Sassy Succulents -Spring 2017
by: Hilary Newell
Some of the most majestic plants I’ve ever had the privilege to see up close are the kings of the desert, Saguaro cacti. Part of a broad family of plants designed to hold water in order to survive long periods of drought, these giants are evolutionary wonders.
The desert environment provides only an irregular supply of water through the year, and the Saguaro has adapted to be able to survive these periods of drought. A cautionary word before we go too far here. If a plant label says “can survive long periods of drought,” this does not mean it can survive without water. Just as when a plant tag says “Drought Tolerant,” it does not mean that plant can survive without ever being watered. It will need water eventually.
So it is with most cacti and succulents, their close cousins. Thirty years ago the word succulent brought visions of that old-fashioned garden stand-by called “hens and chicks,” or that scraggly jade plant that was escaping its pot in the kitchen window. Once confined to rock gardens, Sempervivum hens and chicks have broken out of their typical habitat, and they brought their extended family of Kalanchoes, Agaves, Crassulas, Echeverias, Sedums and more along with them. Jades are still part of the mix, but succulents of many more shapes and sizes are available commercially and they are oh so fun to grow and display.
Succulents come in a vast array of different shapes, sizes, growth habits and flower types, as well as foliage and flower colors. Hardiness zones vary as well, and trying to distinguish which ones will work in Nantucket’s zone 7 isn’t too difficult.
Generally, Sempervivums are hardy from zones 39, making them perennial in our area.
Sempervivums have that classic rosette form, and new shoots look just like the parent plant, growing around the edges of the mother, hence the nickname hens and chicks. They will spread along the ground or spill over the edge of a pot with no trouble at all. This growth habit also makes them easy to propagate. Sedums (aka stonecrop) are also hardy here. These include award-winning Autumn Joy and Autumn Fire, two very reliable perennials that bloom late summer through fall, and can hold onto their dried flower heads through a rough winter. Jovibarbas (or Hirtas) are also mostly hardy and are similar to Sempervivums with their rosette form. But Jovibarbas grow their babies on top of the mother plant only lightly attached, so they easily roll off and begin to grow their new families wherever they land.
Echeveria seem to be the most popular genus in the succulent family currently, with the bulk of garden-center offerings falling in this group. This is understandable as the wide variety available all make wonderful selections for your indoor or outdoor summer containers.
The Aeonium group of succulents is really useful for providing height in a mixed container. Some of them even have a diminutive shrubby shape with rosette-tipped woody stems. From green and white variegated to deep black-purple, these are sun-lovers and often have creamy white flowers.
Agave, on the other hand, are much larger and are very slow-growing. Agave americana is also known as the century plant, blooming on a 30foot spike after growing nearly 100 years, only to drop its seeds and die. I guess the good news is that you can enjoy it as a non-blooming shrub for many, many years.
The Aloe family is full of easy to grow succulents that make great houseplants or summer container plants. Very forgiving, Aloe vera is arguably one of the most common houseplants as it requires next to no care, and can live in low light or high light, cool temperatures or warm and it rarely gets insects. The added benefit is that it has nearly magical healing powers within. Well, not really magical, but the juice of Aloe vera is a well-known, medically-sound treatment for burns, and personal experience has proven its beneficial impact on mild to moderate sunburns.
If you see a succulent that is labeled “exotic,” it will likely not live over the winter outside. These, however, are some of the most interesting succulents and they make very interesting combination planters. They are often standouts in the garden, but will need to be replaced each year, or brought inside to enjoy during the winter. These are the ones you can have the most fun with. Small specimens are readily available at garden centers, and while they are labeled with their botanical names like Graptopetalum, Rhipsalis, Sanseveria, Senecio, Crassula and Haworthia, I usually just look at the colors and forms to see how they will work together. The names play a minor role when you consider the extensive variety of forms and colors.
Spiky or flat. Round or tall. Creeping and spreading, or shooting skyward. Variegated. Spotted. Striped. Hanging and trailing. Toothed. Smooth. Blue-gray. Green. Purple. Or it might just look like a stone. You could plant a whole pot full of one variety or you could mix them up for an ever-evolving display.
Probably the most important thing to remember when beginning a project with succulents is that you need a container that has really good drainage. While succulents tolerate more dryness than many other plants, they will not tolerate extended periods of being wet. Choosing the right soil is also critical, so use a potting soil that is blended specifically for cactus and succulents. Less peat moss and more bark make for a better mix for these plants. Planting in a terra cotta pot is a better choice than a plastic or other impermeable-type pot, as the clay pot allows the roots to dry well in between waterings. Plus, the terra cotta is evocative of the Southwest, where some of these plants are found in the wild.
