This week I had the pleasure of interviewing author, Fred Dortort. Fred recently finished his new book “Succulent Plants of the World” available at local bookstores. Most of us have probably grown succulents without even knowing what they were. Succulents are known for their distinct ability to survive and thrive in some of the worst conditions or temperature extremes on the planet. Because so many people have called and asked me if there are any plants available which require little care, I can now give you the definitive answer, yes there are and they are called succulents. My interview with Fred was very informative and I have decided to write this week’s article incorporating some of Fred’s knowledge on the growing, propagation, and use of these plants in our landscape.
Succulents are plants that have adapted themselves to grow in hostile environments by taking on peculiar or out of the ordinary shapes. These shapes can add distinction to your landscape or garden. Some of these shapes may include large above ground or below ground stems, thickened leaves, or broadened leaves which have been fused together into a plant body broadly resembling a coral reef. Most of the changes these plants have gone through are designed primarily to store water over an extended period of time when water is rare. While succulents may sound like plants from a Science Fiction movie, I assure you that many of us may have several varieties of these plants growing in the garden or landscape now. Interestingly enough you may even have a few growing in pots but never thought of them as succulents.
How many of you have grown the Jade plant on your porch or balcony? How about the Aloe plant with its healing abilities? If you have grown either of these plants then you are growing succulents. You may also recognize that these plants can be left for an exceptionally long period of time without watering and they continue to do well. If by chance you have overwatered these plants you may have lost them due to their inability to grow in wet soil. I have friends whom have grown both of these plants and they never knew they were growing succulents. These plants are truly the plants that can take even the worst neglect from the brown thumb gardener and I want to give you a few ideas on how you too can enjoy these wonderful plants in your garden or landscape.
The first thing you will need to know about succulents is that they do not want to be pampered or watered frequently. Most of these plants originate in areas where there is little or no rainfall during the winter months and many succulents prefer to be dry for long periods of time. If you have a sprinkler system you may want to adjust the system so that the water is kept away from your plantings during the winter months. Now, I do not want you to think that you will never have to water them but regular routine watering is not necessary. A good rule of thumb is to water the plants only once a week during the summertime or if you are growing them in a pot, water when the soil is dry. During the winter you can adjust your watering to only once a month.
Some people may consider planting their new specimens directly into the ground. Florida’s soils are made of mostly sand and this type of soil is fine for succulents. I have seen rock gardens which contain cactus and many other succulents growing just fine without any additional soil amendments. However, if you plan on growing your succulents in the ground then you may want to look into improving your soil to a seventy-five percent peat and twenty-five percent perlite mixtures. This type of mixture will allow good drainage during our summer rains but will also require routine fertilization of a low nitrogen fertilizer such as a 2-10-10. High nitrogen fertilizers are not recommended. Improving the organic mixture of our native soils helps to eliminate nematodes and improve nutrient content. There are a few varieties of succulents such as the echeverias or leaf succulents which prefer to be planted in areas that contain additional organic material. Aloes and Hoya, both succulents, will benefit from improved soil. You can also use this mixture in pots for some of the specialty succulents such as the adeniums and the pachypodiums.
Because some nurseries only carry limited varieties of succulents, you may want to look online or to a friend or neighbor to find the plant you are looking for. Online ordering is much easier than you may think and I can assure you that the plant you order online will normally come to you in great shape. Two nurseries which you can visit online are simply succulents at https://www.simplysucculents.com/ or Stokes Tropical’s at http://stokestropicals.plants.com/. When ordering online there is one thing to make sure you do, ask questions. Be sure the plants you are ordering will grow in your temperature zone. Another way to use the internet is to look up several plants you are interested in and to read if the plants are grown and do well in your area. You would not want to order a succulent that grows well in Arizona where they have low humidity and then plant that plant here where our humidity often is in the upper eighty percent range.
Another way to procure plants is through propagation of an existing plant from a friend or neighbor. Propagation of new plant can be accomplished by starting leaf cuttings, stem cuttings, or by division of clumps. I do not recommend growing from seed because this can be time consuming and tedious. This does not mean that you should not try seed propagation because if you have a source for seeds by all means try.
If you are going to start leaf cuttings please be sure to remove the entire leaf including the portion that attaches to the stem. Next you will need to dry the leaf in a cool dry spot for at least two days. Now you can place the leaf on top of the soil in a pot. There is no need to push the leaf into the potting soil. Just keep the soil medium moist, not wet and new roots will grow in about two weeks. Allow new plants to grow for about two months before moving them outside.
Stem cuttings can be taken by using a sharp knife or simply by snapping a stem off the mother plant. Again, allow the cutting to dry for a few days in a cool dry place before placing them into a rooting medium. Sometimes, these cutting will produce additional plantlets which can be removed and rooted like leaf cuttings. After a few months the new stem cutting will be able to be added into the garden. Be advised that some thick-stemmed succulents may require a longer healing process.
Division of clumping varieties of succulents may be the cheapest and the easiest way to start new plants for your garden. If possible, pull the clumps apart with your hands being sure to do as little injury to the plant as possible. If necessary, use a sharp knife and make a single cut along the connecting tissue of the piece you wish to remove. Once the division is removed from the mother plant, allow it to dry for a few days to harden off. After this time you may pot up the division into a clay container using the soil medium I described above.
With these few easy steps I have outlined above you will soon be on your way to starting you own succulent garden. Good luck, be creative, and have fun with gardening. As always remember, without plants we would not be here.