They live happily in pots pretty much forever, needing little care or attention. What could be easier to grow?
SUCCULENTS ARE well suited to the times. Is there another kind of plant that takes up such little room and even less water? They live happily in pots pretty much forever, needing little care or attention. Yet they offer drama with their varied colors and textures, appealingly odd shapes and forms. They bloom, send up stalks, multiply and morph color as the weather warms or cools.
“People are living in smaller spaces and gardening more in containers. They want low-maintenance plants, and as much impact and design effect as they can get for their dollar,” explains Sylvia Matlock, proprietress of DIG Nursery on Vashon Island. Matlock stocked a big selection of sedums, aloes, kalanchoes and sempervivums (AKA hens and chicks) early on. Now most nurseries offer a dazzling number of succulents, both hardy and tender.
Rain was beating down on DIG’s greenhouse roof when Matlock and Mari Malcolm got together recently to plant up some succulent pots. Malcolm runs Lusher Life Studio, specializing in containerized succulents. “I’m interested in the kind of tapestry effect you can create when ground-cover sedums mix with hens and chicks, with a few other surprises thrown in,” Malcolm says of her over-the-top textural artistry. She achieves the look by cramming more plants into one pot than you ever thought possible. “Succulents are slow growing and they’re happy to get by with little root. It works to squeeze them in.”
“Mari’s approach is more floral than garden,” Matlock says of her collaborator. “She takes note of lovely relationships and pushes the design further along, editing and adding.”
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Malcolm uses a chopstick to poke a hole in the soil, tucking the roots in, nestling the plants closely together. Above ground, she intertwines leaves so the plants look like they’ve been growing together over time. Malcolm follows the rule of three, five and seven, repeating the same plant for continuity, but in different sizes for interest.
Color inspiration starts with the container, or sometimes with a star of a plant.
“Look for purple stems, fuzzy leaves or colored margins, then pick up echoes of those shades and textures in other plants,” Malcolm advises.
For well-draining soil, Malcolm advises special succulent or cactus mixes, or combining 50 percent potting soil with 50 percent pumice. How about hardiness? “The tender ones are cooler, showier,” Malcolm says.
You can overwinter the non-hardies inside near a south-facing window or simply treat them as annuals. Add a few of the more tender succulents in for bold effect and resign yourself to replacing them, or trying a different beauty, next year.
Mari Malcolm’s favorite hardy succulents:
Sempervivum arachnoideum (AKA the cobweb houseleek): These hen-and-chick succulents have tiny threads of what look like spider silk connecting the tips of their leaves, emphasizing their geometry.
Sedum spathufolium: A native Northwest stonecrop with clustered rosettes of spoon-shaped leaves.
Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ and Sedum reflexum ‘Blue Spruce’: Both have feathery foliage. Malcolm uses them together for the contrast of ‘Angelina’ chartreuse, red-tipped foliage set against the cool ‘Blue Spruce’.
Sedum dasyphyllum ‘Major’: A draper to hang down the edge of pots, with pale, robin’s egg blue foliage.
Sedum telephium Sunsparkler Firecracker: Compact, with cherry red foliage, it flowers for a full month.
Sedum aldolphii: Hardy to Zone 8, the thick, golden, orange-tipped leaves on trailing stems make it look as if it would be tender.