Succulent plants such as sedums and sempervivums make good use of what little soil and attention we give them.
Last spring I read George Schenk’s curious book about gardening on tabletops and pavement, and frankly I was more incredulous than believing. Especially when he recommended that sedums be grown in a few inches of soil atop materials that don’t drain. How, in our winter-wet climate, could it be possible to grow succulents on a piece of metal?
So, of course, I had to try it, spurred on by an empty, inch-deep metal tray that tops my potting bench. I simply heaped up regular potting soil, added some rocks to take up space until the plants filled in, and pushed baby sedums and sempervivums into the soil. It felt more like plant torture than nurture, but a year later they’ve grown in and are thriving.
I was so encouraged my miniature green roof made it through the winter without the plants drowning or freezing that I planted a ceramic birdbath, also without drainage, in the same way, and it’s going gangbusters. The point? These little succulents are the Swiss army knife of plants, useful in pretty much any situation you throw at them. Because they’re low-growing and efficient in how they use water they’re able to make good use of every inch of soil they get.
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Sempervivums, more familiarly known as hens-and-chicks, grow in plump rosettes. They spread by producing identical little offsets that surround the mother plant, hence the “chicks.” If you haven’t paid much attention to these old standbys for a while, it’s time for another look. Due to extensive breeding, you can now choose from more than 4,000 named varieties. Some are tightly clustered, others more open, with smooth or velvety leaves in shades ranging from near-black to pinks, purples, lavender, apricot and every shade of green. A metallic sheen glints off the leaves of some types, while others, like the lovely dark ‘Zephyrine,’ has every leaf outlined in fuzzy white hair. The colors change through the seasons, and in summer the starlike flowers bloom atop fat, tall stems.
While the distinct rosette forms of hens-and-chicks are easily recognizable, sedum are more varied in their shapes and colors. The overly vigorous golden S. rupestre ‘Angelique’ tumbles in loose, shaggy swirls over the ground. Others, like the silvery gray ‘Cape Blanco,’ are tightly curled and ground-hugging. Sedums are shallow-rooted, so easy to divide and spread about the garden. Many are evergreen, all are reliably perennial in our climate, even if they die back in winter.
There are sedums that thrive in shade as well as sun. Grow them pouring out of pots, in the front of the border, or to fill in between shrubs or clumps of perennials. Every garden has spots that are too hot, awkward or shallow to vegetate easily. Or so we thought until we discovered succulents that make us look like wizard gardeners.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is email@example.com.