Succulents. They’re not just for dry, desert gardens anymore.
Maybe they never were. But they’re definitely exploding in popularity in gardens everywhere.
And they’re no longer relegated to the cactus sections at garden centers and specialty nurseries. Instead, you can find them alongside traditional shrubs, perennials and ground covers. Even at big box stores, the once hard-to-find plants are featured front and center.
In general, succulents are easy to grow, and even easier to ignore.
They’re not susceptible to most pests or diseases, and require watering only once or twice a month to keep their leaves plump. All they ask is that you provide relatively good drainage and a reasonable dose of sunshine, and not subject them to cold, clammy soil.
In the garden, certain single succulents make great sculptural accents, while others, tiny in size, are best in broad swaths or presented as jewels in up-close containers.
Regardless of their stature, many are grown for their colorful leaves, rather than for their flowers. Those leaves are typically thick and fleshy because they store moisture. Snap one between your fingers, and you’re likely to see a few droplets fall.
The following 10 are among the best.
Aeonium leaves look like petals that form daisy-like “flowers.”
Copper pinwheel (Aeonium ‘Sunburst’) bears green, yellow and pink-striped leaves in rosettes the size of dinner plates.
Large purple aeonium (Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’) bears slightly smaller, dark-purple rosettes atop bare, lanky stems up to 4 feet tall. In summer, older rosettes elongate and produce cones of hundreds of small, yellow flowers. After flowering, the stems die. But by then, plenty of younger rosettes will have taken their places.
Kiwi aeonium (Aeonium ‘Kiwi’) rosettes are palm-sized, stay low to the ground and multiply rapidly. Kiwi grows well in sun or shade, and its color shift illustrates what often happens to succulents when they’re moved from one exposure to another.
In my garden in sun, Kiwi’s leaves are yellowish, lime-green, and edged in bronze. In my garden in shade, mature cuttings from the same plant are green, and edged in cream and pink.
Many agaves bear prickly spines. But the popular foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) does not. A fixture in older, coastal gardens, foxtail agave grows 4 feet wide and tall. As it ages, its stem elongates. A thick spike of greenish-yellow flowers emerges, rises 5 to 10 feet, then gracefully arches back toward earth, reminiscent, a wee bit, of a foxtail.
Agaves die after blooming. But by then, they will have produced pups to continue the cycle. Look for hybrids with solid and variegated leaves in shades of gray, blue, cream and green.
Aloes are among the most colorful, reliable and prolific winter and spring-blooming succulents. As such, they are hummingbird magnets.
Torch aloe (Aloe arborescens) forms a mass, 8 to 10 feet wide, of rosettes that bear long, spear-like leaves. Spikes of brilliant orange flowers extend several feet out and above. Along the coast, the plants require no supplemental irrigation.
Blue Elf (Aloe ‘Blue Elf’) grows in upright, knee-high clumps of bluish-gray leaves. Small, orange tubular flowers bloom atop short stems.
Coral aloe (Aloe striata) stays flat, with layers of broad, blue-yellow-gray triangular leaves appearing nearly horizontal in a single, 2-foot-wide clump. Stubby, dome-shaped clusters of orange flowers rise above.
The old standby skin salve, medicinal aloe (Aloe vera), grows well in a pot. Bumpy ridges line the edges of the upright, twisting leaves.
Count the brilliant, magenta flowers that bloom most of the year as the reason this native of Chile has skyrocketed up the popularity chart.
Looking much like large, open poppies, the flowers appear, one after the other, up tall, slender stems that stretch to 3 feet tall. Below, sit fairly tidy, foot-tall clusters of grayish-green leaves. The plants — also known as rock purslane or calandrinia — multiply rapidly, and do well in heavy soil.
These succulents include the familiar jade plant (Crassula ovata), which makes a beautiful, glossy green, water-conserving hedge. Snowy white flowers blanket the thick, rounded leaves in early spring.
Smaller versions come in various shades of gray, gold, copper and red.
Also look for “stacked” crassulas, which have pairs of alternating leaves stacked one on top of the next. They tend to be quite small. One of my favorites is baby’s necklace (Crassula rupestris subsp. marnieriana). The plump, round green leaves look like candies strung on a string. Toward the tips and in sunnier exposures, the leaves turn red.
These cute little hen-and-chicks ankle-huggers come in many variations of green, red, blue, pink and gray. The smaller ones may be the size of a golf ball, while the larger sorts, such as the gray and pink Afterglow, may measure more than a foot across.
Echeverias like gritty soil, multiply fast and are great fillers along the edges of pathways and in containers.
Most folks know kalanchoes as small-leaved supermarket succulents (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana) that bear sprays of tiny flowers in bright pink, yellow, orange or red.
Those are decent enough plants, indoors and out. But far more eye-catching is paddle plant (Kalanchoe luciae). Big, round paddles of celery-green or bluish-gray leaves edged with a heavy dose of copper-red are packed against one another, in an upright clump. In early spring, a single, chalky gray flower spike emerges, rises 2 to 3 feet tall and bears clusters of yellow flowers.
Many of the low-growing sedums are quick multipliers and make terrific, small-scale ground covers. Even the teeniest piece broken off a mother plant is likely to put down roots and travel the soil.
Two of my favorite ground-cruisers are golden sedum (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’) and stonecrop (Sedum pachyphyllum). Both do well with watering that ranges from infrequent to regular. They will even tolerate overspray from lawn sprinklers.
These dainty little plants, sometimes called houseleeks, are often confused with Echeverias, as they both bear ball-shaped rosettes composed of a multitude of small, overlapping leaves. Both also reproduce rapidly and come in green, gray, blue, pink and red.
However, Echeverias bear nodding, bell-shaped flowers, while sempervivums produce upright, star-shaped flowers. In addition, sempervivums tolerate greater cold. Most echeverias suffer when temperatures drop below 20 to 25 degrees. Many sempervivums can withstand temperatures down to zero degrees.
This genus includes a host of perennials, shrubs and vines. But look no further than Kleinia (Senecio mandraliscae), for a large-scale, succulent groundcover in an other-worldly shade of green-gray-blue.
Sometimes called “dead man’s claw,” the leaves look like French fries curving up and out of a central stem. The plants grow about a foot tall and spread 2 to 3 feet wide. They’re a little rough-looking up close, and are better for broad expanses in the mid to distant areas of the garden.
Tending Your Succulents
The Central Coast presents nearly ideal conditions for growing succulents.
Summers are warm, but not too hot. Winters are cool, but not — generally — too cold, depending on where you garden.
However, do pay attention to frost and freezing temperatures.
A number of succulents are content with temperatures a few degrees below freezing. But drop to 20, 15 or 10 degrees, and you may have problems. When the moisture stored within a succulent’s leaves and stems freezes, it can expand so dramatically that it ruptures the tissues. The result is black mush and a dead plant.
On the other hand, it’s easy to propagate succulents to build up your supply and fill gaps in your garden.
In spring, summer or fall, break off a few leaves or snip off a few offsets or pups. Let the cuttings sit in the shade for a few days to allow time for calluses to form. Then set the cuttings on top of small containers filled with pumice or a light, fast-draining potting mix. Keep the mix moist.
Once new roots have formed, transplant the succulents to their new homes.
Seeds of Wisdom
Mulch your succulents with a light-colored gravel to set off their interesting leaves and form. Lay down weed cloth first, to prevent the soil and gravel from mixing and becoming a dusty or muddy mess.
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