Gardening With Succulents
September 18, 2015
By Michael Barach
I confess, my finger paused over my computer mouse for a second when I saw the email attachment from a friend that read, “Check out my summer succulents.” This was before I’d ever heard the word “succulent” as it applies to gardening. What I beheld when I clicked was an array of some of the most bizarre, dazzling, and delightful plants I’d ever seen.
Succulents, as I’ve come to learn, are native to hot and dry climates, such as the deserts of Arizona and California. These desert survivors have all adapted to their extreme environments by finding nifty ways to preserve water, and often these adaptations are precisely what seem to bestow succulents with their distinct personality. The extra waxy leaves of Echevaria plants, for instance, not only help to preserve water, but they sprout in a robust purple and green display, shaped like roses. Other succulents, like the prickly pear cactus, are adorned with spines that collect morning dew from the air and protect that dew from thirsty animals, while they also lend the plant its rugged look. One adaptation that is common to succulents, but which remains invisible to the naked eye, has to do with specialized stomata, or the tiny pores on leaves. While most plants open their stomata to perform “respiration” during the day, succulents keep their pores sealed up until nighttime. During the cooler hours of night, succulents let go of excess water and collect carbon dioxide from the outside air, which they then store for use during photosynthesis.
It’s easy for gardeners to be compelled by growing succulents, a plant category that encompasses over 40 plant families, including agaves, aloes, stapeliads, and cacti. In fact, forums that celebrate succulent gardening by “succulent fanatics” are appearing increasingly online, on sites like Facebook and Pinterest. Although Tallahassee’s wet climate makes growing succulents in the ground nearly impossible, like my email buddy, we local gardeners can enjoy a thriving container garden of succulents. The fact bears repeating: Tallahassee gets too much rainfall to try to grow succulents in the ground. But starting a container garden of succulents can be a fun and fulfilling enterprise.
When planted outdoors, succulents thrive in sunny areas and in quick draining soil, and they will perform best in unglazed terra cotta pots. The porous quality of terra cotta allows soil to dry quickly and evenly, as water can evaporate from all sides of the pot, not just from the top layer of soil. Ideally, succulent pots are wide and shallow, since overlarge containers increase the risk of wet soil. While some succulent varieties are cold tolerant—such as Sempervivum (which literally means “always alive”)—others should winter indoors. When buying a succulent, be sure to ask if it is a cold tolerant variety. Bringing succulents inside during frosts can be a relatively simple accommodation for us in Tallahassee, considering our succulents will all be planted in pots!
Not only are succulents visually striking and, when planted in proper conditions, low maintenance plants, but they might surprise you with other practical functions. At my house, for instance, I had planted some pansies in a pot on my deck: the flowers were nice, until I came home one day to find them eaten, and a squirrel was sitting in the flowerpot like it was his personal recliner. Since then, I’ve replaced the pansies with an Agave lechuguilla, a long-leafed agave with sharp points, which has earned the nickname “shin-dagger”. Since then, my “frienemy” the squirrel, it seems, has found another pot to play in.
Michael Barach is volunteering as a Master Gardener in training with the UF/Leon County Cooperative Extension Service. You may also email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov with any gardening questions you may have.