Dramatic, bizarre garden succulents lend themselves perfectly to the enhancing of contemporary architecture. Once banished to the rock garden, these plants are becoming more and more popular in and around modern homes.
As houseplants (jade plant for example) they almost take care of themselves, as ground covers they are the lazy gardener’s pride, and as specimens for accenting and emphasizing the landscape, they have no equal.
Assorted colorful succulents in containers
Using Succulents outdoors in flower borders, give a succession of bloom and provide a constant source of interest and pleasure. Some particularly unusual ones like the “Desert Rose” Adenium obesum are prized as oddities and many succulent collections rival those of the Orchids in beauty.
Certainly, in this wide world, no other plants have such weird forms, such beautiful flowers, or are so curiously adapted to a hostile environment.
Succulent Care In Containers and The Landscape
Succulents can be grown successfully outdoors, in containers or in the landscape itself, by adhering to a few simple rules. The essential water, light and fertilizing requirements of these plants are discussed below, as well as the proper Winter care in colder areas.
How To Water Succulents
When choosing a site for growing Succulents, select a sloping area with a well-drained soil. Cactus and succulent soil should be light and clay soil that compacts should be conditioned by adding loads of sand or by working in an abundance of sponge rock or coarse gravel. A top dressing of fine rock, such as gravel or marble chips, helps keep the surface dry and prevents rot.
In periods of extreme drought, outdoor-growing Succulents will need a supply of water – one good drenching being better than several light sprinklings.
However, if they are growing as a potted plant, they usually require more frequent watering because of their restricted root system and the fact that the potting soil in containers dries out much quicker.
When Succulents are actively growing in the Spring and Summer, they need the most water, with much less water required as the cool Fall weather approaches. In Winter, the plants should be watered enough to keep them from shriveling.
Although watering too much or too little can both be harmful (both extremes may lead to the death of the plant), it is best to err on the side of too little water rather than too much water. Therefore, if you are in doubt, do not water.
How Much Light Do Succulents Need?
As a rule most Cacti and other Succulents require a sunny location, but Epiphyllums and Sempervivums demand part shade. Most also need to be screened from the cold wind. Usually, a Southern exposure against the house or a fence is ideal.
Because of their limited root system, some plants grown in pots cannot withstand the direct rays of the sun without protection. Also, less hardy Succulents that have overwintered indoors are often in a tender condition and damage easily by the full sun.
On the other hand, desert Cacti, usually covered with long spines, (e.g., Prickly Pear), are better able to resist strong sun, even though they have spent the Winter indoors.
When these “limited sun” plants are over-exposed, they may develop sunburn (a yellow or white spotting). This condition, in which the affected area appears to be scalded or scorched, always occurs on the upper or South side of the plant.
How Much Succulent Fertilizer Do They Need?
Desert soils are usually quite rich. This is shown by the fact that, when they are reclaimed, usually only water is needed to make them productive.
Since desert soil (the native soil of Succulents) often contains a considerable amount of coarse and porous organic matter, you should incorporate some such matter when preparing your Cactus or Succulent bed.
The best fertilizer for Succulents is cottonseed meal or hoof and horn meal. Do not use high nitrogen fertilizers when growing Succulents. Nitrogen forces growth and induces over-development of soft tissues, which is disastrous.
In the days when manure, guano and other fertilizers were available in large quantities, it was strongly advised not to apply these to Succulents. Similarly, most soluble plant fertilizers that garden plants desire contain too much nitrogen for Succulents.
Colorful flowers of the Desert Rose – Adenium obesum
How To Care For Succulents In Winter
Any Succulent may be grown in any part of the country when grown in a pot and moved indoors when Winter arrives. Cacti and other Succulents, as a general rule, do very well in containers because they have a limited root system.
Growing Succulents outdoors in the cold climates is also possible, however, and, if certain precautions are taken, many kinds can live in the ground permanently.
These precautions extend not only to the cold itself, but to other factors encountered in Eastern or Midwestern gardens, e.g., standing for long periods in wet soil. These other factors are often the real cause of the plant’s death for which freezing is erroneously blamed.
