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Succulents are beautiful and built for drought

  • Marie Narlock
  • Succulents are like puppies: it’s hard to find bad things to say about them.

    These trendy plants are simple to grow — indoors or out — and come in myriad shapes, colors and sizes. They’re built for drought; in fact, the primary cause of succulent death is overwatering. Because they store water in their fleshy leaves, succulents can even act as living fire-retardants when placed densely around a home’s perimeter. They add instant artistry to plantings, they attract hummingbirds in droves and they’re so easily propagated that kindergarteners can do it.

    If you haven’t gotten on the succulent bandwagon, now’s a good time to start. Nurseries aren’t stocking succulents just because they’re pretty. The drought has breathed new life into these plants, and it seems like there are new selections every day. Many come from the arid regions of South Africa, Central and South America, and right here in California. Rest assured, these are not your mother’s succulents. The days of half-shriveled jade plants are over. The next time you drop by a nursery, prepare to be greeted by an assortment of characters that would make Dr. Seuss proud.

    But what if you don’t have any dirt to spare? No excuses! Why? Because succulents are prime choices for pots. And when I say pots, I don’t just mean those things you buy at the hardware store. 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.

    So let’s say you have a pot. Now what? How do you create and maintain a striking mixed succulent planting? It’s easier than you think — much, much easier than that puppy.

    Start by looking at samples at nurseries, peruse images online or take a drive to the Falkirk succulent garden 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. You get the idea. When it comes to designing with succulents, it’s hard to overdo it with contrast.

    You’ve got the goods. You’re ready to roll. Here’s a recipe for succulent success.

    • Make sure whatever container you’ve chosen lets excess water drain out.

    • Fill it 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. How do you know for sure? 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. If you start experimenting with these beauties and get hooked, well, you will certainly not be alone.