Top Dressing: Decorative rocks for your succulents

Learn how to add a professional touch to your succulent arrangements by using a top dressing, or decorative rocks. This simple addition will take your succulents to a whole new level!

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One of my favorite discoveries in regard to designing with succulents is the use of top dressings. If you’re not familiar with this term, a top dressing is simply decorative rocks that are placed on top of the soil after your arrangement is set. This often overlooked feature can make a beautiful arrangement even more stunning.

What a good idea! Using a top dressing really makes a succulent arrangement look more professional!

My friends Michael and Danielle Romero were the first to introduce me to this idea. They are amazing designers and I was fortunate to photograph some of their arrangements when working on my book, Idiot’s Guides: Succulents. When I arrived to photograph, they were just finishing up adding the top dressings to several arrangements. It was so great to see the transformation of these arrangements as they carefully selected top dressings to coordinate with their succulents.

This combination of Graptoveria paraguayense with the purple top dressing in a purple pot was my favorite.

Stunning arrangement with Graptoveria paraguayense and a dark purple top dressing with a geode accent rock

I also loved these crazy Crassula marnieriana with a simple pink and grey pea gravel as the top dressing.

Crassula marnieriana witha simple gravel top dressing that mimics it's colors

Adding a top dressing to your succulent arrangement is so simple. After you’ve filled the pot with soil and plants, just pour the top dressing right on top of the soil. Using these tweezers and bead scoop are helpful for small spaces. See the difference a top dressing made with this Echeveria ‘Lola’?

Echeveria Lola potted without a top dressing

Echeveria Lola potted with a light pastel top dressing from Bonsai Jack

Adding these decorative rocks not only looks good, but it’s functional too! The top dressing help keeps the soil in place when watering. This prevents the arrangement from shifting very much over time. it can also reduce the amount of dust that flies up when you water.

While I loved this idea of using top dressings, I was surprised at how difficult it was to find a top dressing I loved that was easy to purchase. I’ve spent hours shopping online and locally for just the right thing. When I couldn’t find quite what I was looking for, I reached out to the fabulous Bonsai Jack for help. Sure enough, he was able to add a line of top dressings to his store! We came up with seven different color options to choose from. I’m partial to the light pastel myself, but there are options from light to dark so you’ll find something you love! The options include: light pastel, dark pastel, earth tone, gold, black lava, maroon lava, and pumice (white).

Light Pastel

Here is an arrangement I made with the light pastel top dressing, Graptoveria ‘California Sunset’, Crassula rupestris, and a bonsai pot from Hamazo.

Graptoveria California Sunset and Crassula rupestris with a light pastel top dressing

I’ve photographed a few of the top dressing options from Bonsai Jack and included them below. By the way… if you buy two bags of top dressings from him you can get the second one half off with code “topdressing”. Such a great deal!

Dark Pastel

A stunning combination of succulents with a coordinating top dressing

Earth Tone

Echeveria Neon Breakers with an earth tone top dressing

Gold

Stunning Sedum nussbaumerianum with Crassula lycopodioides and a gold gravel top dressing

Are you convinced? Top dressings really make a succulent arrangement look finished and professional. Once I discovered how awesome they were, every arrangement now gets one to finish it off. If you’ve used top dressings with your arrangements, I’d love to know what you used! I’m always on the lookout for fun new options :)

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42 Responses to Top Dressing: Decorative rocks for your succulents

  1. I have used some very small, smooth, river rock. Works good for me. I get it at the local nursery. I’m going to be shopping around for something new and different. You have given me some ideas! By the way, it looks like my outside succulents made it through the 118 temps. yesterday. Thank goodness they weren’t in the direct sun!

    • Awesome! River rocks are a great option. I’m glad your succulents survived the heat! That’s always tricky.

  2. If you put top dressings/ rocks, how do you know if the soil is dry ? Since watering succulents can be tricky, one of the way to see when its time for watering is when the top soil is dry. But with the soil being covered in rocks its gonna be even more tricky. Please help. Thank you!

    • You actually want to water when all of the soil is dry, not just the top. I generally judge if the pot is dry by weight or feeling around the drainage hole to see if it’s dry. Since water drains out the bottom, if the drainage hole is dry the rest of the soil usually is too.

  3. How difficult is it to repot delicate echeveria once the top dressing is in place? I would love any tips or tricks you can give me! I have a striking Echeveria (morning glory, I think it’s called?) that is already 7 inches wide and lays flat against a beautiful top dressing I added, but it was already a pain to pot it and I expect this beauty to grow larger from what I’ve read online! Also, I generally repot my plants every 6 months to a year, so it’s good knowledge to have in general.

    Thanks!

    • You might consider planting it in a pot that allows it to grow for 1-2 years before needing something bigger. I’d recommend sliding cardboard or something kind of sturdy under the leaves of the succulent and use that to gently wiggle the plant out of the soil. That way the leaves stay in tact and don’t get bumped to much compared to trying to get your hands under it. You can also use a chopstick to help loosen the soil around the succulent before you try to lift it out.

  4. Are there certain sizes of rock that should be avoided as top dressings? I’ve been caring for my succulents for around 3-4 years and just recently got into top dressings. As you noted, it’s a little harder to find just the right kind of rock for your succulents and dishes. A craft retailer nearby has what they call “small granular rocks” that are bigger than sand, but much smaller than pebbles. I was worried that the small rocks might sink through the soil when watered. They look about the size or slightly smaller than the container with the purple rock and geode in this blog post. Do you think it’s safe to use this size rock in my dishes?

    • I think it would be fine. If the layer is thick enough it shouldn’t go below the soil. Ideally it would be a little bigger than the soil though.

  5. These look lovely! But I’m wondering, if you use a top dressing, how will you know when your soil is dry? I usually just check my soil by poking my finger in it, which is maybe not the best method!

    • I generally tell if the soil is dry by weight. Notice how much the pot weighs after watering, and then check it again in a few days. It will start to feel much lighter. You can also feel around the drainage hole as that is the last place the soil will feel dry. If the drainage hole is dry, it’s time to water!

  6. I have a question. Is it possible to use sand brought from the beach to grow succulents?I was wondering if the salt would harm them. Thanks for your help. I have really enjoyed the tips, and I’m trying to learn as much as possible from the daily emails. Greeting from Costa Rica, Annabelle

  7. Hi there,

    I have some succulents in non-draining pots, and wondering how I would tell if the soil is dry enough to water, with a top dressing, since there is no drainage hole to judge by.

    Thank you!

    • Check the weight of the pot when you water and then compare over the next few days. Once the pot seems as though it hasn’t become any lighter it’s time to water again.

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