Some hardy Succulents capable of withstanding temperatures of zero, and slightly below, are Prickly Pear, the Sedums, and the Sempervivums.
Unless a Succulent is one of these hardy types, however, it should be taken indoors when the temperature gets much below 32°. Some of these tender Succulents which need indoor overwintering are Echeveria, Epiphyllum, and Kalanchoe.
The first, and most important rule, in raising Succulents is to initially grow the Succulents in a sloping area with good drainage, as previously discussed.
Secondly, Succulents should be “hardened” in the Fall by reduced watering. In their native habitat, many Succulents are covered by Winter snow without damage because they become so hardened in the long, dry, resting period that precedes Winter.
Fluctuating temperatures are harmful because the warm weather may start growth processes and the tender tissues formed in growth may be damaged severely by the subsequent cold.
Protect outdoor Succulents from a hard freeze by covering them with paper sacks large enough to go over the plant without touching it. Since the air space provides the insulation, several layers of newspaper or straw wrapped around the larger plants will also prevent damage.
There was a time that large outdoor plantings were kept frost-free with orchard burners which heated and circulated the air over the entire area; similar effects are achieved with giant fans.
When overwintering tender Succulents (or hardy Succulents if the temperature falls much below zero), it is best to place them in a dry, well-lighted room such as a heated sun porch. The temperature should be kept around 40° to 50°.
How To Propagate Succulents
Perhaps the greatest joy in growing Succulents comes from the ease with which these plants are propagated. You can easily root your own cuttings and use the excess plants as trading material, hereby increasing your collection.
You can also share your enthusiasm for a rare species by giving your friends cuttings for them to root. Buying specimens from a reputable garden dealer is another way to assure yourself of a fine and varied collection.
Most Succulents regenerate new plants with no assistance from their owner. A collector of Bryophyllum, for instance, is very soon overwhelmed with new plants.
Succulent plantlets are produced on the margins of the leaves while still attached and growing on the mother plant, and take root and grow when they drop to the moist soil.
Falling Succulent leaves will similarly take root and grow whether they are planted or not, providing the soil is moist.
When the stems or leaves are cut up into pieces, the cuttings should not be planted immediately. Keep them in the shade in a dry place until the wound is healed and the roots have formed.
Plants other than the Succulents would soon wilt and die, but Succulents will rot if the uncured cut comes in contact with soil. Sometimes the stems will shrivel slightly, but this does no harm.
After 1 to 3 weeks the cuttings may be planted in dry sand in the shade. Take care not to bury them and water them sparingly.
Certain milky-juiced plants that do not root readily may be tied to a stake and suspended with the stem end not quite touching the sand to prevent rotting.
After the plants have become established, transplant them to a sunny area- except for those shade-loving varieties previously noted.
Plants that produce offsets are, of course, most readily divided and there are many of these among the Succulents.
Small plantlets are formed around the base of the mother plant and can be separated and rooted easily if they have not already developed a separate root system.
Propagation of Succulents from seed is much slower and somewhat more difficult since Succulent seeds, for the most part, behave just like seeds of other plants which must have moisture for germination.
Young Succulent seed plants must be protected from the sun and given some nourishment. Generally speaking, a good porous planter mix, thoroughly moistened, is the best medium for successful germination.
Using Succulents As Ground Covers
One of the most popular uses of Succulents in the landscape is for ground covers. They are especially valuable on fills and cuts where they prevent erosion in addition to the beautifying.
Finer-leaved Succulent species are used more commonly as ground covers for home yards and gardens while the coarse Mesembryanthemum, Carpobrotus chilensis, is favored for highway landscaping. (Species of trailing Mesembryanthemum, popularly called Ice Plant, add orange, yellow, white, red, rose, copper, pink, purple and lavender color to the landscape adjoining hundreds of miles of Southern California freeways.)
