Seven weeks ago I gave myself an early Christmas present – a bowl in a classic shape (actually a sort of plastic flower pot) and four succulent plants. I had been inspired by reading Succulent Container Gardens by Debra Lee Baldwin which I had reviewed in this column earlier in December. I am not terribly good at caring for houseplants except for the succulents: a jade tree, an enormous orchid cactus, and Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus I had kept going for years. I was ready to try my hand at planting an interesting container with a variety of succulents.
The term succulent encompasses a whole variety of plants, from those I was familiar with like crassula (jade tree), aloes, sedums, and echeverias as well as a few I knew by their common name like string of pearls ((Senecio rowleyanus) and hen and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum). Dozen of other varieties and hundreds of cultivars are available – but not locally in December.
I was able to find a small selection of succulents at the Hadley Garden Center and chose four that have very different forms. Design is not my forte. Debra Lee Baldwin can design ka pot decorated with vertical white lines that “repeat the ribbing” of the Parodia scopa while the pebbley topdressing “mirrors the brown in the pot and in the (plant) buds,” but that level of design is beyond me. At last so far.
By choosing a burro’s tail sedum, an echeveria with ruffled foliage, a spiky variegated haworthia in dark green with white dots in horizontal stripes (very fancy botanical terminology there), and a taller spiky aloe with toothed edges, I thought I was at least getting a variety of form.
The container I chose has a water reservoir which I decided could also serve the purpose of a drain. Succulents do not like to be kept wet. I also bought a bag of cactus potting soil suitable for succulents.
When I unpotted my little succulents I was surprised to see how potbound the roots were. However, I have found that this does not bother the plant’s health or development. I partially filled my container with potting soil and then put in my four new plants filling in between them with more potting soil. Baldwin, and our local container design genius Gloria Pacosa, frequently make the point that a container should be really stuffed with plants. I wasn’t sure that these four were really stuffed, but they were all I had. I also kept thinking that they had room to send out little baby succulents.
Their propensity to multiply is one of the joys of succulents. They are not only easy to grow, many of them quickly produce babies. Anyone who has ever planted a hen and chicks knows this. Those babies can be allowed to form big clumps, or they can gently be teased away from the mother plant, and set in soil where they will promptly start their own family.
Baldwin often finishes off her container planting with what she calls a topdressing, a decorative final touch. She has used colored crushed glass, black gravel, and pink crushed rock. Gloria Pacosa likes to finish off her containers with moss that she has harvested and kept for the purpose. I spent part of my childhood living with my family on my uncle’s Vermont farm on the shore of Lake Champlain. Now when I visit cousins there I always take home a bag of the smooth gray stones from the lake’s edge. I decided to use some of the smallest of these gray stones as my top dressing.
I watered my container and set it in the sun. My gift to myself was completed and I was a happy woman.
I wrote about the project, illustrated with not very good photographs, on my commonweeder blog. A couple of days later I was surprised to get an email from Debra Lee Baldwin herself. I think writers troll the Internet regularly to see if their books are getting any mentions. She found the commonweeder and the story of my succulent container. She is a very polite person and said I did a fine arrangement. She especially liked the smooth little stones I used as a topdressing because they carried affectionate family memories.
Then she asked to buy my book, The Roses at the End of the Road, inscribe it and mail it to a good friend and former California neighbor who had moved to western Massachusetts. Well, her friend turned out to be my friend Maureen Moore, who I was planning to meet in Shelburne Falls that very day! I hand delivered the book and now I consider us a friendship circle of three.
My succulent container moved all around the house during the Christmas holidays, sometimes in barely heated rooms and sometimes in our main living space which can get very warm. It has been easy to keep it in the sun where succulents are the happiest.
When I prepared it for its photo session today I saw the burro’s tail sedum is showing signs of growth, but it will be a while before the tails drape gracefully over the edge of the bowl. I’ll keep you posted about further developments.
I welcome your stories about succulents you have grown and how you have handled them. You can send snail mail to me at 43 Knott Road, Charlemont, MA 01339 (Heath has no mail delivery) or email me at commonweeder@gmail. I look forward to hearing from you.
Between the Rows February 4, 2012
I posted about planting this container here.