Whether on a sunny dining room table, hanging on the front door, or potted up around the yard, succulents are the newfound fun plants for today’s gardeners. No longer limited to the gardens of the southwest, gardeners, and even those not considering themselves gardeners, are finding new and creative ways to use nature’s most durable plants. As American consumers are downsizing on their space and are more and more starved for time, these are the perfect plants for the time crunched, space deprived, or even just plain lazy gardener who wants the green in their life, but doesn’t have the time to put into it.
Originally, I began gardening with succulents because they were structurally amusing. The dark daisy-like rosettes of Zwartkop Aeonium dancing on their odd gangly stems, or the striking patterns and growth habits of Gator™ Aloe with these scale-like bands across the foliage. The other joy was with their slow and controlled growth habits so that I could fit them in virtually any situation from large specimen Agaves in the landscape to small pots all over my patio to sticking liners in moss forms creating living art to keep inside or out. It wasn’t until putting several of these plants together that I truly realized the diversity of colors and textures in their class alone.
However, I’m a gardener that likes a variety of plants and I became quite surprised at how well they all combined with other flowering, lower-water use annuals. The gray blue tones of Agaves complemented by an under planting of vibrant purple Verbena, or the dusty rose colored rosettes of Echeveria combined with the terra cotta hues of Calibrachoa were quite remarkable.
Aside from their dramatic design elements, I’ve come across the real consumer benefits of these plants – they’re easy! As a traveling gardener, I often need to rely on the help of my neighbor to come over and water my containers. In her defense, I have a daunting amount of containers and hitting them all each day when it’s hot and dry here in southern California is quite the challenge. When I came home last year from an extended business trip, the succulents still looked amazing. The Petunias…not so much. These plants are native to some of the harshest conditions in the world, so surviving on any one of our patios across North America should be a breeze.
So just how should gardeners care for their succulent gardens? The most important rule is to ignore them. Sure, they like a good drink now and then, but when taking off on a summer vacation, don’t worry. These will be the plants that will be happier when you get home then when you left. The plants need a low amount of fertilizer during their active growing cycle, which is spring and summer, and not at all when the plants are in rest mode during the winter months.
And, what’s the best way to garden with these fun little garden novelties? First rule – make it fun. These are the plants that can be used to garden where you thought no garden could ever exist – tabletops or pathways, even rooftops. And for gardeners that do have plenty of outdoor space, keep it simple. It’s best to use just two or three dramatic varieties for accents, while massing many smaller ones underneath. Good examples for extraordinary specimen plants would be large Agaves, Aeoniums, Kalanchoes, Dyckias, and Echeverias. For the understory of fill-in plants, use a collection of smaller Echeverias, Aloes, Portulacas, Sedums and Sempervivums.
While the number of succulent species out there seems to be endless, I’ve listed my favorite 5 here that I feel every gardener should include in their collection.
Aeonium arboreum Zwartkop
Long, elegant, caramel colored stems hold large rosettes of black leaves. These plants are often looked at as the daisies of the succulent garden. The black foliage has a brilliant contrast against other gold leaved plants like Sedum Angelina. Plants are hardy to 30ºF and will tolerate both full sun and partial shade.
Agave geminiflora Rasta Man™
Agaves are known for their hardiness and tolerance of adverse conditions. This particular variety sports hundreds of narrow, dark green leaves that are adorned with bright white filaments that glow in the light. Plants form a dense rounded habit that will mature 2 to 3-feet tall and wide. Rasta Man is hardy to 25ºF.
Aloe variegata Gator™
It’s difficult to choose which is more eye-catching with this Aloe – the unique white reptile like markings, or the triangular growth habit. Like the species, the rosettes often form in clusters, and sport beautiful red flowers in mid to late winter. Gator is best planted with some light summer shade.
Echeveria Perle Von Nürnberg
A beautiful rosette-forming succulent that has dusty rose colored leaves. In summer, the coral pink flowers appear on 1-foot long reddish stemmed inflorescences. Plant in full sun, part shade or on a sunny windowsill indoors. Plants are hardy to 25ºF.
Euphorbia tirucalli Firesticks
Also known as the Red Pencil Tree, Firesticks has numerous pencil thin branches that are bright red during cool temperatures, then fading to a golden copper color in summer. This plant lacks the chlorophyll of the original species, and therefore grows slower. Firesticks is hardy to 30 to 32ºF.
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By Ron Harrison, Ph.D., Entomologist and Orkin Technical Services Director
Photographs courtesy of Orkin
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