Succulents are often overlooked in the world of gardening. Often thought of in the same vein as cacti, they are usually pushed to the back of most gardeners’ minds. This shouldn’t be the case. In the world of botany, succulents are plants with parts that are thickened and fleshy, usually to retain water in arid climates or soil conditions.
So why should we be interested in these plants here in the Piney Woods where we typically have at least 30 inches of rainfall? I think the primary reason that succulents are so successful in our area is two-fold.
First, in the screaming July through early September heat, succulents shine in the garden. If you have a West facing area, especially if it is a narrow bed and close to a concrete pathway, a succulent garden will thumb its nose at the heat. The key to a succulent bed in an in-ground garden is drainage. Gumbo soil will not work. But if you have sandy soil and plenty of no-shade sun, a succulent garden is for you. The succulent beds in the WCMGA Demonstration Gardens are raised and top-dressed with small pebbles. Once planted, almost no care is given except to remove dead plants.
Second, succulents are perfect container plants. They play well with others in a container of similar low-water plants. They shine in tiny containers with a single plant. They are the perfect plant for that crazy container shaped like a turtle, or in a handmade, glazed container that looks like a pottery experiment gone bad. They can make a slightly chipped bowl look nice.
Succulents look good in a container with just one type planted ‘en masse’, or when you combine several types that have the same shape or texture. They look charming in a glass bowl or a terrarium. I’ve even seen them planted in an old coffee cup. Just make sure that there are plenty of pebbles for drainage, and don’t over water if you don’t have a drainage hole in your container.
If all of this isn’t enough, succulents are kid-friendly! A child can plant a succulent easily in a small container, and place in a sunny location. The instant success is a confidence builder. If they forget to water them, succulents can be very forgiving. They are an excellent gift for children, or for children to give.
Varieties that work well for children and beginning indoor gardeners include: Hens and chicks (Simpervivum), Zebra Haworthia (Haworthia faciata), and Burro’s tail (Sedum morganianum) which is also called Donkey’s tail or Horse’s tail.
Hens and chicks are typically small, succulent plants that thrive in well-drained, rocky or gritty soil. The outer leaves of some species will rot if they are kept wet. They can grow in light shade, but grow best in direct sun. They can tolerate cooler temperatures, but never place next to an air-conditioning or heater vent. They also need very little fertilizer and are extremely easy to grow as the ‘chick’ is produced by a runner from the ‘hen’.
Zebra haworthia or the Zebra plant is a striking looking plant with its thick, dark green leaves with white horizontal stripes on the outside of the leaves. The inside of the leaves are smooth. Similar to an aloe, they welcome bright light, adequate moisture in the summer, and somewhat drier conditions in the winter.
Burro’s tail will eventually (after 5-6 years) get up to four feet long. This succulent looks great where it has plenty of room to drape much like a horse’s tail. Their thick stems appear woven or plaited with leaves. They have a green to gray green or even blue green and may have a slight chalky look.
Kalanchoes are a fun succulent, but be aware that they can cause pets to become sick if the leaves are eaten. Not always fatal, but you should probably skip this plant if you have a cat or dog that likes to chew on plants. Sadly, another great succulent, the jade plant (Crassula ovata) is toxic to pets. These are best kept in hard-to-reach places. Agaves tend to be spiky, and are best put out of reach from small children if you have them or they visit your home.
Other popular succulents include aloes, the panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa), snake plant which is also called mother-in-law tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata), Stonecrop (sedum spp.), Portulaca (known as moss rose or sun plant), and Senecio spp. (which includes about 100 varieties of succulents).
Too much water is the prime killer of succulents, but the second would be water-holding soil. When planting a baby succulent, regular potting soil may be used until roots are established. The potting soil must not be the type that holds water. A well-draining soil is key. If you feel your potting soil stays too damp, try adding ¼ inch crushed granite. This particle size is important for drainage. Two other ingredients that can be added are coarse sand or turface, and perlite. Pre-mixed soils are easy to come by, or you can mix your own.
For more information on succulents and how to work with this fun set of plants, call the AgriLife office on a Thursday morning at 936-435-2426. Master Gardeners are ‘in’ at this time. You may visit the two succulent beds in the Demonstration Gardens at any time. Or you may email us at email@example.com with your questions.
The Walker County Extension Office is also on Facebook. WalkerCoTxAgrilife has been established to provide updates and information to Walker County residents and landowners on a timely basis. The Walker County Master Gardeners are also on Facebook! Check out both of these Facebook pages and hit "like" to join.