The best of the hardy ground cover Succulents are found in the Crassulaceae group, of which the best known are the Sedums and Sempervivums. Many species of the former are popularly used in front lawns in the East and Midwest.
Sedum acre, generally known as Wall Pepper, with small green leaves and yellow flowers on creeping branches, is the most common.
Many other kinds of Sedum – all low-trailing species – are used, including Sedum americanum, Sedum confusum, Sedum spathulifolium and Sedum spurium.
Some are gray, some have a reddish tinge and all will grow in poor soil with but little water. They should not be planted in large areas, however, but are ideal for pattern planting.
Echeverias, such as Echeveria glauca and Echeveria imbricata, excel for use as Summer bedding plants and are used in parks all over the world. Echeveria glauca is widely known as Hens and Chicks because of the circle of rosettes formed around the mother plant.
Ice Plants are great favorites for the succulent garden in the mild Winter areas where their inability to withstand severe cold is unimportant.
These plants are drought-resistant (eliminating the need for continual watering), require little or no fertilization or other care, and can grow in soils where few other plants will survive.
Their ease of propagation makes Ice Plants especially useful for covering large areas. Ice Plants should not be used in heavily-traveled areas because they cannot withstand foot traffic.
Using Succulents In Wall Gardens
As more and more of the hillsides come into use as building sites, many people are finding dry walls an inexpensive way of retaining steep banks.
Because water is the principal problem encountered in taming a steep slope, the retaining wall is best thought of as a dam that may be required to hold water at pressures corresponding to its height.
If you wouldn’t attempt to build an 8-foot dam, don’t plan a similar retaining wall without professional help.
The best structure to control a steep slope is not a retaining wall, but a wall with open joints.
Such a structure prevents water pressures from building up, rather than attempting to direct or control the water, and may be built without the aid of an expert.
Rough stone, boulders, a lattice of concrete or wooden ties, all with earthen joints which can be planted, are ideal solutions. Concrete or cinder block placed edgewise on the slope with open end outward may also be used.
A dry wall can be built merely by laying rows of rocks against the exposed grade. Sometimes, in very cold areas, footings below the frost line are necessary, but generally, the wall may be built from the ground level up.
The first layer should be composed of the largest rocks, selected to fit closely together and with their broadest side down. Good garden soil should then be tamped around the rock and the desired Succulent species planted.
The best plants for the cold areas are the Sedums and Sempervivums, whereas any Succulents that form rosettes, such as Crassulas and Echeverias, are suitable for frost-free regions. Sempervivums will grow and bloom in a minimum of soil and thus can be easily established in a rock wall.
Burros tail, pencil cactus and other succulents in a vertical succulent wall planter
Since a slight depression containing the merest speck of soil is all that is needed, any crack or crevice can have a jewel-like Sempervivum for decoration.
Many modern gardeners use trailing varieties of Succulents as a drape over the edge of a raised flower bed or garden wall. This is another example of the versatility which has led to the resurgence of Succulents’ popularity.
Succulents In Rock Gardens
The most natural way to use Succulents in the garden is in combination with rocks. Plants love to snuggle against rocks or grow out of fissures and in crevices where moisture and warmth are available.
The modern concept of a rock garden has taken it out of the back corner of the garden into wide use in the front of the house. Another innovation is the use of wide expanses of colored gravel to accentuate artistic rock and plant groupings.
Unless you have a natural South-facing slope in your garden, the best device is a mound. Over a central core of gravel or coarse material (used to provide drainage), a layer of garden soil is laid.
Generally, the mound should not be set in the center of a lawn, but towards the margin of the property or near the house where it will fit into the scenery. It may be varied in size and shape to suit your purposes, although a free-form mound is a more graceful than a simple oval, round or more formal pattern.
It is essential that the rock garden be open to the full sun and have good drainage. A rough outline of the bed should be first made at the chosen site, using a hose to form the shape.
The width should be limited to provide easy access, but the length is without limits. If you can get at the bed to weed it from 2 sides, it may be as much as 6 feet wide.
