Are you dreaming of bringing a touch of the exotic tropics to your garden this summer and growing plants that require little tending but give a fabulous 'wow' factor? If so, succulents could be the answer to your dreams.
These tender succulents can be planted in our gardens with soil amendments and the proper requirements of full sun and excellent drainage, then lifted in the autumn and stored inside throughout the winter. To really star in the yard, however, container-grown succulents show and thrive the best. They still require excellent drainage and sunlight but in a container, these requirements are easier to control. Succulents do not require large amounts of water, which is a bonus feature for cottagers and vacationers. This is not to say they do not need any water. Thoroughly water when the soil is entirely dry. A clue that succulents desperately need water is when the leaves become soft and wrinkly-looking, showing they have been too neglected.
Ideal containers for succulents are shallow, wide ones that offer plenty of tabletop space to plant. Terra cotta is favoured because it is porous and allows air and warmth to the roots and discourages root rot. Drainage holes are necessary. If your container has none, drill several depending on pot size. For instance, a 12-inch pot needs five half-inch holes on the bottom. Use a concrete bit to drill, but before drilling into the terra cotta, soak the container in water.
Succulents need well-drained soil. A mix of one part soil, one part vermiculite or perlite and one part coarse sand is recommended. A slow-release fertilizer (Osmocote 14-14-14) should be added to the soil according to directions. Top-dressing the soil after planting prevents soil splashing up, keeps moisture from accumulating around the base of the plants and adds an esthetic look to these desert plants making them look right at home mimicking their natural habitat. Beige pea gravel and coarse sand are two examples. Adding some larger rocks, shells or whimsical items offer beauty and intrigue.
Artistically arranging your succulents requires a few simple rules of understanding harmony, proportion and contrast. Plant colours should be similar or complementary. In succulent planting, one or two plants are more special; these are the focal points. Don't place them in the centre but off to one side. This makes your plantings more natural, for just as nature rarely positions the tallest or most unusual plants in the centre, neither should you. Instead, group your plants tightly around the focal ones with the trailing plants around the edge to spill over. Alternatively, if one has a large specimen plant such as an agave, it can be planted singly in an urn or large container to feature it as an exclamation point in one's garden.
A new challenge for today's succulent gardener is to plant a succulent wreath or a living wall. Wreath forms can be purchased at local nurseries. To plant, the wreath must be moistened and the small succulents cut from their roots, leaving a small portion of the stem and before planting allowing it to callus. Holes are made in the wreath form where the succulents would be planted. The planted wreath is left horizontal for approximately two to three weeks until the new plantings are well-rooted. Your new creation can be enjoyed either horizontally or vertically.
During the summer, these tender plants should be fertilized. About every three weeks, use a liquid feed of 20-20-20 fertilizer. The plants will show you their appreciation by growing much larger, plumper and more colourful. Succulents do love moisture as long as it comes and goes. By summer's end -- and especially with warm days and cooler nights -- succulents exhibit their most spectacular beauty. All succulents flower in their natural landscape. Sometimes after flowering, the 'mother' plant will die. A truly ambitious gardener can take leaves from the flower stem and grow each leaf as a new plant.
Your love of your succulent's summer beauty will have you hooked and obsessed with their continuation. Feeding should be suspended at the end of August to prepare the plants for winter dormancy, which also occurs in their native habitat.
Before bringing the plants into the house, wash them well with insecticidal soap and check for any invaders. For overwintering, these plants require very bright light and cool, above-freezing temperatures. Low light will cause plants to stretch and become unattractive. Very little watering is needed during the winter months with no fertilizing until March when you can begin fertilizing with a mild solution of the liquid 20-20-20. These overwintered plants will need some tweaking and rejuvenation of the soil. Leggy plants are cut, allowed to callus a bit and dipped into powder rooting hormone #1 and replanted in newly prepared soil and clean containers. Succulents are very resilient and love this treatment.
Planting succulent containers stretches your garden from the familiar to the fabulous, and your creative options become endless with the many varieties of succulents available to you. Let your dreams begin!
Marilyn N. Dudek is a master gardener, garden coach and designer. Follow her on her blog, http://inmarilynsgarden.blogspot.com