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A Succulent Sensation
by Rita Randolph

These juicy succulents with their bold foliage, along with cactus, beautifully complement the stone mantel they are growing on, thriving in a partially shaded area.

There’s a love affair happening between gardeners and succulents. These fat little juicy plants appeal to almost everyone. Children of all ages (including grown ones) want to squeeze and play with their little chubby leaves or “pet” their fuzzy foliage. The sensational popularity of succulents in the last few years has almost exceeded the production! Garden centers sometimes struggle to keep a good variety on hand because they go out the door quickly. I know when I go to garden centers and plant sales I frequently bring home some new varieties to add to my collection and propagate.

Even though these plants are playfully attractive, they can also be combined in dramatic, formal arrangements. Their myriad foliage patterns and colors allow designers the opportunity to use them artistically in tapestries, collages and sculptures. Their durability and tolerance of less-than-ideal growing conditions make succulents the perfect medium to create living, growing art!

When I started collecting, actually more like “hoarding,” succulents, I planted all my favorites together in one large container. This way, I can enjoy them in one glance.

A green and white striped century plant (Agave americana var. medio-picta ‘Alba’) is the perfect focal point for this grouping of succulents in assorted containers. Notice the chunks of glass and dried mesquite branches for added interest.

My old birdbath is cracked and doesn’t hold water any longer, but it’s perfect for a collection of succulents.

Succulents are easy to grow if you get the basics right. There is the misconception that these plants prefer poor soil. This is not entirely true; they simply need fewer nutrients than other plants. They like rich, loose topsoil with a little sand and gravel added to improve drainage. You can use any inert gravel that doesn’t affect the pH of the media, such as small pea gravel, crushed marble or ground volcanic rock. Mix the gravel into the soil and then top-dress the soil with a thin layer of more gravel so soil won’t splash up onto the foliage when watered.

You can also top-dress succulents with a large rocks, driftwood, ornaments or fairy garden accessories. You can purposefully leave open areas in your designs so you’ll have a spot for something special to be added later. Decorative tumbled glass is frequently used to add more color and texture, and most garden centers carry a variety of colored rock and native stone.

I always recommend mixing a little gravel into the soil to improve drainage and then top-dressing the container to prevent any dirt from splashing up onto the foliage when watered. Decorative rocks, bark and ornaments can also be added to customize your creation.

Although they seem “pet-able,” take care not to touch their foliage too often, since this might remove some of their protective covering. Silvery colored or hairy leaved plants are particularly sensitive. You should also try to avoid spraying the foliage with any substance other than plain water. Fertilizers and insecticides should be carefully selected to avoid any damage.

The main difference between succulents and other plants is that they retain and store most of their moisture in their foliage. Generally, plants with foliage like that of most succulents don’t need watering as frequently as plants with thinner, paper-like leaves. Succulents generally have shallow root systems to survive with only light rain and heavy dews in their natural habitat. They like to dry out between watering, even for several days, but then appreciate a light soaking. Never fertilize a dry plant. Water it first, then, use a diluted half-strength liquid fertilized about every two or three months.

It’s been assumed that succulents need full sun to properly grow, when actually many varieties tolerate and even thrive in partial shade. A few hours of sun is usually sufficient as long as the plants are not overwatered. If grown as houseplants, grow near or as close as possible to a sunny window, and grow more on the “dry side” since moisture and lack of light will make them stretch, rot and hamper growth.

One warning about growing succulents … they are so cute and multifunctional, perfect for containers, rock gardens and other designs, that you may begin hoarding – err, I meant collecting – them! Soon you will have dozens and find yourself wanting more!

Echeveria, hen & chicks (Sempervivum tectorum) and ‘Silver Falls’ dichondra (Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’) spill from this beautiful stone urn. It thrives in dappled sun with minimal watering.

A small clay pot can hold a massive amount of small plants. Succulents look great when they are crowded and clustered together.

Pineapples (Ananas spp.) are bromeliads and thrive in conditions similar to those required by succulents. Here the dark burgundy foliage provides a striking complement to the tapestry of Echeveria underneath.

The cascading foliage of Senecio looks like long bundles of rope or a green scarf wrapped around an assortment of Echeveria E. lilancina, E. ‘Blue Curls’ and E. ‘Black Prince’.

Many succulents will regularly bloom if properly sited and cared for.

Hundreds of Echeveria ‘Imbricata’ were used to create this giant lizard sculpture, perfectly placed on a slightly mounded berm for better drainage.

Planted years ago, goldmoss stonecrop (Sedum acre) fills this iron wall fountain. It requires little to no care and faithfully returns each spring to the delight of its gardener.

A cone-shaped form was used in this design to give it a unique shape. Succulents and sedums don’t require as much soil and nutrients as other plants, so they adapt well to this elevated environment.

From State-by-State Gardening May 2014. Photos courtesy of Rita Randolph.

Posted May 2014


Rita Randolph is a published photographer, lecturer and garden writer.



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