looks like stained-glass-painted living stones. Still rounded but more bulbous is the Golden Barrel Cactus, Mexican Fire Barrel. Even the Red Graft Cactus fits in this category if you consider its ‘moon-topped’ header.

Applications: These forms are striking when paired with rosettes of different colors and textures. They also make a garden statement when planted alongside columnar succulents, tucked near rocks, or lined down pathways.

5. ROSETTES. This French-originating word means ‘petite rose,’ and that’s exactly what a rosette resembles. In its purest sense, a rosette forms when leaves wind in a circular pattern around a central stalk (Agave Cactus and Echeveria). Some succulents’ rosettes are tightly formed, just like a rosebud, while others are loosely spiraled. All seem to grow near the soil, and most leaves mature at about the same height. A rosette’s spiral arrangement provides two benefits beyond good looks. First, the formation enables the plant to maximum sun exposure, which is important for these sun-loving plants. Second, it helps the succulent capture moisture for retention until needed. Rosettes are exhibited in some Crassula, Sedum, and Haworthia.

Applications: Large rosettes are natural focal points for container plantings, rock gardens, and dish gardens. Conversely, smaller rosettes planted side by side can create borders of distinction.

You might even discover other shapes when expanding your own collection!

One final note: If you’re looking to propagate more succulents for yourself or for gifting, “paddle and spike” cuttings are available from Succulent Market in packs of 20 to 100. And the prices are super reasonable! Discover all these diverse forms—and countless colors and textures—at

Cheers to gardening, planting, and the top 5 succulent shapes for garden design!