The photo in a recent newsletter from Katherine Tracey, a garden designer in Massachusetts, filled me with longing and not a small amount of regret. Why didn’t I think to fill my pots with succulents as she did — plants such as Echeveria, Senecio, Sempervivum and even certain Sedum that deliver a long show with relatively little care?
And especially — aah, hindsight — why didn’t I do that in what turned out to be a hot, dry year, when petunias and Calibrachoa and other conventional annuals often begged for water more than once a day?
There would have been a bonus round, or several: I could have brought some indoors to a sunny window in October. And even if they had stretched and sulked there, I would still have had plenty of cuttings to harvest to start again next spring — or to upcycle into centerpieces, or repurpose as the starts of new potted plants.
At Avant Gardens in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, a destination retail nursery and landscaping business that Tracey and her husband, Chris Tracey, opened more than 30 years ago, succulents are a specialty — a group of signature plants that reflect the couple’s passion for what she describes as “uncommon plants that look good over a long period of time,” without high maintenance.
Katherine Tracey defines succulents as “any plants whose leaves, stems or roots can hold water for extended periods of time,” which means they usually have fleshy leaves. After collecting for about 25 years, she has amassed more than 400 kinds.
For those getting started, she offered some advice gleaned from her experiments.
Succulents are easy, if you go easy on them
Just don’t torture them with regular potting soil.
“I’ve tried growing succulents, but I killed them.” That’s a common refrain in Tracey’s nursery, where in a typical year she teaches workshops on creating succulent wreaths in June and pumpkin arrangements in October. “What did you use for soil?” she asks, although she knows the answer: a basic bagged potting mix. Ouch.
“These are plants that don’t want soil that stays wet all the time,” said Tracey, who recommends using any commercial cactus or succulent mix instead.
Also, don’t water succulents on the schedule you use for your houseplants or annuals. They shouldn’t be “so dry they are obviously shriveling,” Tracey said, “but not over-tending them is the secret — mostly, let them be.”
Also discouraged: fertilizing regularly. Again, go easy.
Tracey repots in spring, mixing a light dose of an organic fertilizer like Plant-tone in the potting medium. Home gardeners could feed with a diluted seaweed-fish emulsion occasionally — “but really limit that to spring and maybe once in summer,” she said. “They look better when grown lean; otherwise, they get weak and stretch.”
Start from the container up
Looking at Tracey’s succulent pots, it’s no surprise to learn that she trained as a painter and textile designer.
Around this time of year, when many succulents color up in rich shades, she refers to the grown-in succulent combinations as “a tapestry within the pot.”
“I usually look at the pot to tell me what size plants to work with,” she said, as well as for palette and thematic inspiration. In her clamshell-style container, Echeveria and Sedum look like undersea creatures, and string of pearls (Senecio rowleyanus) spills over the edge like beads.
In her own garden, she uses succulent pots as focal points, in key positions — often a very tall container or one on a pedestal. “I do some big pots because I have large, older plants and the material to work with — but think small-scale to start. Build up your collection and gradually learn to propagate while you go.”
Start with a small pot, maybe 6 or 7 inches in diameter, “and stuff it with little plants packed close together, almost like a floral arrangement,” she said.
Succulents don’t usually grow quickly, so gardeners used to leaving space between annual bedding plants should think tighter. “If one gets too exuberant, you can trim or lift a succulent and move it to where something didn’t work, where there’s a hole,” she said.
A starter collection
The world of succulents is a wide one, with a taxonomy that’s a bit Wild West, except among botanical gardens and serious specialty nurseries and collectors.
When it comes to the non-hardy succulents that are trending in the latest houseplant boom, Tracey said, “many are mislabeled, and even more don’t have any common names, so ‘assorted succulents’ may be all you see on the tag.”
Even which genus a plant belongs to may be confused, she added, “because breeders are crossing them.” (One example: Sedum plus Echeveria yielded Sedeveria.)
A good place to start your collection, she suggested, is with a compact jade plant, or Crassula, like Crosby’s Dwarf, or Portulacaria (often called mini-jade).
You might also consider string of pearls, or the bolder string of dolphins (Senecio peregrinus), which spill gracefully over container rims.
For rosette shapes: Try tender Echeveria (sometimes called Mexican hens and chicks) or hardy Sempervivum (hens and chicks), although Sempervivum’s color can dull in summer heat. Varieties with cobweb-like white threads, including Forest Frost, remain visually appealing throughout the season.
Among creeping sedums, both hardy and tender, those that stay evergreen are the best for containers. Sedum album, including Coral Carpet and Red Ice, is a hardy species and remains green in summer, developing reddish tones in cooler weather. Angelina, with yellow or orange tones, is another dramatic, cooperative standby.
Tender Sedum japonicum is finely textured, with needlelike leaves, which makes it a good filler. So are Sedum dasyphyllum, a tiny, pebbly, powder-blue plant, and Sedum clavatum, with little blue-green rosettes.
For bigger container designs, Tracey craves a vertical element that most succulents don’t provide. That explains her affection for exceptions like Euphorbia tirucalli Sticks on Fire or the upright Senecio cylindricus, as well as non-succulent partners like Phormium that can handle lean, drier conditions.
About those pumpkins (and other centerpieces)
Who needs roses for a centerpiece when the rosette-shaped Echeveria can be called into service and will last far longer? (And unlike flowers, succulent cuttings don’t need to sit in water.)
“This is a great way to repurpose succulents from outdoor containers at the season’s end,” Tracey said. “You might not have a greenhouse, or even room on your windowsills, but you don’t want to just see the frost take them.”
No succulents on hand? Buy trays or bags of cuttings on Etsy, she suggested, or adopt plants at the garden center — maybe those marketed in the houseplant department.
When I first saw one of Tracey’s pumpkin-succulent arrangements, I thought the Cucurbit had been hollowed out to act as a vessel or to hold a glass of water. Not so: The arrangement was perched on top of the pumpkin after its stem was removed, and then pinned and glued in a bed of sphagnum moss.
That idea isn’t limited to pumpkins. In the low glass bowls Tracey used for recent wedding centerpieces, she peeled off moss growing on pavers and other rocks in her yard, let it air-dry and used that instead of sphagnum. But in a vessel, unlike on a pumpkin, “you need something within the container below the moss, to serve as a pincushion,” she said.
Floral foam was once the industry standard, but it contributes to microplastic pollution. In the United Kingdom, the Royal Horticultural Society recently banned its use at all flower shows beginning in 2021. Possible substitutes include a tight tangle of grapevine or fine twigs, balled-up chicken wire or a cellulose sponge.
For the pumpkin project, you’ll need dry, long-fiber sphagnum moss, floral pins, spray adhesive and tacky glue (a crafting product), plus an assortment of succulents — and a pumpkin that has been cured, not one that’s fresh off the vine. Take cuttings a couple of days ahead, so the cut ends have time to air-dry. Before starting to assemble things, create a rough design by arranging the cuttings on a flat surface.
After removing the pumpkin stem, apply spray glue to the top of the pumpkin and nestle moss on top. Using tacky glue and, if necessary, floral pins, secure succulents onto the moss, starting with the larger elements. Tacky glue needs time to dry, so let the arrangement rest overnight before moving it.
The pumpkin or centerpiece isn’t the last stop for those succulents. If the sphagnum is misted periodically, cuttings can start to take root.
“When your pumpkin begins to decay, you can pull off all those cuttings,” Tracey said. “If they have roots, great; pot them up. If they don’t yet, but they’re still firm, they’re alive. Stick them in a perlite-sand mix and mist regularly until some roots form.”
Such generous plants, these succulents.