Succulents: little effort, big reward
More than 60 plant families include plants with succulent characteristics, distributed among 300 genera and thousands of species. Many come from the arid regions of South Africa, Central and South America, and right here in California. All require the same thing: good drainage, deep but intermittent watering (allow soil to dry out between waterings), bright light/full sun, and good air circulation. They grow best in an open and airy soil that’s relatively low in organic matter. Cold, waterlogged soil presents a challenge for succulents. For this reason, it’s often helpful to plant succulents on a slope or on top of mounded soil.
Succulents are made for water conservation
Succulents require little or infrequent water because they store large quantities of water and food in the spongy tissue in their leaves, stems, or roots, which they release when needed. Those that store water in their leaves often have thick, fleshy leaves covered with a tough skin, such as aloe vera. Plants that store water in their trunk often have small branches and leaves. Cacti are examples of stem succulents: their leaves have been reduced to spines. Other plants store water in their leaves and stems, for example jade plants. Water-conserving features shared by succulents include:
- Leaves that are cylindrical or spherical in shape, reduced in size, or absent
- Fewer stomata (the openings in the leaves that allow transpiration)
- Form of growth that is compact, columnar or spherical
- Shallow roots to absorb moisture from light rain or heavy dew
- Waxy, hairy or spiny outer surfaces that create humid micro-habitats, reducing air movement and water loss
Geophytes, plants that die back during part of the year to their bulbs, tuberous roots, corms or rhizomes, are also considered succulents. Amaryllis, bromeliads and hyacinths are example of this type of succulent. Epiphytes, plants that live in the air, unattached to the ground, are succulents that depend on their ability to store water obtained from rain and fog. Some succulents are highly tolerant of salt and other chemicals and can live along the seacoast, in dry lakes or in highly polluted soil.
How to create and maintain a mixed succulent container
Nurseries offer an increasing array of unusual and colorful selections. Many are prime choices for pots. Succulents look fantastic in every type of container imaginable: large seashells, watering cans, baskets, tires, rubber boots, shelving units, wire-wreath forms, teacups, wooden crates, hollowed out logs, old dishes — the list is endless. If you can drill a hole in it to let excess water drain out, you’ve got yourself a container.
Start by looking at samples at nurseries, peruse images online, or check out the large succulent garden at the Falkirk Cultural Center in San Rafael. What do you see? What looks good? Nine times out of ten, what makes a combination sing is contrast — and lots of it. Tiny pea-like leaves make interesting bedfellows with giant spiky leaves. Plump bright white petals look smashing cupping slim upright wands of coral pink flowers. Deep purple tones shine against chartreuse. When it comes to designing with succulents, it’s hard to overdo it with contrast.
Here’s a recipe for succulent success:
- Gather a collection of succulents of varying shapes, textures, and colors.
- Make sure whatever container you’ve chosen lets excess water drain out. (Drill a small hole at the bottom if it doesn’t.)
- Fill container with a mixture of half potting soil and half lava rock.
- Plant succulents of different shapes, sizes, textures and colors.
- Use small stones or gravel as a mulch on the bare soil.
- Place the container in sun or, preferably, where there’s a little afternoon shade. (If your container is indoors, be sure it gets plenty of indirect light, preferably near a window.)
- Water when the soil is almost dry. Stick your finger in the dirt to test. Water until the excess drains out. In summer, you may end up watering weekly. Don’t worry if you occasionally forget; your succulents will forgive you.
- In winter, move containers inside if possible, or place under eves or other protected area. Many succulents don’t like freezing weather.
- When the “pups” start popping out — that is, new baby succulents — share them with friends.
- Get another container and do it again. It only takes one time to feel like a pro.
Propagating from cuttings
Succulents tend to reproduce very easily: a stalk, or even a leaf of a plant, may root itself and grow into a new plant. You might want to ask a friend to give you a piece of one of their plants – or a “pup” – a small root-bearing leaf cluster that will grow into a new plant after you pot it.
A dozen succulents for Marin County gardens
Here are some common succulents that are often found in nurseries due to their ease of growing, low-water use, and attractiveness.
Original articles by Marie Narlock and Barbara Euser for the Marin IJ, and Anne Lowings, Rosemary McCreary, and Sara Malone for the Sonoma Master Gardeners
Edited by Marie Narlock
Photos courtesy of Gardensoft