The rocks, which must be chosen with care and positioned naturally, should be relatively large, rough-textured and of a neutral color. Wide variation in color and kind should especially be avoided.
After the rocks are selected, plants should be chosen with equal care, but here variety is desirable. Plants should be grouped according to size, habit, and color and never crowded or placed in a regular pattern.
Those particular varieties requiring shade should be planted on the North side of the tall rocks.
Hanging Baskets And Dish Gardens
Succulent Hanging Baskets
Plants in hanging baskets solve the problem of eye-level and overhead decoration when ground space is limited. Their use, however, is limited to places where dripping baskets will not harm furnishings or flooring. Therefore, roofed patios, vine-covered arbors and tree areas are good locations for hanging baskets.
Wire and redwood lattice baskets are the most popular containers for hanging gardens. Wire containers are lined with green moss (to preserve the needed moisture) and filled with a good commercial planter mix, e.g., peat moss, leaf mold, sponge rock, shredded tree bark, and charcoal. Green moss or tarpaper makes good lining for redwood lattice baskets.
Because daily watering is required for ordinary plants, several varieties of Succulents such as Sedum, Epiphyllum, Ceropegia, Trailing Crassulas and Ice Plants are popular for hanging baskets, since they need only infrequent watering.
Many other species of Succulents which can be displayed best in hanging baskets have been so grown for several generations. A few well-grown specimens make particularly elegant fixtures on the porch or patio.
Succulent Dish Gardens
Attractive collections of Succulent arrangements may be planted in a large dish with many small stones to simulate a desert or wasteland. The soil of the dish should consist of sand or a sand and planter mix (half and half). Unlike most Succulents grown outdoors, Succulents in dish gardens must be watered and fertilized regularly.
Select for your dish garden (especially for use indoors) those Succulent varieties that retain a miniature size for a long period.
While many different kinds of Cacti and Succulents may be used in a single dish garden, larger Succulent containers for patio display should be limited to a single specimen or, at the most, to 2 or 3 plants. Remember, when plants are mixed, care must be taken that they all have approximately the same water and exposure requirements.
Succulents For Landscape Accent
Cacti and other Succulents serve admirably for accent plants in the modern landscape. For the traditional house, whose facade consists of a balanced arrangement of doors and windows, a balanced foundation planting with soft lines serves best.
But for the strictly contemporary house where horizontal and vertical lines predominate, the planting should repeat and accentuate these lines, rather than soften or blur them.
An excellent planting for the contemporary home is a pair of good specimen plants at the front entrance to attract and direct attention to this architectural feature. Yuccas are ideal for this purpose because they form a sunburst pattern that says “stop” as no other plant can.
They draw attention like an exclamation point to any strategic feature, and are especially fascinating when illuminated at night. Mostly desert plants, Yuccas require almost no care, except for the periodic removal of dead leaves, and withstand lots of heat, alkaline soil and low humidity.
Other dramatic specimens are the Agaves which also form giant rosettes, many with spiny leaves. One with smooth leaves, Agave attenuata, has found wide use in the landscape. The Winter-blooming Aloes, with their soft but pointed Succulent leaves arranged in rosettes, resemble the native Agaves, even though they originally came from Africa.
A plant that forms a living sculpture is the Elkhorn Euphorbia, Euphorbia lactea cristata. It is not difficult to grow but must have full sunlight and protection from frost. Great care should be used in handling Euphorbias because they “bleed” (exude milky juice) when damaged, which disfigures the plant.
Many Cacti especially make dramatic specimens because of their great diversity of form and growth. Most ornamental types are tender but, as previously discussed, some species can withstand periods of freezing weather. Prickly Pears are the hardiest species, the most common of which, Opuntia compressa, is found from the East Coast to the West Coast.
One interesting way to create a landscape accent using succulents is by taking an old outdoor water fountain and convert it into a Succulent planter.
Succulent Pests And Diseases
There are several pests and diseases that attack Cacti and other Succulents, but all are easily controlled. The best way, of course, is to prevent their occurrence.
