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Succulents are practically made for California gardens

  • Diane Lynch
  • Not too many years ago, I turned up my nose at the thought of succulents. Jade plants were so pedestrian. But then I began to notice the amazing variety of succulents and bought a few. Gradually, I switched some of my many pots to succulents and quickly saw the advantage of not having to water every day.

    Succulents have specially adapted leaves, stems or roots that hold moisture. All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Succulents are easy to grow, simple to propagate and don’t need much water. Plus, many are downright beautiful with gorgeous flowers. These attributes make them ideal for California gardens. Some fire districts are recommending them for landscaping, especially near homes.

    There are succulents for just about every garden condition — even shade. People think they all need full sun, but that’s not the case. Some succulents do best in semi-shade, shielded from the hottest sun. For instance, aeoniums appreciate a little shade, especially in warmer inland areas. At their peak in the early months of the year, they send up enormous yellow conical blooms. They’re monocarpic, meaning the top part of the plant dies as the bloom sets seed. If there are no side shoots below the blooming rosette, the entire plant will die. Aeoniums are my favorite succulent because their sculptural forms are so beautiful and they are incredibly varied in size and color, from tiny to huge to almost white to black.

    One thing all succulents have in common is the need for excellent drainage — wet feet will kill them fairly fast. Raised beds can be used to improve drainage and hillsides are great places for succulents. That said, most succulents will look their best with a little summer water. If the leaves shrivel, take that as a sign to water. Deep, infrequent watering is ideal for succulents.

    What gardener doesn’t want free plants? Many succulents will root from cuttings, including aeonium, senecio, graptopetalum, crassula and others.  Be sure to include enough stem, so you have some nodes. Strip the lower leaves and leave cuttings in the sun, so the stem scabs over — no rooting hormone needed. If you leave it out too long, don’t worry, as it may just grow roots for you. Stick them in the ground and keep damp, never soggy, for a bit. Voilà — new plants!

    Some echeveria, sedum and sempervivum will grow pups, or little plants that come off the roots or layer to root next to the mother plant. You only need to pull them gently out and re-plant. Some kalanchoe go so far as to make little plantlets along the leaf margins, which then drop off and grow quickly.

    Are your succulents getting leggy? Cut them off and restart them. Leave the stem in place and see if it will re-sprout. You can even get some small bean-shaped leaves to root by putting them in contact with soil — a tiny little plant will emerge in a few weeks.

    Succulents are fun to make into little container gardens. Select a nice-looking container: a pretty clay pot, teacup, old shoe or boot, or even a silver-plated sugar bowl. A few days in advance, take some cuttings from your succulents or get some small starts at a nursery. Squeeze in as many as possible and let them settle in a week or so before presenting as a gift or enjoy yourself.