I consider myself to be a good horticulturist and decent grower, but over the years of gardening, I have killed off a fair number of plants. The survivors throughout the years have been my succulent collection which have always been forgiving of my gardening lifestyle. After working at the nursery all day, the last thing that I want to do is to come home and water plants in the evening; this and other garden related tasks usually get put off until my weekend comes around. I have found succulents to be patient with me and my lack of time for gardening.
Succulents are great plants to use in the garden whether is is a garden in the traditional sense or a deck, balcony, or other container garden. They are easy to grow and require little water, fertilizer, care and maintenance. They are highly adaptable to difficult situations, such as rocky or poor soils, hillsides, crevices, small gardens and container plantings; with great foliage colors, unique textures & shapes, plus beautiful flowers, you can a create true leisure landscape.
To give you an idea of how these plants can be, I planted an Agave in a container and more or less neglected it for years. This plant sat in the same pot with no fertilizer, an occasional watering, in hot and bright sun for 25 years, and it is still one of the nicest container plants in my collection. I live in a townhouse with a very small patio and extremely hot sundeck. Over the years of living here, my succulent collection has grown as they are highly adaptable to container gardening and could survive the harsh exposure of the deck. My neighbor, who loves plants, had a problem keeping color bowls alive in front of her house. The exposure is full sun and they were constantly drying out. I planted some colorful succulent bowls for her and her problem has been solved. I have many a gardening friend that worry every time they go on vacation about their garden while I can leave mine for a month and never worry!
The succulents are highly evolved plants which have adapted to their changing and extreme environments. Succulents, including the cactus family, have a highly specialize anatomy to enable them to survive long periods of drought; all are able to store moisture in fleshy tissue in their stems, roots, or leaves; most have developed distinctive features to help reduce water loss. One of my favorites is Lithops, which "mimic" the rocks in the area they grow and therefore avoid detection. In the wild they blend in so well to their environment you may not be able to spot them unless they are in bloom. Another favorite is the Old Man cactus with his blanket of wool covering the body of the cactus, reflecting heat and intense sunlight off of the plant during the day and acting as a blanket during the cold nights. These are true survivors.
Here are the first few descriptions of the various types of succulents typically found here at the nursery. Please stay tuned as I continue this article to include more descriptions of some of the various succulents we offer and how best to grow them.
Aeoniums are a diverse group of plants that can grow flat on the ground or reach 6 or more feet with considerable age. Their rosettes of leaves can be from 3-4 inches across to several feet across. Their foliage colors come in green to nearly black with several varieties having stripes of multiple colors. They can tolerate most soils but are happiest when they are planted with excellent drainage. In our gardens this is best achieved by amending our soils with pumice and organic matter, then planting on mounds. If you are growing them in containers a good quality Cactus/Succulent potting mix is best.
Aeoniums have adapted to grow during their time of plenty, winter and spring. Be sure to keep these watered during this time to promote the best new growth. Their bright, typically yellow flowers bloom in late winter to early spring. These plants are dormant through the summer months so limit your water to once every 2-4 weeks depending on the amount of heat and sun they are growing in, when temperatures climb over 80 degrees, it is best to provide some shade to keep these looking their best. Protect from frost when temps approach 30 degrees. These plants are very happy growing in light shade but, be careful, many of the colors in their foliage will disappear when the light levels are too low; if this happens simply relocate them to a brighter area.
Of the hundreds of varieties of Aloes, Aloe vera stands our in everyone's mind, even if they have only seen it in a bottle on the pharmacy shelf. Though the medicinal values of A. vera are remarkable, the plant isn't when compare to its cousins. Selected varieties of Aloes have foliage that varies from thin spaghetti-like leaves to some that have leaves that can reach 2 feet wide. Aloes vary as much in their habit as they do in their foligae colors with small ground hugging types to some that can become small trees. Many of the commonly propagated varieties have striking forms, multicolored leaves, and beautifully colored flowers.
Aloes are happy in most any garden soil as long as the soil is allowed to dry out for a short period between waterings; well drained soil is best. Use a Cactus/Succulent potting mix in containers. The smaller growing aloes prefer morning sun and bright afternoon shade; that larger ones can be grown in full hot sun. Nearly all must be protected as temperatures near 34 degrees.
More descriptions to come:
Agave Cotyledon Crassula Echeverias Mimicry Kalanchoes Sedums Sempervivums Senecio
Written by Don Cavalo
East Bay Nursery Horticulturist