Garden Tips: Growing succulents a new trend

Marianne C. Ophardt, WSU Benton County ExtensionApril 25, 2014 

LIFE HOME-SUCCULENTS 4 PH

Aloe polyphylla is an example of a succulent. (Bonnie Weller/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

BONNIE WELLER — MCT

Growing succulent plants has been identified as an emerging trend in gardening. Since I already have a succulent garden, does that mean I am trendy? More gardeners like me are becoming enamored with this interesting group of plants for indoor and outdoor planting.

Succulents are plants native to arid areas that have adapted to a lack of precipitation by developing thick fleshy leaves, stems, or roots in which they can store water. Other adaptations that can help them conserve water include waxy leaves and stems, hairy or spiny surfaces, a reduced leaf surface area, and a compact columnar or spherical shape.

Cacti are a type of succulent with spiny needles that originate from a structure called an areole that looks like a little patch of cottony fuzz. My succulent gardening does not include cacti because I don't like working with spiny plants. However, cacti can be interesting and beautiful plants.

I have seen some amazing succulent gardens featured in gardening magazines and books, but most are from regions with much warmer climates. Many of the plants in these gardens would not survive outdoors in our region's cold winters.

My succulent garden is a collection of containers planted mostly with "hens-and-chicks" and some sedums. I would like to add more diversity to my collection, but it is difficult to find hardy succulents locally. I seldom find tags indicating the succulents' hardiness. After purchasing a few without hardiness ratings and losing them over the next winter, I now assume that they are not hardy unless their tag indicates differently.

To add more color and texture to my succulent garden, I will have to find mail-order sources of hardy succulents (USDA Hardiness Zones 6 and 7 or lower.) I have found two, SMG Succulents (www.smgsucculents.com) in Oregon and Mountain Crest Gardens (http://mountaincrestgardens.com) in northern California.

Growing hardy succulents is easy. You need a site with full sun, good drainage, and a well-drained soil. Because my succulent garden is in pots, the plants are planted with the same quality potting mix that I use for all my container gardens. I did try a special mix for cactus that contained more sand and perlite, but it did not retain enough moisture in the very hot and sunny spot where my succulents are located.

If you are planting directly in the ground and you have a soil that is not fine or coarse sand, add enough builder's sand to the bed so that it makes up about 25 per cent of the top several inches of soil. Also, add enough compost or coconut coir so that the soil is about 10 per cent organic matter.

There are two major groups of hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum sp.) that can be grown outdoors in our region. One is the Sempervivum tectorum genus that has mostly fleshy-leaved plants. The other is the Sempervivum arachnoideum genus with smaller, almost spherical plants that are covered with spider web-like hair. Jovibarba species, closely resembling hens-and-chicks, are another group of hardy succulents

Hardy sedums come in a variety of forms and are nice additions to a succulent garden. Sedums can be big or small, upright or trailing, depending on the species and cultivar. I like having bright green trailing sedums to complement the more structured grayish hens-and-chicks.

If you have a spot in your garden that is too hot for most other plants, follow the trend and try some hardy succulents.

w Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.

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