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Choosing and Growing Succulents in the Garden and Home


What are Succulent Plants?

There are over 10,000 succulent plants, which include cacti. Many are native to South Africa and Madagascar and the Caribbean. Succulent plants have thick, fleshy leaves, stems or roots. This is one of the ways they have adapted to dry conditions by taking advantage of what ever water is available and holding onto it for later use. When full of water, the leaves can appear swollen. When they are becoming depleted, the leaves will begin to look puckered.

Other water conserving features you may find in succulents are narrow leaves, waxy leaves, a covering of hairs or needles, reduced pores, or stomata, and ribbed leaves and stems, that can expand water holding capacity. Their functioning is fascinating, but most are also quite attractive, too. They are perfect for dry climates and periods of drought anywhere, but many are not cold hardy below USDA Zone 9. Even so, they can be grown as annuals or over-wintered indoors. Several make great houseplants. Grow them all year in containers and you can just move the whole thing in, when the temperature drops.

General Succulent Care

  • Water

    During the summer, allow the soil to dry out between waterings and then water so that the soil is soaked through, but not dripping wet. Don't let the roots sit in soggy or water logged soil.

    In winter, most succulents will only need water every month or so. They are basically dormant. If your house is particularly dry, you may need to water more often. The leaves will pucker slightly and begin to look desiccated, if they need water. But just as in the summer, don't leave the plants sitting is soggy soil.

  • Soil:

    In pots, use a chunky, fast draining soil. This is one group of plants that does not thrive in the traditional loamy garden mix. There are special potting mixes sold for succulents.

    In the ground, most succulents like a slightly acidic soil pH (5.5 – 6.5). Add some organic matter to very sandy soils, to retain moisture long enough for the plants to take it up. In clay soils, raised beds are your best option.

Choosing Succulents

Below are some popular succulents that are generally easy to grow.

1. Aeonium

Burgundy Rosettes of Aeonium 'Zwartkop'
Photo: © Marie Iannotti
The majority of us can't grow Aeoniums year round, in the garden. I wouldn't let that stop you from enjoying them, though. Although they have the familiar rosettes of Hens and Chicks, these quirky succulents are so waxy and shiny, they almost look artificial. In warm climates, they can grow into shrubs. Just imagine a 4 - 5 foot. Imagine coming across a Hens and Chicks at eye level.

As with many of the succulents listed here, Aeonium makes a good houseplant. You can give it a summer vacation outdoors and enjoy it indoors during the winter, it's prime growing season. (USDA Hardiness Zones 9 - 11 )

2. Agave

White Centered Agave
Photo: © Marie Iannotti
You may be familiar with the giant Agave americana, with its dangerous, serrated leaves. It's impressive, but not suited to most gardens. There are better choices among the dozens of Agave species. There are even some that can tolerate freezing temperatures.

3. Crassula

Crassula arboescens - The Silver Dollar Plant
Photo: © Marie Iannotti
With about 350 species in this genus, there's a lot of variety. Jade plants, Crassula ovata, (syn. C. argentea and C. portulaca) are probably the most familiar, but there are also the stacked types, Crassula perforata, that look a little like paper chaines. Colors range from deep green to creams and yellows, silvery gray and shade of red.

In frost free climates, jade plants will form small shrubs. There's are now some very pretty variegated varieties available, which need full sun to retain their colors.

The staked varieties lend themselves to use in hanging containers and over walls. I love this little Crassula alpestris. The triangular leaves form stacked pinwheels. They are a pinkish-red during the winter, into spring. At the end of summer, you may get spikes of small white They can handle some shade and like their soil on the dry side.

4. Echeveria

Echeveria 'Perle von Numberg'
Photo: © Marie Iannotti
Another succulent that form flower-like rosettes a top long stalks. Echeveria resemble Hens and Chicks and can be very ornamental. The leaves are more delicate than they appear and can be easily injured in garden beds. They are perfect for containers and hyper tufa.

5. Euphorbia

Spiny Euphorbia grandialata
Photo: © Marie Iannotti
This is a large genus with a great deal of variety. Not all Euphorbia are succulents but they do all have a milky sap that can be irritating. I once rubbed my eye after collecting seeds and had to have my eye irrigated.

6. Kalanchoe

Kalanchoe - Flowering Houseplants
Photo: © Marie Iannotti
So many of us only know these Kalanchoe as houseplants, forced into bloom at the florists. There are several hybrids with different forms, but all have flowers in clear, bright colors. Kalanchoe blossfeldiana is one of the most readily available. It can do quite well indoors, but has the annoying habit of growing long and gangly and not wanting to flower again. When that happens, I generally take a few cuttings and start over. It is frost tender.

7. Ice Plants (Lampranthus)

Flowering Ice Plant
Photo: © Marie Iannotti
There are about 100 species of Lampranthus, succulents plants from South Africa. They have bright colored daisy-like flowers. The best known is the Ice Plant, Lampranthus multiradiatus. These look best massed and where they are hardy, they make a great groundcover or turf alternative, although I wouldn't walk on them. They are very forgiving. I had some in a hanging basket that I forgot to water for weeks. They just kept on blooming.

8. Sedum (stonecrop)

Sedum blooms
Photo: © Marie Iannotti
The tall Sedums, like ‛Autumn Joy' are wonderful showy, drought tolerant plants. Most bloom in late summer, but look great for weeks as their broccoli-like flowers fill out. Even after blooming, the flowers just deepen in color and continure putting on a show. The creeping and trailing varieties have long been used in rock gardens and as ground covers. And they will cover ground very quickly. They have start-shaped blooms during the summer and are less attractive to deer than the tall varieties. I have seen rabbits munching on them, though. Probably for the water. Many varieties are extremely cold hardy.

9. Sempervivum

Hens and Chicks
Photo: © Marie Iannotti
Hen and chicks have made a huge comeback. I remember them in my grandmother's garden and thought they were interesting, but not real flowers. I have become a total convert and enjoy spotting them tucked in throughout other's gardens.

Sempervivums are cold hardy, but a little touchy about long, hot, dry summers. They are perfect for all kinds of containers, from hypertoufa troughs to strawberry jars.

These look a lot like Echeverias, but Sempervivum have pointed leaves that are a little thinner than Echeveria and they are more spherical.

10. Senecio

String of Perals Senecio
Photo: © Marie Iannotti
This is an odd groups of plants, with bizarre shapes. The Candle Plants, Senecio articulatus, looks more like fingers, to me. Senecio talinoides var.mandraliscae, Blue Fingers, is icy blue-gray and these fingers are pointed. Then there's the perfectly charming Golden Groundsel, Senecio aureus, a ground cover with bright yellow, daisy-like flowers atop base rosettes.It's also hardy down to USDA Zone 4. By far my favorite is Senecio rowleyanus, String of Beads or String of Pearls. It looks more like a string of peas, but whatever it is called, it's striking.

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