Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
August, 2010
Regional Report

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With careful attention to drainage and design, a combo of succulents makes a beautiful and carefree container garden.

Select Succulents for Carefree Containers

Want a container garden that thrives without water when you're away for vacation and still looks great when you get home? The recipe is easy. Fill an upright pot or low-slung trough with a variety of carefree succulents and then hit the road.

Just a decade or so ago, succulents were hard to find and rarely grown by home gardeners. Except for the occasional burro's tail, jade plant, or cluster of hens and chicks at grandma's house, they were mostly unloved and unwanted.

Needless to say, times have changed.

Thanks to the growing interest in drought-tolerant gardens and a number of how-to books, including Designing With Succulents and Succulent Container Gardens by Debra Lee Baldwin, cultivation of these water-retaining plants has become one of the hottest trends in gardening.

All succulents (from the Latin "succos," meaning juice) store water in their leaves, stems, or roots to stave off drought. Many have other moisture-saving features as well, such as an altered metabolism, limited transpiration, compact growth, or a waxy or spiny surface. Some don't have any leaves at all, utilizing stems rather than foliage to carry out photosynthesis.

In addition to the above mentioned burro's tail (Sedum morganianum), jade plant (Crassula argentea), and hen's and chicks (Sempervivium tectorum) , the selection of succulents at nurseries and garden shops has expanded with the addition of Aloe, Echeveria, Faucaria, Kalanchoe, Senecio and many, many others.

In the Middle South succulents are especially good in containers, where they can be combined to create easy-care gardens that don't just survive, but thrive in summer's heat.

Several years ago I filled a large, ground-hugging bowl with a collection of these drought-tolerant plants. Centered at the intersection of two gravel paths for a focal point, the container looks as good, if not better, than the day it was created. Maintenance through the years has been minimal. In autumn the litter of fallen leaves is cleared and in spring tender plants that succumbed to the cold are replaced. The container is watered only when rain has been scarce for two weeks or more.

As Baldwin suggests in her container design book, I combined a variety of shapes, placing plants with spiky foliage next to ones that grow in rosettes, like tiny cabbages. I also placed a large plant to one side of the container and let trailing plants cascade over the bowl's edge for dramatic effect.

Foliage colors range from chartreuse to dark red, with plenty of green, blue and silver mixed in. Some plants have an inky variegation on the tips of their leaves, while others display colored stems or a wine-hued blush.

To add extra interest, I incorporated several medium- and small-sized rocks among the foliage. Open spaces between the plants and stones were filled with brown aquarium gravel, which has a finer texture and darker color than pea gravel.

The predominant cultural requirement for containers of succulents is excellent drainage. To create your own succulent masterpiece, use a potting soil formulated for cactus, or add an equal measure of sharp sand and gravel to regular potting mix. Use pot feet or spacers to keep drain holes clear, as wet soil in the bottom of the pot can cause rot.

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