What plants can you grow that will stand up to southern Utah’s summer sun and heat and remain in an upright position, plump and strong, after a typical windy afternoon? What can novice gardeners grow that require no pruning, deadheading, or fuss? The answer to all of these questions is, “Grow succulents!”
While gardening in California, I believed succulents were last resort plants. Succulents were for those poor souls gardening in the vast deserts where nothing else would grow. Imagine my surprise to find that I truly love growing them, propagating them and designing with them. They are faithful, diligent, amenable to almost all situations and truly tough-as-nails plants.
These succulents were all started from cuttings plunged stem-to-stem in this barrel. In spring, they were extracted by the shovelful and transplanted outdoors for the growing season. The same succulents, never exhibiting any shock at being uprooted, were either dug up (again!) and re-potted before the first frost or cuttings were taken to grow for next year’s garden.
Succulents are a garden designer’s dream with foliage in hues of deep green to gray and even white. Their varied and unusual plant forms and shapes with blooms in a wide range of bright primary colors to pastel shades bring contrast to the garden. They grow slowly by nature and this feature makes them work as background, midground and foreground plantings in all stages of growth. The scaled-down mature size makes them the perfect choice for small gardens. Use them in tight quarters as an accent plant or ground cover, as a single specimen for a dramatic focal point or fill a garden bed by combining succulents with other drought-tolerant plantings.
The perennial bed below is home to drought-tolerant shrubs butterfly bush, crepe myrtle, and clove-scented currant. Winter hardy succulents sedum and hens n’ chicks grow in the understories of the large shrubs. A strawberry pot overflowing with succulents brings contrast when blended with low-water-use annuals and perennials.
Vertical gardens, garden walls and rooftop gardens are buzz words in landscape and interior design industries. This type of small-space gardening requires a good amount of water and the plants must flourish in a small volume of soil. Succulents require little water during the rooting stage and are drought tolerant in maturity. They grow slowly, making maintaining their size an easy chore and succulents have a root mass that requires very little space. These features make succulents the ideal choice for these specialty gardens.
This framed succulent wall hanging was made from cuttings taken in January from potted plants growing in the greenhouse. Wire mesh was attached to the back of an old picture frame. A 2-inch deep planting box was attached to the back of the frame, then filled with a light potting soil. Cuttings were inserted into the wire mesh holes and then watered in. The frame remained flat for a month while the cuttings root, then hardened off by tilting a bit more every few days. To water, lay the frame flat and allow to drain before displaying vertically.
The first year of gardening with succulents, I put them in a full sun garden bed. The ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum and Hens ‘n Chicks were already there, hardy perennials that came back year after year. However, by midsummer’s heat, I was dragging out the beach umbrellas to give shade to all the others. Poor things almost cooked to death. I pulled the containerized succulents and moved them under the cooling shade of the juniper. They sat up and took notice almost immediately, sending out plump new growth and giving me the nod of approval of their new home. Now it’s the partial to full shade for the succulent beauties.
Succulents all share the characteristic of storing water in their leaves, stems, and/or roots. Less is more is the best approach to take in their care. Most losses occur with overwatering. Allow the soil to dry completely between waterings, whether in the ground or in containers. Check the soil moisture with your finger. If its dry down past the first joint of your ‘pointer’ finger, then water slowly and deeply.
Set plants out in the garden after the last killing frost and fertilize with a granular slow-release fertilizer. After that, there is no need to fertilize for the rest of the season. Avoid fertilizing housebound succulents. Fertilization on succulents in a closed environment stimulates new growth that serves as a magnet for hungry aphids.
Succulents can grow in pots indoors for their entire lives or overwintered then planted out in the landscape for the growing season. Use a very light potting mix in porous containers such as clay or hypertufa that allow for air movement and free drainage. Most succulents have the same cultivation requirements, making it an easy task to combine many varied succulents into one pot, creating succulent gardens effortlessly.
Succulents in hypertufa pots require infrequent, but deep watering. These succulent gardens are brought outdoors for the growing season and placed under partial to full shade. Hypertufa pots have the added benefit of being able to withstand winter temperature fluctuations without cracking. We have many that we use for plants, but also have a large hypertufa that is used as a water basin for a small fountain by the front entrance.
If you want more of any particular succulent, just break off a piece of stem 1 to 4-inches in length, let it air dry for a day or two, then pop the cutting into some well-drained potting soil. Water the cuttings after placing in the soil and then don’t water again until the soil is so dry that it’s cracking on the surface. Then water slowly and deeply. Cuttings can be direct planted into pots that will remain their home, eliminating the need to transplant.
The versatility of uses of succulents in containers and in the landscape, ease of maintenance and drought and heat tolerant capabilities make them a carefree plant choice for both the seasoned and novice gardener. Take the succulent plunge. Start with one and before you know it, you will be adding new succulents each season to your must-have list of garden plants.
Making Hypertufa Pots
What you need:
Cardboard boxes and plastic containers for molds
Trash bags or plastic sheeting to line molds
Dust mask and gloves
Wheelbarrow or large bin
Hoe and shovel for mixing
Combine dry ingredients.
2 parts Portland cement
3 parts peat moss (break up clumps to measure and incorporate)
3 parts sand
1 part perlite (optional) will lighten the weight.
Add water gradually, mixing as you go for desired consistency. When materials form a ball when squeezed in the hand, with a little water seeping out, the mix is ready.
Line the mold with plastic bag. I find that the grocery bags work well. Fold the excess over the rim to hang down the outside of the mold. You will be pressing the material inside the mold. Beginning with the bottom, press the mix firmly to form a base-1/2 to 1-inch thick. Start working the material up the sides, pressing and firming as you go.
Loosely tie the bag closed to set-up overnight.
After 24 hours, remove the pot from the mold. For a planter, turn pot upside down and poke drainage holes in the soft bottom with a screwdriver or awl. Rewrap the pot in plastic, but leave bag open. For a water feature, do not make drainage holes.
Wait another 24 hours, remove bag and lightly finish the outer surface using a wire brush.
Finish curing in a shady location. Fill pots with water and hose off daily to leach out lime. Final curing takes about three weeks.