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Designing with low-maintenance succulents

June 01, 2013
Dot Zanotti Ingels

We all tend to have a style that we use when planning and planting our home gardens. I would classify mine as cottage. I plant densely and like riotous color and lots of texture.

Outside of a few pots of jade plant, succulents have never been in my radar as I wander through nurseries. I thought of them as prickly and unfriendly. Since I have been trying to plant with the goal of using less irrigation water, I have been giving succulents a long look and, it turns out, I have grown to love them in my garden.

Much to my surprise, I came home from a visit to Arizona with a miniature desert in a shallow container that is happily living in my kitchen bay window that has southern sun exposure. I have found soft-leaved succulents that can live with plants from a Mediterranean climate.

I am not alone. Many of us are expanding our plant palettes to include the many varieties of these plants that can now be found in demonstration gardens and nurseries.

People who do not want to spend a lot of time working in their gardens have found that succulents allow them to have beautiful gardens full of variety, color, texture and flowers are perfect for them. They require less care because they tolerate drought and are not too picky about their soil as long as it drains well. Because they retain a high moisture content in their tissue and they do not contain volatile oils in their leaves, succulents can be a great choice for a fire-wise garden.

Succulents, which can survive drought by storing water in their leaves, stems or roots, are not limited to use in rock gardens. You do need to select varieties that are adapted to your garden's unique growing conditions. Some succulents are frost sensitive. If you have soil that does not drain well, you can plant in a raised bed, pot or any fun container. Containers of various sizes can be placed in your garden to provide interest.

Nurseries stock bagged soils designated for succulents. Most succulents are shallow-rooted, so a container that is 10 to 15 inches deep is often enough. Because they are so efficient at collecting, storing and using water, you need to irrigate judiciously. You can drown them with too much water and their roots will rot. They love the light, and most species need at least four hours a day of sunlight. Most succulents do not need fertilizing. If you plant your succulents in pots, they can benefit from a designated succulent fertilizer or an all-purpose liquid fertilizer that is diluted to one-quarter strength every six weeks during the spring and summer growing season. They can be very easily propagated.

The design principles for planning your succulent garden are the same as for planting any garden. You will want to consider the scale of your property and how much of it you want covered in plant material. Variety of height and width of plants should enhance and complement the style and size of your home and garden. Color is always an important design element. Succulents can be found in shades of blue, silver, bronze, gray, crimson, yellow, chartreuse, lavender or variegated. The colorful leaves of succulents are dramatic and quickly become a focal point.

Succulents can be planted in masses to create a tapestry effect or a single plant can be used to provide dramatic contrast. Many of them display amazing flowers. Texture is important because it refers to the way light hits plant surfaces and how a plant feels. You may not want to plant a prickly plant next to a walkway or where children play. You may want to contrast the textures of your plants to provide visual variety.

Deborah Lee Baldwin has written a book named "Designing with Succulents" (256 pages, Timber Press, $29.95) that is loaded with beautiful pictures and ideas. Local nurseries offer more selections.

If you'd like to learn more about succulents and how to use them, Marin Master Gardeners's dramatic succulent garden at Falkirk Cultural Center in San Rafael displays varieties from around the world. You can view the garden's plant list on the Master Gardener website at marinmg.org. Click on the link to "Plant Showcase" on the homepage and follow that to the Succulents, Grasses and Ferns link.

Also on June 8, Master Gardener Jessica Wasserman will teach a class at Falkirk called "Learn Container Gardening Using Succulents and Companion Plants." She will share great imaginative design skills. A $5 donation is requested.

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