Five or six years ago, if I asked the average person what a succulent plant was and where I could buy one, my question probably would have been met with shrugged shoulders.
Someone might have said: You mean a cactus or aloe plant? Perhaps the person would have mentioned jade plant as well, and indeed all of those are succulents. But in the last few years, these water-storing plants with their thick and flashy leaves have become trendy. The ushers at my nephew’s wedding this past May wore succulent boutonnieres.
With that said, I have to admit I love succulents and am thrilled with their popularity. The wide range of leaf forms, colors and shapes that succulents exhibit fascinates me endlessly, especially when several contrasting plants are grown in a container.
Succulents began gaining greater attention with the advent of xeriscaping in the Southwest a decade or so ago. As homeowners became aware of the need to cut back on the water they used on their landscapes, the demand for interesting drought-tolerant plants grew. Succulents in their myriad shapes and forms fit the bill.
Unfortunately for Merrimack Valley gardeners, most of the more unusual/interesting succulents are not winter hardy, so a fascinating outdoor garden consisting solely of succulents is not something we can aspire to.
The perennial succulents that will overwinter in our zone include sedum, sempervivum (commonly known as hens and chicks) and delosperma (ice plant). Of those, the majority are ground cover plants, not getting much more than 5 inches tall.
The sedum category does include some taller varieties, the most common being “Autumn Joy” (some people call it the broccoli plant). I have lots of it in my garden (it multiplies quickly) and enjoy watching it evolve through spring, summer, fall and often leave the tall stalks for winter interest.
The broccoli-like flower head of the plant forms in late summer and turns into pink flowers in the fall. These flowers provide a feast for honeybees, and they come from far and wide to collect nectar for their winter survival.
The fat leaves fall off the tall sedums after the first killing frost, leaving the strong stems of the 18-inch-tall plant topped by the now brown, umbrella-like flower heads. A thick clump left standing in the garden all winter becomes especially attractive as it catches the first snow.
In addition to green foliage, there are tall sedums with dark magenta-color foliage that also make for wonderful garden plants capable of surviving our winters. The best part about these sedums is the ease with which you can multiply your stock. If I want more tall sedums somewhere in my garden, I cut 3 to 4 inches off the top of several stems in late May and early June, strip the lower leaves from half the stem, and stick the cuttings in the ground where I want them to grow. Next year I’ll have a nice new patch of tall sedums in my garden.
Succulents became trendy when growers began mixing the young versions of soft succulents (those varieties that will not overwinter in our area) in containers. Search “succulent containers” online, and you can keep yourself busy for hours discovering the many ways people are using them.
Most large independent garden centers in our area carry a selection of succulents, either as individual plants you can pot up into your own container, or in pre-planted containers.
I love to plant succulents in unusual containers. I haunt secondhand stores looking for interesting wire baskets or other unusual items that I can use for planting. I line wire baskets with burlap (I’m able to get old burlap potato sacks from my local farm stand). The secret to this process is to soak the burlap in water before trying to line your basket with it. I often use multiple layers of burlap because it is “organic” and eventually will break down (rot).
Grow succulents in containers that are kept on the dry side. They will survive under-watering much better than overwatering, which leads to root rot. And they need sun to avoid becoming long and spindly, so place them in the sunniest spot in your home.