Succulents: Durable garden oddballs

Spiral aloe                                                                   Nicole Bratt/Flickr

Spiral aloe                                                                   Nicole Bratt/Flickr

Succulent plants have steadily been gaining ground in recent years and that’s not a turn of phrase but the literal truth.  If there’s a class of plants that’s fueling a 21st century obsession, especially among otherwise casual gardeners, this is it.

In much the same way that Victorians were crazy for coleus, modern gardeners – including the younger ones – have embraced this often oddball group of plants with an affection usually reserved for pets. That they are low maintenance and perfectly able to put up with hotter summers in an age of climate shifts certainly doesn’t hurt.

What plants are we talking about? Those with fleshy, water-storing leaves and waxy coatings that prevent the escape of moisture. If you’ve grown Aloe vera to soothe skin irritation, carted a jade plant around as you’ve moved house or brought a Christmas “cactus” to bloom, you’re already familiar with the basics.

 Let’s define our terms. All cacti are succulents, their spines guarding a watery interior, but not all succulents are cacti. While they may have barbed leaf tips or sharp edges, succulents are not out to inflict pain on those who trifle with them. You can get close to them -- and some do, using them as boutonnieres or hair ornaments.

Aside from the huge range of forms and sizes, what succulents have going for them is a versatility born of minimalist requirements. Since they don’t demand meticulous watering and can in fact survive without for a time, they suit the way we use plants now. They will nestle in a shallow trough, are perfectly suited to vertical wall gardens, make beautiful living wreaths, adapt well to terrarium culture and, in small sizes, serve as unusual wedding or party favors.

These plants aren’t going to keel over like your soft-stemmed, water-hungry impatiens, which will wilt to the ground the moment they grow thirsty. Succulents can be left to their own devices if you want to go away for a weekend – or a week. They don’t mind the heat and most develop their best color in the sun.

The chief thing to know about succulents is how to sort the hardy types from the more tender kinds that can’t take freezing temperatures.

The hardy group is mostly good to Zone 4 or 5 where temperatures can plunge below zero (New Jersey is in the warmer Zones 6-7). Succulents include such familiar garden subjects as sedums, including groundcovers and taller types that bloom in late summer or fall; sempervivums, the endearing little “hens and chicks” that propagate so readily; yuccas with their sword-like leaves and spears of flowers and many of the euphorbias that are evergreen or semi-evergreen and bear fat heads of tiny flowers in spring.

Mixed succulents                                     Patrick Standish/Flickr

Mixed succulents                                     Patrick Standish/Flickr

“Tender” is no big deal when you realize that most of these species can summer outside and spend the winter indoors as houseplants. Among these are escheverias, kalanchoes, aloes, aeoniums, crassulas and schlumbergias – that’s Christmas cactus to you. Succulents make excellent container plants, easily managing the seasonal transition between indoors and out.

You only have to browse the internet – Pinterest, for instance – to see how you might get creative with succulents. Some gardeners make compositions, little landscapes, in shallow dishes or troughs to show off a variety of plant shapes and colors. Some succulents grow tight to the soil, others look like fleshy roses and still others have spiky textures. Many are beautifully symmetrical, even sculptural. You can’t go wrong here since succulents seem to play well with others in the clan.

As for culture preferences, the only non-negotiables are a fast-draining growing medium and ample sun. You can buy proprietary cactus or succulent soil mixes or amend standard potting soil with generous amounts of grit, perlite or coarse sand. A soggy root zone is a killer.

Most succulents want at least six hours of direct sun to be at their best. If there’s a heat wave with temperatures over 90, your succulents would appreciate some mid-day shade. Plants may get leggy indoors if they don’t have a sunny, south-facing window or supplemental artificial light.

Outdoor succulents do need to be watered regularly if sparingly in times of drought, especially those in wall gardens or wreaths, but most make do with rainfall alone. Overwatering will definitely kill them quicker than a bit of benign neglect. Succulents aren’t heavy feeders, so hold the fertilizer.

Propagating most succulents is as easy as pulling off a few leaves and leaving them to develop roots on moistened potting soil. The popular hen and chicks continuously casts off “chicks” that can be plucked off and planted elsewhere.  After the “hen” flowers it will die, but by them you’ll have a nice little flock.

It’s easy to get caught up with these obliging, no-fuss plants and their variety encourages the collectors itch. There’s probably only one point their fans won’t dispute: It’s hard to grow just one.         

Sources

Simply Succulents -- Nothing but, 150 varieties. See simplysucculents.com.

Mountain Crest Gardens –  Another specialty supplier at mountaincrestgardens.com or 877-656-4035.

Proven Winners – Visit provenwinners.com to find a retailer.

Terra Nova Nurseries – Go to terranovanurseries.com for a directory of retailers.

Check your local garden centers. Lowe’s,  Home Depot and Amazon also carry discounted plants.