Succulents are all the rage these days and for good reason: they are beautiful and easy to grow. Ranging in many different colors and forms, succulent plants are an ideal addition to warm-season designs and require very little maintenance through the growing season.
To get started let’s identify a few distinguishing factors about succulents. First, I am not talking about Cacti. Personally, I do not like to get injured by the plants in my garden. After a short indulgence of growing Agave and Opuntia, I have totally sworn off those hardy beasts. I will not be writing about any plants that have spikes because I want to save you from a potential trip to the doctor.
Succulents are a group of plants that store water in their leaves. There are many different genus and species that fit into the succulent category, including common varieties of Sedum, Echeveria, and Graptopetalum. They all prefer to grow in full sun- or at least more sun than shade, and appreciate well-drained soil. Though they will tolerate dry conditions, they actually prefer to be watered through the heat of the summer, which will allow them to grow robustly and flourish. Pro Tip: I water my succulent pots every other day.
Unlike many other summer plants, succulents have low fertilizer needs. No need to water with the blue stuff, as they prefer to grow in neutral soil without a lot of additional NPK. Pro Tip: I usually fertilize with fish emulsion once a month from May through September.
Many succulent species are hardy in zones 7-8 (depending on the winter) and can be grown in the ground as perennials. They will do best if you amend your clay soils with loose organic matter. The addition of course soil amendment like Permatill is also recommended as that will increase drainage and store heat. With hundreds, if not thousands, of selections to choose from you can be creative in weaving hardy succulents throughout your landscape. There are a few that truly rise above in their performance for our region providing seasonal color, texture and low maintenance needs.
Types of Succulents
Most of my favorite succulent varieties are not winter hardy in zones 7-8. Considered a tropical plant, Crassula, Echeveria and so many others are well worth growing as an annual in your summer displays. In fact, I depend on these succulents to fill my hard to water window boxes and containers. Their lush foliage and brightly colored flowers add dynamic design appeal with no fuss.
Since tender varieties are frost-sensitive they are best planted outside in our region between April-November. They can be overwintered by bringing them into your house or stashed in a well-lit garage or shed that stays above freezing. The key to successful overwintering is to not water them—no matter how dry they may get. That can be difficult when you have them placed decoratively around your house, which is why I opt to keep mine in a heated shed. I store them out of reach, which results in my leaving them alone.
If you decide not to overwinter them, have no fear. Many garden centers, greenhouses, and online nurseries sell an amazing selection of succulents for you to grow.
When planting succulents, the sky is the limit to creativity. Of course, you can plant them in the ground, but I prefer to grow mine in unique containers so they can really show off. Drainage and light exposure are the two most important aspects of successful growth. Be sure to place your vessel in bright exposure and make sure there are ample drainage holes. Succulents will not tolerate bog conditions.
I have seen succulents grown in the holes of bricks placed to line a walkway and even in the rise of a staircase. They are well suited for vertical growth and make a huge statement planted in a wreath, a living picture frame, or an address marker. We even have a succulent table, which my husband David built after visiting the amazing Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco. This bar height table has a 4-inch deep trough built into the middle which gets planted with tender succulents through the summer. He drilled a lot of holes to ensure good drainage, and I plant using a traditional potting soil mixed with Permatill. I like to top dress with tumbled glass to add extra sparkle. In the winter I simply remove the succulents and replace them with leaf lettuce which looks pretty and supplies salad greens through the cool season.
Window boxes are my favorite place to grow succulents in. If you have a window box, likely you have experienced how quickly they dry out. They aren’t very large, so they don’t have much soil volume to retain moisture, and usually, they are sited under the eave of your roof, so you can’t even count on rain to supplement your irrigation practice.
After a few years of struggling to keep traditional annuals alive in my window boxes, I turned to mixed succulents to provide a solution. Four years ago I planted the box that hangs in front of my bedroom window. I see it every day from the inside and was so discouraged by all the wilting plants. Then I decided to fill it with a wide variety of tender succulents, including Echeveria, Graptopetalum, and Kalanchoe. It instantly looked great and to my relief required no effort all summer. When the threat of frost came I took the box into the shed and that was it. Fast forward and that same window box still looks amazing. Each spring I bring it outside and clean up any dead leaves, top dress it with some fresh soil, and water it well. Then it gets hung back in place and does its job without any assistance from me.
If you are looking for a high impact, low maintenance approach to gardening, succulents are the answer. Indulge today and discover the joy that succulents will bring you.
BRIE’S FAVORITE HARDY SUCCULENTS:
1. Delosperma ‘Fire Spinner’
2. Orostachys aggregatum
3. Orostachys iwarenge
4. Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’
5. Sedum tetractinum
BRIE’S FAVORITE TENDER SUCCULENTS:
1. Aptenia cordifolia
2. Any variety of Echeveria
3. Any variety of Graptopetalum
4. Graptosedum ‘California Sunset’
5. Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’
6. Kalanchoe thyrsifolia
7. Sedeveria ‘Jet Beads’
8. Sedum nussbaumerianum
9. Sedum pachyphytum
10. Senecio serpens
Featured image: Succulents in hypertufa / Brie Arthur
Brie Arthur is an author, horticulturist, and international speaker living in Fuquay-Varina, NC. She has been dubbed a revolutionary for her leadership in the suburban foodscape movement. For more information, visit BrieGrows.com or email Brie@BrieGrows.com.