For both style and substance, drought tolerant succulents are tops on today’s horticultural hit parade. Their striking appearance and incredible variety appeal to every aesthetic. From cactus spines to undulating crests, low-growing stones to lotus flowers, succulents offer endless diversity in shape and form. Plant flowers, and you could spend months waiting for them to burst into beautiful bloom. Plant a succulent, and the beauty is already there.
From front yards to rooftops, wedding bouquets to living jewelry, succulents have become superstars both in and out of the garden. The question is, do they live up to their reputation?
Survival of the Stylish
Because they’re born in harsh environments, you’d be hard-pressed to find hardier plants. Succulents’ leaves and stems are built to store water from infrequent bursts of rainfall that quickly trickle through dry soil. On top of that, their leaves have a thick, often waxy surface with the ability to close its pores rather than lose water through respiration. Together, these adaptations minimize water loss drastically.
For you, that means your plants can go without a drink while you’re on vacation, and it won’t faze them one bit, unless you’ll be gone for a season. And while your other plants wither during summer droughts, it’s your succulents’ time to shine. All this means less time maintaining your succulents, with much more time to relax and enjoy.
Succulent Soil Smarts
Wild succulents grow in well-draining soil, often on slopes or in rocky crevices, where the tilt assists with draining. Test your landscape location by spading out about a gallon-size hole and pouring in the same amount of water. Standing water after a few minutes means you’ll need to amend the soil with porous material or, better yet, plant in a container. Select a container deep enough to ensure that your succulent’s roots are never waterlogged, which leads to root rot.
Even specialists debate the precise recipe for the perfect succulent soil mix. Some say any commercial mix made for succulents and cacti is fine, while others warn that these mixes have a bit too much organic matter. Many recommend adding porous material in varying amounts. Perlite, pumice, sand, pea gravel, granite or grit: whether or not to add these and in what amount varies by grower. As long as you don’t use unamended regular potting soil, you’ll probably be fine. Look around at what other people growing the same cultivars are using, and keep in mind that, while many folks use slightly different soil mixes, they all have happy, healthy succulents.
Unleash Your Succulent Style
Have you seen the amazing things people do with succulents? From gorgeous ground covers to dramatic single plants, succulents are the hot—and smart—answer to water, soil and space conservation. Planting a succulent rooftop is a stunning and energy-efficient way to double your garden space. The vertical gardening concept has grown from small, charming picture frames to sprawling, museum-quality murals. From spelling out names and initials to covering three-dimensional topiary forms, succulents can say it all.
The same root structures that enable succulents to crop up on rocky hillsides make them adaptable to pretty much any container, no matter how offbeat. You can plant them in seashells, toy trucks, high heels, open books, even plastic action figures. Terrariums make a perfect habitat for some succulents, provided you let them drain and dry thoroughly after watering.
Trending Toward Teeny-Tiny
Right now, succulent trendsetters say smaller is better. In miniature and fairy gardens, their shapes and structures fill out the littlest niches beautifully. Wee planters are everywhere: a teacup, a snail shell, even a wine cork can be a mod mini-container. If you can conceive it, it’s likely you can put a succulent in it, because there are not many places these hardy gems won’t grow.
You’ll even find them planted on the go! Increasingly, succulents are entering our personal style as living jewelry. Rings, necklaces, brooches and bracelets—succulents even make glorious wedding bouquets and boutonnieres! Which only makes sense, because when it comes to the question of succulents, the best possible answer is “I do!”
A good rule for the new succulent gardener is—if it’s easy to find, it’s easy to grow. However, the more popular succulents become, the more varieties are widely available for sale. So if you are looking for core proven performers that will give the greenest succulent gardener success, look no further!1. Hens-and-chicks. Hardy in cold climates, these rough-and-ready rosettes are among the few succulents that embrace frost conditions, surviving down to a chilly Zone 3. The rich violet plum of Purple Mojo is an instant favorite!
2. EchevErias. Its leaves splay open like lotus petals, giving you a gorgeous flower all year round. Morning Light, in a gorgeous,
hazy-blue hue, is an easy-to-grow cultivar for beginners.
3. Aeoniums. Super easy-grow plants with leaves that form big beautiful flower-like heads. Try the dark, rich cultivar Zwartkop.
4. Agaves. Many agaves are large, expensive and aggressive. Overcome these obstacles by cultivating a compact variety of these spiky mounds in a container. The jade and cream variegated victoriae-reginae White Rhino agave is a stunner.
5. Sanseverias. Likely you’ve heard of the snake plant, famous for being a hard-to-kill houseplant. This most common variety sends thick, variegated leaf blades a foot into the air. For a spin, try the swirling cultivar, Twist.
6. Crassulas. Jade plants, or Crassula ovata, are the most commonly sold of this pudgy plant group. If you prefer the look of little trees, try the fiery Crassula capitella Campfire. For a space-age, geometric variety, go for the Crassula rupestris marnieriana.
7. Sedums. From groundcovers to plants reaching 18 inches tall, this genus offers a wide selection, with many cultivars able to tolerate the cold. Elizabeth, for example, is hardy from Zones 3-8, and its long-blooming red flowers give way to red foliage in fall.
Pictured: Agave plant. Photo: Walters Gardens