Month: February 2020

Win-Win: Succulents offer pizzazz while thriving on neglect

As gardeners, we all have our favorite plants. Maybe you love hydrangeas (rightly so), daylilies, or hostas. Me? It’s no secret I’m a sucker for daffodils and peonies. But I’ve got to tell you, over the last few years I’ve had the most fun in the garden and in containers with succulents.

Working with these little beauties is almost like painting with plants because of their exceptional colors, and you get the added benefit of remarkable, quirky leaf shapes and textures — spiny and pointy, smooth and curvy, deliciously ruffled, flat as a pancake, or even perfectly round like a green pearl. It really is a delight to work — and create — with these unusual plants.

What is a succulent? This family of plants stores water in their leaves and stems, which makes them especially drought-tolerant, so perfect for neglectful gardeners. They can be annuals or perennials, depending on your plant zone, and you’ll find them in weather conditions ranging from northern Canada to the rainforests of Brazil.

You might automatically think of cactus, and it’s true, they are succulents — but not all succulents are cactus. Here are a few common plants that fall in the succulent category: aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis), mother-in-law tongue (Sansevieria), jade (Crassula), and hens and chicks (Sempervivum).

And honestly, because succulents have exploded in popularity in recent years, so many other fun and unusual varieties are readily available. I’ve seen them in big box stores, grocery stores, and department stores (although these are often faux, they look incredibly real).

Succulents are terribly easy to grow. They thrive with neglect and are usually only killed by overwatering. And when I say overwatering, that might mean watering more than once or twice a month — it is possible to kill these plants with kindness! All they require is a spot in the house with bright, suffused light. Hardy plants can be grown outdoors in full hot sun with steep drainage.

One of the keys to getting succulents to thrive indoors in containers is using potting soil specially designed for succulents or cactus. If you can’t find any, you can make your own by mixing regular potting soil with sand at a 1:1 ratio. Think desert.

Plants can be grown in shallow dish containers with holes for drainage, or shallow containers without holes if you water sparingly and judiciously.  You can also add a layer of rock at the bottom of the dish to hold any extra water that might collect.

These plants make a nice show when they’re planted snugly up against each other to fill a pot. The appearance of abundance is matched only by varying leaf colors in shades of greens, silver, gray, orange, and red. You also have the added texture and shape of different leaves, which can take a container arrangement to a whole new level of artfulness.

Or consider planting a single succulent in a small container and top-dress the potting soil with colored sand, rocks, or small seashells for an added pop of color. Have fun with it — plant a small cactus and add a miniature tombstone, long-horned steer skull, and a few tumbleweeds.

Some of my favorite succulents to play around with include:

  • Echeveria
  • Ox tongue (Gasteria)
  • String of pearls (Senecio rowleyanus)
  • Flapjack succulents (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora)
  • Living stones (Mesembryanthemum)

If you mix any combination of these five plants together, you’ll have a colorful, textural masterpiece. There’s something very tactile about these arrangements that make me want to touch them or even pat an arrangement with my fingers.

If you’re not yet on the succulent bandwagon, I encourage you to hop aboard. In fact, consider giving a small succulent arrangement as a gift to someone in your life who has a black thumb. If you take away their watering can, they’re bound to have years of enjoyment and you’ll be the horticultural hero who introduced them to these easy, tough, colorful plants.

Starting seeds indoors is easy, inexpensive, and a whole lotta fun

This time of year can be tough for gardeners. The holidays are over and we’re in a sort of gardening purgatory — I can see it on the horizon, but we’ve got plenty of cold, dreary days ahead before we can get outside and dig.

That’s one reason why I love starting seeds indoors — it gives me an opportunity to think about what lies ahead and actually do something. The ground may still be frozen, but I can start working on my vegetable and flower garden now.


If you’ve never tried starting seeds indoors, you’re missing out on one of the true delights of gardening. There’s something pretty great about having someone compliment me on something in my garden and being able to say in response, “Thanks, I grew it from seed.” It’s also a fun way to get my hands on plants that aren’t readily available at the local garden center, like heirloom plants, and rare and unusual vegetable and flower varieties.

Kick-off your seed growing venture by carefully reading the back of each seed packet. Some seeds require special treatment before planting, like soaking in water, chilling (called stratification), or nicking the seed coat (called scarification). You don’t want to find yourself ready to plant and then discover that your seeds need to chill in the refrigerator for a few weeks.

Another key to seed-starting success is timing, and that starts with your last average spring frost date. Here in Little Rock, we’re zone 8a, so our last average frost date is March 28. Most seed packets will tell you when to start growing indoors, often saying “Start 4 to 6 weeks before your average last frost date.” So I simply look at the calendar and countback.


Next, choose containers for growing. You can use a variety of things around the house, including old yogurt cups, egg cartons, or hand-rolled pots made from newspapers. I picked up some seed starting trays from a nursery that I can reuse each year. I simply sterilize them between uses with a mixture of one part bleach to nine parts water.

I’ve also had good luck using a quality potting soil to grow my seeds, but you can certainly invest in a soil-less seed starting mix. Whichever you choose, put your growing medium in a bucket with some water so that the soil is slightly damp before you fill your containers.

Seed packets will tell you how deep the seed needs to be planted. For example, Bachelor’s Button ‘Blue Boy’ (Centaurea cyanus) seeds need to be planted 1/4″ deep, with three seeds planted every 8″ – 10.” The packet also tells me that seedlings will emerge in seven to 14 days, so I have a good idea when to start looking for signs of life.

Once seeds are planted, you need to water. This is where it helps to have your potting mixture already moist. You can use a spray bottle filled with water to give your seeds a thorough misting, which provides enough moisture without roiling all your hard work.

I always cover my seed trays with plastic to create a mini greenhouse. Some seed trays come with plastic domes, or you can use kitchen plastic wrap, sandwich bags, or you can even slip your containers inside a clear plastic dry-cleaning bag. It doesn’t have to look pretty, just be effective.

Also, most seeds don’t need light to germinate, but they do need heat. I recommend finding a location that is ideally around 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, which may be in your kitchen, near your oven or on top of a refrigerator. (It helps to have a spouse or roommate who doesn’t mind dirt in the kitchen.) You can also use a seed heating mat, which is specially designed to heat soil and seeds from the bottom.

Once you see seedlings, remove the plastic covering and place plants in a spot with bright light. If you’re using a spot by a window, rotate your containers every few days so that seedlings don’t develop a lean. If you don’t have enough sunlight, you can always use grow lights or even fluorescent shop lights. Place the bulbs so that they’re only a few inches above the seedlings and set a timer so that lights are automatically on 12 to 16 hours a day.

The final step is to keep plants growing until it’s time to harden them off as they move outside in the spring. I’ll admit, I’ve had a few bombs — seeds that were too old to germinate or a tray that got overwatered and killed a crop of seedlings. But there are way more successes than failures, and that’s what keeps me coming back to seeds year after year. And on cold gray February and March days, seed starting is a life-line to spring gardening that I’ll grab every time.