By Lincoln McElwee
My mother is an avid gardener. Almost every plant she rescues comes back to life and thrives under her delicate care. I can remember the time and dedication she gave to her garden, how she often had to chase down plants and rescue them from our neighbors’ yards on account of the Santa Ana winds. Her patio now reminds me of watching Agnieszka Holland’s The Secret Garden (1993) when I was younger, and wondering what it would be like to walk through a door and find myself in another world of wisteria and agapanthus, rhododendrons and wildflowers.
And yet amongst all the plants, flowers, trees, and faerie gardens my mother has on her patio, her favorite plants to work with are succulents.
Gardening is something that has constantly been a part of her life, whereas for me, it was always the one thing I was certain I would never get the hang of. I never inherited my mother’s gift for taking care of plants, and can easily kill fichus trees in no time. Because of this, my mother suggested I take up gardening with succulents as they are nearly indestructible and also make wonderful ornamental gardens. And they also make excellent houseplants because they adapt to growth in drier areas.
I took my mother’s word for it and created a succulent garden for my condo. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to make and how easy it is now to maintain.
I am now a firm believer that even those who have a busy schedule and minimal time for maintenance and watering can easily take care of succulents and have a beautiful garden to showcase at the same time!
Though the definition of succulents itself is as various as the plant, a general definition would be that succulents are any plant with thick, fleshy (succulent) water storage organs. Based on succulents’ adaptive mechanism in surviving arid conditions worldwide, green thumbs, such as myself, can benefit from these heartier plants with their various leaf forms and plant shapes.
The easiest way for those with minimal time to care for succulents is to make use of dish or container gardens. These gardens, as little self-contained planets, are quite easy to water and cultivate.
Succulents can be purchased from your local flower shop or hardware store, such as Home Depot, Lowe’s or Ace. Be sure to purchase the proper potting soil for succulents as they need a heavier soil that is often mixed with gravel or peat moss. Most stores that carry succulents should also have potting soil for succulents and cacti. While you’re there, also pick up some fertilizer for your succulents. You will need to fertilize succulents during the summer just as you would any other houseplant, whereas you can hold off on fertilizing entirely during the winter.
Along with finding the perfect succulents to suit your style is procuring the perfect container to suit your succulents. Remember that most dish and container gardens are ornamental in purpose, so the container you choose should say a lot about not only your succulents, but about you and your personality.
Terracotta pots, including the dish they usually stand on, are one of the most common containers for succulent use. Terracotta tends to blend in easily with a variety of settings and is a very neutral color when it comes to displaying gardens and decorating with different plant shapes and colors.
Practically speaking, you can put succulents in any type of container you choose, from beach wood to wrought-iron bird baths. Bolsa wood and Manzanita tree bark are also used as both decoration and natural containers to place succulents on and in as well.
As far as caring for your succulent garden, the three most important things to remember are light, temperature and water. Most succulents prefer bright light. There are varieties, however, that will actually scorch if met with sudden direct sunlight, so be sure to watch the leaves for signs of bleaching. Alternatively, etoliation, which involves elongated stems and widely spaced leaves, can occur due to succulents receiving too little light. A simple fix would be to provide more light and prune the succulent(s) back a bit.
Temperature is perhaps the easiest thing to adhere to with succulents. Remember that succulents have adapted to arid environments, which means they have also adapted to cold desert nights as well. Daytime temperatures should be somewhere between 70˚F and about 85˚F, while nighttime temperatures should be between 50˚F and 55˚F.
Though the potting mix for succulents should be allowed to dry between waterings, be sure to water succulents generously in the summer. When succulents go dormant during the winter, be sure to cut back the watering to once every other month. Remember that succulents should never be allowed to sit in water. Overwatering and plant rot are one of the most common causes of plant death. Even if a succulent looks healthy, it can still have already begun decaying due to oversaturation.
With these easy steps and tools in mind, you’ll be on your way to creating a succulent container garden that is both easy to maintain and a joy to create. Use it as a conversation piece with friends or loved ones, a table topper or window display, or simply as a beautiful and natural method for peace and relaxation!