Win-Win: Succulents offer pizzazz while thriving on neglect

By P. Allen Smith

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.