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The Perfect Plants
by Mary K. Stickley - posted 06/20/18

Euphorbias can be a little “spread-y” and self-seed easily, but the interest they add to a garden is worth the extra weeding. Be careful, though, as some people may be allergic to their sap.


Saving water is such an important aspect of gardening these days. But, for me, saving maintenance time is just as important. I want a beautiful garden, but I don’t have the time or energy to work hard to make it that way. So, while I do have some special babies that need lots of tender loving care, I’m always on the lookout for great filler plants that look really good — even when I ignore them.

One category of plants that fits this bill perfectly are succulents. These plants are best characterized by thick, fleshy leaves or stems with a heavy skin, all of which are designed to hold and conserve water. In general, these plants really want nasty soils and little water. They thrive on neglect. So much so, that when my guilt gets the better of me and I give them a little treat of water or fertilizer, they usually repay my kindness by dying.
 

Don’t be afraid to bring non-hardy succulents out to the garden in the summer. These can add spectacular seasonal texture and interest to the space. • Sempervivum doesn’t flower often but when it does, it produces this wonderful, star-shaped display. • Sedum ternatum, ‘Gray Ghost’ sempervivum and Sempervivum arachnoideum are plants that thrive with little water and terrible soil.


Some of my favorite plants are the many species of Sedum. These plants come in so many shapes, sizes, colors, textures and growing habits, that I could create a beautiful garden with year-round interest using only these. There is the ubiquitous ‘Autumn Joy’, with its pale green foliage and pink flowers that turn maroon later in the season. But I also have an upright variety called ‘Postman’s Pride’. It has deep purple foliage all year long. Add the pale, pink flowers in late summer, and the combination is perfect.

Another type of succulent that I love is Sempervivum. When I was growing up, we had a strawberry pot with hens and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum) stuffed in all the holes. I was rather bored with their plain green coloring back then, but I recently found some of the other varieties that are available, such as S. arachnoideum that has a tiny web of hairs connecting the tips of each leaf. ‘Atropurpureum’ has large leaves that turn a dark purplish red in winter, and ‘Grey Ghost’ stays smoky blue all year long. ‘Ann Christy’ has narrow, red leaves edged in green fringe, and S. cantabricum produces chicks that look like the 1970s bric-a-brac pompoms that lined the inside roofs of Mexican taxis. They all love to be tucked in between the cracks in rocks, and the only care they want is a bit of weeding to be sure they aren’t overrun by faster-growing plants.
 


Clockwise: Wonderful combinations can be created with many shapes, sizes, textures and colors. This ‘Blackie’ sempervivum mixes nicely with Sedum pachyclados. • Prickly pear cactus loves to be ignored, and yet it rewards you by covering itself with yellow flowers that later transform to red fruits. • Mix succulents into your perennial gardens. A fun look is to set hypertufa pots into the space. These pots are perfect for succulents.


I also really love Euphorbia. These plants have a very bad reputation because they tend to seed themselves all over the place if they are happy. They also have a thick, sticky, white sap that many people are allergic to. But what foliage colors and patterns! Donkey’s tail (E. myrsinites) is a pale sky blue with little spiky leaves that surround the stem and hang down perfectly over rocks and boulders. Snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata) is an annual with green and white leaves that always grabs the spotlight when it matures in August.

There are also cacti you can use in your garden. The only cactus native where I live in Virginia is the prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa), and most others are not hardy in winter. But I place a number of aloes, agaves and other cacti in the garden in summer and bring them back inside for winter. In doing this, I can add ever-changing seasonal interest to my garden while giving my “inside kids” a summer vacation.

All of these plants are wonderful to use in the landscape. They are easy to grow and create a lot of interest. They have few pest or disease problems. So put a few in your own garden, and you will also agree — they are truly the perfect plants.

 

A version of this article appeared in a May 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Mary K. Stickley.

 


Mary K. Stickley is a horticulturist, landscape designer and a certified arborist through the International Society of Arborists. She has worked in a wide variety of aspects of the horticulture industry, and she currently works as Manager of Gardens and Grounds for the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, VA. She also owns and operates Countryside Consultations, providing ideas and information to assist homeowners in their gardening endeavors.