Gardening: Success With Succulents

“They’re not really beautiful. They’re weird.”

Mike Wallace’s candor about succulent plants stems from 40 years of studying and collecting them. A self-taught succulent guru and certified horticulturist, he became fascinated with the ornamental plants while living in Tucson, Ariz., where they thrive.

The word “succulent” comes from the Latin word “sucus,” which means juice or sap. The name is appropriate, since succulents have water-storing capabilities in their fleshy leaves, stems and sometimes roots.

Wallace nurtures hundreds of succulent plants, shrubs and trees at his greenhouse and home in Mineral. A few years ago, his impressive collection may have been the state’s largest. The diverse specimens were obtained during his travels and by internet orders from distant places, such as Africa, Thailand and Mexico. Some rare specimens are valued up to $2,000.

Though most succulents are not native to this area, Wallace has proved time and again that they can do well in the Richmond region’s interior and exterior landscapes, given the right conditions.

“Succulents are easy to grow, especially if you know where and how they grew naturally,” he said. By mimicking their native conditions, gardeners can help ensure growing success. For example, a Living Stone (Lithops plant) in Wallace’s greenhouse requires watering only during two time periods, spring and fall, since that’s when the succulent would receive its annual rainfall in its native South Africa. Wallace cautions that’s not the norm, however. Most succulents should be watered when their soil is slightly dry, especially during active growing season. Great care should be taken not to overwater, though. Too much moisture over time can support “wet feet” and eventually root rot.

That’s why good drainage is important, too. When planting succulents in the garden, soil should be mixed with about 50 percent perlite, pumice or similar additives that support drainage. When opting for container plantings, the pot should have one or more drainage holes. Otherwise, gravel or crushed stone should be layered in the bottom of the pot before adding a planting medium, such as cactus soil.

Fertilizer is seldom applied to succulents, unless during growing season at one-quarter to one-half strength. Succulents originated in poor soils, so they’re typically hardy regardless of available nutrients.

Another benefit of succulents is that they’re basically insect-free. The most common pests are scale, mealy bugs and root mealy bugs, but pesticides can help when applied before too much damage is done.

Adequate sunlight is essential, preferably six to eight hours per day. Otherwise, the plants can become weak and develop elongated “leggy” stems with less vibrant foliage. On the other hand, intense afternoon sun can scorch the foliage, especially when accompanied by high humidity. Like with most plants, it’s best to verify each variety’s light preference (and growing preferences overall) before purchasing and planting.

Wallace said succulents are somewhat easy to propagate. Offsets, called pups, can be plucked and either planted or shared with other gardeners. Growers can start with seeds, as well, but patience is key since most succulents are slow to develop.

Most succulents should be brought indoors in late autumn before low winter temperatures cause harm. If that’s not feasible, protection should be provided. Gardeners can move them close to a building or cover them with a light layer of mulch, an overturned foam cooler or similar shelter. The less-hardy varieties may not survive, regardless of care, so they’re considered annuals in our Zone 7 growing region.

A seemingly endless assortment of colors, shapes, sizes and textures — from beautiful to bizarre — make succulents striking ornamentals. Several boast luxurious, fragrant blooms, and others’ plump leaves change color through the seasons. While some are members of the cactus family, others resemble palms and orchids — no wonder their popularity has grown significantly, along with retailers’ inventories.

Shallow bowls, hypertufa pots and terrariums work well as succulent containers. For in-ground plantings, succulents can be tucked around rocks, along stone walls and ledges, as borders along walkways or in decayed sections of fallen logs. Most have short roots requiring minimal soil, so they do well in vertical gardens, too.

Though interesting themselves, succulents can be accessorized with glass pebbles and natural accents. Also, miniature props can transform a succulent rock garden into a fanciful fairy garden or seasonal display.

Succulents seldom disappoint. They’ve survived some of the toughest growing conditions on Earth, so surely, they can survive — and perhaps thrive — at your home, too.

All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cactus.

The easiest way to kill a succulent is through overwatering.

Succulents need about six weeks to adjust after planting. If they drop leaves during that time, it’s not necessarily a sign that water is needed.

Succulents are ideal for today’s low-water, low-maintenance gardens.

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Gardening: Success with succulents
Success with Succulents
Gardening: Success with succulents