The easiest way to get an infestation is the indiscriminate collection of specimens from sources that are careless with their pest and disease control. Therefore, much grief can be eliminated by obtaining only clean, healthy, vigorous plants. The sometimes higher prices of reputable dealers (often justified by the costlier methods of raising disease-free plants) are more than offset by the savings in pest and disease remedies.
If you space your plants carefully so that they are not in contact with each other, any trouble that appears can usually be limited to a single specimen. Providing adequate light and air circulation will also help to keep disease and insect troubles at a minimum.
Remember that most diseases affect plants that are suffering from neglect and mistreatment or poor growing conditions, and that it is far easier to keep them healthy with sound care than it is to cure them once they have become infested.
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Although ants cause no direct damage to plants, ant control is one of the most important operations in any garden, since ants carry many insects from one plant to another, gradually infesting every plant.
These insects are also nursed and guarded by the ants which, in turn, live off the sweet secretion that such insects, e.g., aphids, scale insects and mealybugs, produce. Since beneficial insects are more effective in controlling harmful insects than any spray program, this protection of harmful insects may cause serious damage.
Fortunately, ants are easily disposed of with diatomaceous earth which kills ants. Dusting the soil around plants with DE provides an effective barrier, and when the ants track through the treated soil they also carry enough back to the nests to destroy the entire population. One treatment will remain effective for 3 weeks or more.
Aphids or plant lice are the most common insects in the garden. These small, soft-bodied insects damage the plant by inserting their sharp beaks and sucking out the living juices. As a result of this feeding, plants become discolored (often yellow spotted) and distorted.
These pests, however, can easily be controlled naturally with a neem oil spray or with malathion or pyrethrins sprays.
More difficult to kill, and almost as common, are the mealybugs, which are covered with a wax-like powder. This powder prevents sprays and dusts from coming in contact with these juice-sucking insects.
Before an infestation becomes overwhelming, it may be possible to remove individual mealybugs by hand or with a camels-hair artist’s brush dipped in alcohol. A neem oil solution applied with a toothbrush is also effective.
When large plants are heavily infested with mealybugs, it is necessary to wash the plant with a forcible spray from the hose and then spray with a neem oil insecticide or malathion.
If mealybugs invade the soil and feed on the roots (as sometimes happens), such an infestation may be impossible to control without using drastic measures.
In such cases, drench the soil heavily with a neem or malathion solution repeatedly. If this fails, you may have to take up the plants, replace the soil and replant them in the clean soil.
Plant scale is another sucking insect that is difficult to control, since it is covered with a shell that is impervious to insecticides. Light infestations should be scrubbed with a toothbrush, but heavier infestations require repeated spraying with neem, or malathion and oil.
Oil fills the breathing pores of the insects and causes them to suffocate, but they still
remain attached, making it impossible to tell the dead insects from those that have escaped.
However, oils are dangerous to use on Succulents and often cause damage (especially if the weather is warm) because they may clog the pores of the plant.
Spider mites may attack plants that are kept indoors. They appear as minute specks and often have a cobwebby, dusty appearance. Spraying with neem or malathion will control them.
Microscopic eelworms may attack the roots of Succulents and cause galls (overgrowths) to form. This root knot nematode also causes the plants to become dwarfed and discolored. When such infestation occurs, the soil should be replaced or sterilized.
Slugs and snails damage Succulents by eating holes in the fleshy leaves. They can be killed by the use of baits which contain metaldehyde. We also like diatomaceous earth for slug and snail control. To help prevent recurrence, the weeds and debris under which they hide should be removed from the garden.
Fungi and bacteria cause Succulents to rot. They enter through small cuts and bruises and spread throughout the plant, causing a shriveling dry rot or a soft mushy, wet rot. Both are induced by over-watering and poor drainage.
The soft or shriveled area should be cut out with a sharp knife and the wound dusted immediately with sulphur. It will then form a callus if kept in a cool dry place.
Frosted plants also become soft and mushy. If the frozen areas are cut away, good care may start the plant growing again.