By Stephanie Hudak
I know I’ve told you that my “favorite” plants are grasses, and then I told you my “favorite” plants were hostas and ferns, so now if I tell you my “favorite” plants are succulents, you will wonder if my nose is growing longer. No, I’m not telling lies. Grasses, hostas and ferns really are my favorite plants, each bringing something unique to the garden. But succulents, besides being the easiest plants to maintain, bring an incredible array of color, shapes and textures to any garden or container.
By storing water in their leaves and stems you can take a two-week vacation without having to hire a plant sitter and they won’t wilt if you neglect them for a few days. While they can tolerate neglect, succulents flourish with attention and thrive in those hot, dry parts of your garden where other plants have trouble growing. Admittedly, some of the most striking succulents are perennial only in the hotter zones (9 and up) but because they do so well in pots, it is easy to move the plants into sheltered areas to protect them from the cold and extreme wetness.
Before we go much further, let’s clarify just what is a succulent. Simply, they are “plants having some parts that are more than normally thickened and fleshy, usually to retain water in arid climates or soil conditions.” Within that group are specific types, many of which you are familiar with but may not know the botanical names. Those pass-a-long names are great when you are sharing with a friend but difficult for the nursery guy to understand. A very common succulent is sedum, a large group in the Crassulaceae family, also known as “stonecrops.” Sedum acre gives us a cultivar called ‘Gold Moss’ – light green leaves growing about 1-2 inches tall. Sedum makinoi ‘Limelight’ has yellow-chartreuse foliage and ‘Ogon’ has golden leaves, both growing about 2 inches tall and 8-12 inches wide. I really like Sedum rupestre, which I frequently use in containers – ‘Angelina’ has golden yellow needle-like foliage that gets a bronze cast in autumn; ‘Lemon Coral’ looks similar but has a slightly different needle spread and stays a brighter yellow; ‘Blue Spruce’ is blue as its name suggests, with the same needle-like foliage. Their 4-6 inch height causes them to cascade, perfect for spilling over the sides of pots. Other colorful sedums include spurium ‘Red Carpet,’ ‘Tricolor,’ and ‘Voodoo.’ Lots of hybrids have evolved from this genus and have become staples in the garden: Sedum ‘Autumn Joy,’ ‘Matrona’ and ‘Bertram Anderson.’ These are upright (1-3 feet) with larger leaves and produce more impressive flower heads.
Similar sounding and from the same Crassulaceae family is Sempervivum, also known as “houseleeks” or “hen and chicks.” These perennials form mats of tufted leaves held in rosette shapes. They spread rapidly and are often used as groundcovers for hot and sunny spots. Names to look for in this group are: ‘Black’ – bright green with dark purple tips; ‘Jade Rose’ – grayish pink with rosy red on the inside center leaves; and ‘Red Rubin’ – coral red rosette with a flushed olive green center.
Another succulent you may be familiar with is the echeveria. They also form rosettes of fleshy leaves and are very often brightly colored, send up flowers on short stalks and reproduce by sending out “offsets.” They look similar to sempervivums but are significantly different. A particular favorite of mine is ‘Black Prince,’ which has dark, nearly black rosettes with salmon red flowers. Echeveria is not hardy here but comes in such brilliant colors and textures that you must have some. Just move them indoors when it gets too cold.
Other wonderful succulents that can be part of your garden include aeoniums, agaves, aloes, crassulas, euphorbias, kalanchoes, sanservia, and senecio. That list is long enough, now just imagine all the wonderful varieties within those groups. And all this beauty is so easy to grow. Soil is the first condition to consider. If you are placing succulents in the garden, amend the soil with good amounts of grit to ensure excellent drainage. For containers, unless you buy soil that is designed for succulents, you will need to mix your own using one part quality potting soil, one part sand, and one part grit. Whether in the ground or in pots, use small pebbles as mulch, which will keep moisture away from the plants. Overwatering is more of a problem then underwatering. Plants in the garden can generally take care of themselves but those in pots need excellent drainage. Keep in mind that the plumper the succulent, the more water it retains so the less it will need. Dormant plants need even less water. Most of the hardy succulents will bounce back even if they get too wet in winter, but if you want to ensure their return, you can create a small tent over them. As for feeding succulents, apply a balanced liquid fertilizer diluted half-and-half with water once a year when new growth starts. Propagating them couldn’t be easier either since they practically do that themselves. Any leaf, stem or “chick” will start roots just lying on the ground. If you want to help them along, first allow the base to callous over then set it in a small pot of sand, providing minimal water.
Succulents are the ideal plant to get children interested in gardening. Some of the easiest ones are: Kalanchoe tomentosa (panda plant), Sedum rubrotinctum ‘Pork and Beans,’ Cotyledon tomentosa (Kitten or Bear Paws) or any of the aloes. And here is the good news– most of these are readily available at local nurseries and the more exotic ones can be found online. I know for sure that Thomas Orchards Greenhouse and Nursery carries a large selection.
There are countless numbers of books on succulents. An author that does a great job sharing her knowledge with us is Debra Lee Baldwin. She has three books on this subject: Succulents Simplified, Designing With Succulents and Succulent Container Gardens. I have all three and can attest to their worthiness. For some great pictures of succulent containers check out my blog: madisoncontainers.blogspot.com.
Love those human hugs, but you can’t beat a hug (or a “snug”) from your favorite pet – pure unconditional love. Get a hug and lower your blood pressure.