Succulents are beautiful, tough and easy to grow
Tom McMeekin has always been fascinated by succulents, and it shows when you visit Quality Gardens Inc. in Valencia, where he’s the president.
“I was always interested in plants,” he says, “but never that into taking care of them. The joy of succulents and cacti is that you don’t have to spend a lot of time nurturing. If you ignore them for a week or two, they aren’t grumpy, they are very easy to grow.”
In the main greenhouse at Quality Gardens (800-903-2770 or quality-gardens.com), huge specimens tower over a variety of diminutive plants, each one with its own unique shape or texture. “They are gentle giants sometimes, and they are delicate little things other times, it’s quite an array of characteristics in the succulent world,” he says.
Agaves, aloes and kalanchoe plants are probably the most popular. Some of the blue agaves will start small, but can get quite large, it’s always something to consider before adding a plant to the indoor landscape or one that will be transported inside and outside depending on the season.
“The downside with the agaves is they generally have very needle-like leaves,” McMeekin warns. “If you bump it, you know it, it’s not a pleasant experience.”
To keep customers safe, his team uses fingernail clippers to cut off the sharp points. “We do have children who say, ‘Oh isn’t that cute’ and then there’s a lot of screaming,” he says in a deadpan tone. “We try and stop that before it happens.”
Everyone is probably familiar with the aloe vera plant for its soothing gel, but there are a whole range of textures and colors the species offers.
“There’s a number of other varieties that have very interesting fleshy like leaves,” McMeekin says, and “sometimes different colors (like) greens, yellows and speckled.”
One called ‘Pink Blush’ has textured, dark green and light green leaves with raised pink ridges and also sends up orange flowers.
Cactus plants have some of the most spectacular flower colors and intense aromas. While growing up enthralled with succulents, McMeekin was spellbound by a cactus that began blooming,
“I just watched it intently, and I was so excited and then finally the flower opened, it smelled like rotten dead flesh. I remember my mother searching through the house trying to figure out where the dead mouse was,” he says with a laugh.
Kalanchoes also are unique in that they offer so many different shapes and sizes. Some flower with red, white, yellow or pink blooms and many will produce blossoms in late winter or early spring on the windowsill. ‘Flapjack’ kalanchoe has paddle-like leaves that resemble a clamshell and white tubular flowers. “(Kalanchoes) bloom for an extended period of time,” he says. “When they are not blooming, they are still a nice looking plant.”
There also are some hardy succulents, like hens and chicks, sedums and paddle-style cacti like ‘Prickly Pear.’ “They’re the kind of thing you plant under your daughter’s window,” he says with a chuckle.
It’s no secret that succulents enjoy a dry site, but they still need water.
“It’s like any other plant really,” McMeekin says. “If it’s in a sunny location, it will dry out a lot quicker than if it’s in a darker location.”
The key is using a light, well-drained mix to grow the plants in and never let them sit in a saucer of water; they hate wet feet. “If you use the right soil that drains quickly, it’s almost impossible to overwater these things,” he says. “The soil only holds as much water as it needs and the rest drains away.”
Take it easy on the fertilizer too; these are tough plants the thrive if difficult conditions when growing in the wild. “If you’re trying to over-love them, they don’t handle that well. They get a little soft, can develop root rot, they get unbalanced as far as top and bottom growth.”
The greenhouse is filled with a plethora of spiny, soft and beautiful succulents that all seem to work together when on display.
“What I find interesting about the entire group is how well they contrast each other,” McMeekin says. “Each one is unique into itself. When you combine all of them, it just becomes very interesting.”
That’s particularly evident in the new book “Succulents” by Robin Stockwell, who not only is a lifelong lover of the plants, but also ran a succulent nursery in California for decades. He fell for them in the early ‘70s after pulling off the highway to discover a makeshift nursery of cactus plants. He bought all of them, starting a love affair that has never ended.
The 69-year-old self-proclaimed surfer dude is happy to talk about his other favorite topic, beginning with a quote from famed food author Michael Pollen: “Contrary to what people think, that their going out collecting plants, actually plants are collecting people.”
“I think I got collected as the spokesman for this particular group of plants,” he says.
At one point in 1985, he gave up, tired of trying to convince people the plants were both beautiful and easy to grow. In 2003, he started growing again as part of a garden boutique he was running in California. The plants were getting noticed in garden magazines and have steadily increased in popularity. He even created an astounding giant rotating model of the Earth made of succulents for the 2012 San Francisco Flower and Garden Show.
“I spent so much time trying to show people a different aspect of the plants,” he says.
On the West Coast, there are many options to use the plants year-round outdoors, but there are also lots of ways to grow them on the East Coast. Sedums and sempervivums are probably the most popular, toughest and easiest to find. There are a multitude of different shapes, sizes, colors and textures of each of them.
“I would use succulents to create murals by the different colors and textures of the varieties that do well (in Pittsburgh),” Stockwell says.
Vertical gardening with succulents also has become a popular way to use the plants. Stockwell starts by planting a frame horizontally and letting them get established, then turns it vertically. The book has a cool project converting home shutters into vertical gardens. There also are vertical gardening containers available commercially.
Thorough watering will keep the plants happy. For smaller versions, Stockwell says to take it down and soak it until the roots get what they need. Bigger vertical gardens will need some type of drip irrigation. If you’re hanging a vertical garden on your house, talk to your contractor or handyman about how to protect the exterior surface.
He offers sage advice for choosing succulents and using them in the garden. “Don’t be afraid to play with the plants,” he says. “Of all the plants in the world, they are one of the most forgiving. If they don’t look quite like you want them to look, tear them out and redo it.”
This succulent renaissance happening now makes these plants much more readily available at local nurseries. Many will be available as annuals like echeverias and could be used in pots, then brought in at the end of the season.
“My focus is on form, color and texture,” Stockwell says. “The plants generally are compatible without a whole lot of thought with each other. The most important thing is to go out and collect a bunch of plants that look good to you, and then see how they go together in a container.”
Stockwell has spent a lifetime spreading the word about succulents and what an amazing addition they can make in the landscape.
“My mission has been to get people to take a different look at this plant material and take it from a collectorism type of plant material, to being functional. You can do some beautiful things in the garden and containers around your home with this if you just use a little bit of imagination.”
Robin Stockwell has a great website to help gardeners with succulents, thesucculentguy.com.
Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodygardens.com.