SAY IT WITH SUCCULENTS

BY PJ GARTIN

This winter, instead of adorning your home with yet another philodendron, indulge your creative side by pulling together a colorful, easy-to-care-for assortment of succulents. They grow almost anywhere and are nonchalant about being handled. Many have bold three-dimensional leaf shapes and all have interesting textures.

Experiment by placing a few in a favorite or unexpected container—in a crystal goblet, a colorful colander or even discarded bedsprings. Mount a collection of succulents on a wall in a sunlit foyer or stuff an assorted collection into a concrete planter outdoors.

Horticulturally speaking, the word “succulent” describes a group of thick, fleshy-leaved plants that can store water for exceptionally long periods of time. However, this trait is not specific to a singular family of plants, and this is where it often gets confusing. Although cacti are succulents, so are a multitude of other plants, from aloe to zamioculcas. Many do not live in deserts or have spines. In other words, although all cacti are succulents, not all succulents are cacti.

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UNCOMMON SHAPES
While plants in the Cactus Family are always popular with gardeners, we have recently become smitten with those “other” succulents, particularly the miniature ones that have a smooth, waxy patination. Some resemble tiny Henry Moore-like statues while others resemble green-tinged precious gems that “sparkle” with hints of color.

Many belong to the Stonecrop Family–a group of succulents that look more like stones than “real” plants. Two popular examples from this collection are propeller plant (Crassula falcata) and string ‘o buttons (C. perforata). Although not stonecrops, burro’s tail (Sedum morganianum) and silver beads (Senecio rowleyanus) also have uncommon shapes. These succulents are often incorporated into designs that suggest visual movement or animation. Remember: There is no need to limit your creative urges to a single family or species. Impulse collecting is encouraged.

Container size is also not an issue with succulents. Because they are slow to outgrow their homes, allow silver beads to tumble down from the top of a candleless candlestick or plant a piece of whatever strikes your fancy in a miniature teacup. Succulents also make stunning, albeit temporary, accessories. Small stem cuttings are amenable to florist glue. Allow the severed wounds to callous for a day before affixing them to hair barrettes or bracelets. Though these works of art won’t last forever, soilless arrangements will last for at least several days.

CARING FOR SUCCULENTS
If not over-watered (this advice comes from someone who accidently “blew up” a cactus by absent-mindedly watering it twice in one week) and exposed to enough sun, succulents can last many years with only a minimum of effort. Instead of obsessing over moisture levels, it’s better to forget about themor at least leave the watering can in the closet most of the time.

Do purchase potting soil specifically made for succulents. (Product labels usually say “for cacti and succulents.”) More gritty or sandy than conventional potting mediums, these soils are formulated to hold just the right amount of moisture without encouraging root rot.

Outdoors, unless your soil is exceptionally dry and lacks organic material, succulents do better in porous containers filled with cactus/succulent potting agents.

In addition to their watersaving ability, succulents are genetically engineered to conserve nourishment. This means that overfeeding, especially with high doses of nitrogen, encourages root rot and causes irreparable damage to leaf and stem tissue structure.

During a succulent’s growth period, which begins in spring and ceases at summer’s end, incorporate a diluted solution of 10-10-10 fertilizer into the watering routine. Whatever the label’s standard instructions say, reduce the amount to one quarter or at least half. In other words, if 1 teaspoon to a gallon of water is the standard measurement, reduce that amount to 1/4 teaspoon per gallon of water. Do keep in mind that forgetting to fertilize is more beneficial than overdoing it. Besides, large doses of fertilizer won’t turn a tiny succulent into a gargantuan specimen in a single year.

Of course, the best way to determine a specimen’s proper care is to ask questions and then write down the answers before purchasing. Some plants come with printed instructions, like one of my favorites (whose botanical name, sadly, I don’t know), which grows in a less than 4-inch ceramic container. Wary of the effects of overwatering, I carefully measure out 2 ounces of water for my friend once a month. I haven’t killed it yet.

Like my mystery plant, many succulents come planted in ceramic vessels that have no drainage hole. Such containers make plants more susceptible to root rot because there is no escape route for excess water. But even the presence of drainage holes is no guarantee that a plant is safe from the scourge of too much moisture. Novice succulent aficionados might fare better with terra-cotta pots with holes underneath. Plus, the sides of clay containers are porous and therefore allow for additional evaporation.

The bottom line is this: Be creative and enjoy your succulents in whatever container suits your fancy. Unless they are overindulged, they don’t care. Like me, you may make a new friend this winter.

PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.