Another key to success is choosing the right healthy plants to begin with. Look for insect-free, symmetrical plants that aren’t wilted or puckered to start. Depending on what you are looking for, you may want to plant a single variety in a small pot, or you could plant several succulents with different foliage types. Every summer I plant one large pot full of succulents for my deck. Its location is determined by virtue of the distance from the end of the hose, as it is the pot that needs the least amount of water.
If it dries out more than the others, it won’t shrivel up and die, like the moisture-sensitive annuals in the other porch pots. I also find it beneficial to use a lot of plants. Most succulents are not fast growers, and we have a relatively short window of real summer weather so I put in enough plants to fill the entire surface, choosing a combination of spreading and trailing. I leave about two inches of space between the top of the soil and the lip of the pot, so when I do get around to watering I can fill it right to the rim. And just like watering any other planted pot, I water until it runs out the drainage holes in the bottom, ensuring that all of the soil is evenly moist. The succulent pot dries very thoroughly before I water it again. If we happen to get a lot of rain, I will try to move it to a covered area so it doesn’t stay saturated for any length of time, as that saturation is an open invitation for root diseases to take hold and kill succulents.
My deck gets full hot sun from about 10 a.m. on, and this pot thrives every summer. August and September bring really funky flowers, too. Arching stems with salmon, red, pink or even yellow bellor star-shaped blossoms show up and last for weeks on end. Typically, sources suggest that succulents receive four to six hours of bright morning light in order to survive. Experience tells me many of them can tolerate a lot more sun than that.
You can achieve a desert landscape look by using a wide, shallow pot and interspersing small succulents and cactus and finishing the top with coarse sand and a few pebbles. These planters tend to last a very long time with very little care, so they are perfect for the person who claims to have a brown thumb.
Feeding should be part of your regular watering routine. Espoma has a good cactus and succulent fertilizer that you can use about once a month if your plants are inside, and a little more frequently when they are actively growing outside. Follow the label directions carefully for best results. Also be sure to watch for insects and take action as soon as you see them. Mealybugs are fairly common, and fortunately they are very easy to spot. They look like small fluffs of cotton and they tend to congregate on the stem and in crevices.
Left unchecked, they will lay eggs that will hatch, chew on and suck the life juices out of a succulent. Plus, they look really gross. They are pretty easy to get rid of if you spot them early. Just take a cotton swab, dip it in rubbing alcohol, and swab the mealy bug. You will probably be able to dislodge the whole insect with your swab, but if you can’t, and just soak it with the alcohol, it will die and you can remove it later.
Scale is another insect that finds succulents to be nice homes, and it is a little more difficult to get rid of. Rubbing alcohol with a little detergent on a toothbrush is the least harmful way to get scale off your plant. Using preventative sprays with benign neem oil and keeping your plants healthy and not stressed for water, food or light are the best preventative measures, though these steps usually are unnecessary when they are grown outside. Fungus gnats are a problem if you water too frequently. They can only survive if the soil is constantly wet. Be sure to remove foliage that has fallen off so it doesn’t sit on top of the soil and decompose.
One of the joys of growing succulents is that many of them are pretty easy to propagate, or make new plants. This is a very inexpensive way to grow your collection, but some techniques require a lot of patience. The easiest method is division by offsets. Offsets are baby plants that form naturally around the base of the mother plant, and if you remove them carefully and replant them in cactus soil, they will root. Water sparingly while they root, or they will rot. Sempervivum, Aloe, Haworthia, Echeveria and Sedum all propagate well this way.
Kalanchoe, Crassula, Graptopetalum and other varieties with thick leaves can often be reproduced by leaf cutting. Best done in the spring when plants are growing actively, you can root new babies in a matter of a few weeks. But the simplest method works only on varieties that send out new growth that can be easily snapped off and placed right into soil. Echeveria and Senecio are both propagated this way commercially with very good results.
Cacti and succulents have tremendous visual appeal, but they also have hidden benefits. Tequila comes from a specific form of Agave, while another is highly valued for making rope in Madagascar. Opuntia (prickly pear cactus) produces delectable fruit, and since it grows wild on Coatue, it would work in a very sandy wild garden as well. Still other succulents were used by early Americans to treat a variety of ailments. Perhaps their recent surge in popularity though, is due to the ease with which they grow. To make them grow and bloom requires little care beyond watering and that makes them extremely rewarding in my book. ///
Hilary Newell is a freelance writer, a regular contributor to Nantucket Today, and the marketing director at Bartlett’s Farm.