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Succulents in the Garden

Assorted succulents. Photo by Rob Smith

Most succulent plants come from arid climates.  Existing in conditions of high temperature, low humidity and dry conditions, they have adapted to store water in fleshy foliage and often have very shallow roots that enable them to absorb any surface water that becomes available, even including heavy dew.

One of the first succulent plants I ever knew of was called ‘Hens and Chicks.’  The rock garden in front of my grandmother’s farmhouse was the perfect place for these self-sufficient little plants.  There was no hose that reached out there and the plants baked in the hot sun all summer long, getting water only when it rained. It was truly a care-free little garden. Once in a while a few of them would send up spikes of flowers, but I never knew until I met my husband that they were nicknamed ‘roosters.’  ‘Hens and Chicks’ belong to the genus Sempervivum, from the Latin “always living, ” meaning they keep their leaves all winter.  Indeed, the ones in my garden are still green.  A slightly seasick green after the extended cold period we have had, but still green.

In addition to Hens and Chicks, Sempervivum has a lot of species in it, including ‘Black,’ and ‘Cobweb.’  ‘Black’ is more of a deep red, and the more sun it receives, the deeper red it turns. ‘Cobweb’ looks like a small army of spiders went to work criss-crossing the foliage.

But there are lots more succulents than Sempervivum.  All kinds of textures, height, shapes and colors are available in garden centers and they are becoming more popular as container plants. They mix just like annuals and they often bloom with interesting spikes of long-lasting flowers.  Some spread, some hang and some stand up tall.  Mix and match for really interesting containers.

Escheveria is a large genus that includes some really interesting varieties.  ‘Flapjacks’ is a favorite of mine, with large pancake-shaped leaves.  ‘Afterglow’ has powdery pinkish-lavender leaves with brighter pink edging, and ‘Moonlit Pearl’ has chalky-white to silvery-blue leaves with a slight pink tinge at the leaf edge.  Graptoveria, lampranthus, pilea, rhipsalis and sedum are all succulents, too.

Perhaps of greatest value when considering the use of succulents is their drought tolerance.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that this means they don’t need water though.  While the foliage is adapted to hold water during water stress situations, this advantage will only help for a while. The pot in the photo above was in full hot sun on my back deck all summer, and I placed it in the most difficult place to water.  All the other pots could be reached easily by a hose from one end of the house of the other, but this was right smack in the middle which meant that I had to do a little extra work to get water to it.  Therefore, it only got watered about half as frequently as the other pots, and it thrived!  It never burned out, it flowered, and as the nights became cooler in the fall, the colors intensified.

Don’t be tempted to mix succulents right in with other sun-loving annuals. Best rule of thumb is to keep varieties together which require the same cultural conditions. Most annuals require a lot more water than succulents, so the succulents could easily suffer from overwatering through the course of the summer.