Marin Master Gardeners
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Marin Master Gardeners

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Playtime with succulents

December 25, 2010
Jane Scurich

WHEN MY SON was young, I loved tinkering with his Legos and Playmobils: little plastic objects that can be attached, detached and reattached in endless combinations and permutations.

In all honesty, I expect I enjoyed these creative toys way more than my son who was much more engaged in kicking, throwing, catching and bouncing any number of balls of any shape or size. So, once I could no longer rely on my now adult son as a cover for my playtime, I discovered succulents.

If you have not discovered playtime with succulents, you are in for a treat. Nowhere in the plant world will you find a group of plants that are more adaptable, easier to propagate or offer so many options for display, division and rearrangement than members of the succulent family.

So, what exactly is a succulent?

Much like the way we use the term "succulent" to describe an amazingly moist, delectable morsel of food, a succulent is "full of juice." Succulents have a highly specialized capacity to store water and survive drought. Many people will think of this as a characteristic of cactus. Trivia fact of the week: All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.

The first succulent in my collection dates back to an annual plant sale at the San Francisco Botanical Garden and involves, once again, my son. I was a volunteer at the sale and young Scott accompanied me, exploring all the fabulous offerings. He discovered the cacti/succulent table and was fascinated. We came home with a number of new plants and lots of new plant "lingo." We also purchased what has become one of my most prized books and one that is still readily available. "The Complete Book of Cacti and Succulents" by Terry Hewitt is my go-to resource for advice and identification.

The world of succulents and their display opportunities is constantly expanding. Both interior decorators and outdoor landscape designers have embraced their fascinating range of shape and color and their adaptability to a wide range of uses. They are relatively easy to grow, drought tolerant, and are attractive to birds and butterflies -- very important pollinators.

Many brides have discovered succulents make simple yet dramatic table d├ęcor and a very "green" party favor that keeps on giving.

I have had great fun making numerous succulent wreaths, some using the same species on the entire wreath, others incorporating a variety of shapes, sizes and growth habits. The best part is you really can't make a mistake. Succulents are very easy to root and can survive without soil for extended periods of time, making them ideal for tucking into napkin rings, incorporating in table displays, or just experimenting with numerous design concepts -- remember my fascination started as a replacement for Legos.

I recently discovered several wonderful designs incorporating recycled vessels with renewable succulents. Who knew a chicken feeder could be such an attractive plant container? Jori Hook of Mill Valley has been experimenting with a variety of succulent shapes in "found" containers.

Master Gardener Jessica Wasserman has been growing succulents for more than 25 years. "I am drawn to them by their great and sometimes strange architectural forms," she says.

One of Wasserman's favorite projects is the must-see succulent installation at the Falkirk Mansion in San Rafael. A number of Marin Master Gardeners under the leadership of Leslie Hutchinson collaborated on this engaging project. "It's one thing to collect interesting and unusual plants but it's heaven seeing them incorporated into a large scale public landscape," Wasserman said.

If you would like to learn more about cultivating, propagating, and designing with succulents, mark your calendars for a free opportunity to learn from Wasserman's experience.

The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.

TO LEARN MORE

WHAT: Learn from UC Marin Master Gardener Jessica Wasserman about the origin of succulents and how to incorporate these beauties into your garden. These camels of the plant world are timely additions to everyone's plant lists because of their versatility and, by their very nature, sustainability. Find out how to grow them in the garden and in containers, and how to keep them alive over our wet and sometimes frosty winters. Learn how easily they can be propagated.
WHEN: Noon to 1 p.m. Jan. 6
WHERE: Civic Center Library, 3501 Civic Center Drive, Room 427, San Rafael
COST: Free
INFORMATION: 499-6058

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