Meet the fun and easy-going succulents

“They look like little aliens,” Jen Leis says of the different succulents she uses in her dinosaur pots. Photo: Jen Leis

Say it slowly: “Sssuu-cu-lent.” Sounds so juicy and luscious, it immediately brings to mind foods like roast turkey, strawberries and crème caramel.

But not if you’re a gardener. In that case it calls up visions of fat, fleshy plants in a palette of blues, greens, browns and purples, usually displayed in a neat, geometric leaf pattern.

I have no idea how many species and varieties of succulents there are. I do know they come in all sizes and shapes, from tiny, thumb-sized balls to the spiky knee-high yucca, with exotic, creamy blooms on stalks as tall as a middle-schooler. (Cactus are also succulents, but I’m not going to talk about them and their wicked thorns here.)

Succulents have been the darlings of fashionable garden folk for a couple of years, but now they’ve hit the mainstream and are being snapped up by home gardeners. And no wonder – they’re easy-care, interesting to look at and fun to grow.

Look, mom, no water!

This T. Rex sprouts a cluster of succulents on its back. PHOTO: Jen Leis
This T. Rex sprouts a cluster of succulents on its back.
PHOTO: Jen Leis

Well, not quite. But succulents are built to go a long time between watering, because they store liquid in their plump leaves and stems. If you forget to water them for, oh, say a couple of weeks, they’ll get thin and shrivelled, but give them a good drench, and they’re good as new.

You won’t have to feel guilty about making sure they’re well-fed, either. A pinch of water-soluble fertilizer will satisfy them for a month or so.

Most do demand warmth and lots of sun or very bright light. There are a few exceptions, but they’re not plants you’d normally run across.

“I just can’t tell someone a succulent will do well in their basement window that faces north,” Reed Russell, owner of East of Eliza plant and flower shop, says adamantly.

You can also forget about planting them in the classic moist, loamy soil. These gritty little critters come from the deserts of Africa, the Middle East, Mexico and the US Southwest. In containers, plant them in cactus soil, or make your own mix using a bit of plain potting soil, some perlite and lots of sharp sand (not the fine-grained beachy stuff).

Have some fun…

Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a lot of gardeners having fun with succulents. (Lilies and clematis, in comparison, are enchanting, but they don’t tend to make you grin.)

Jen Leis, in the Main and Danforth area, is one of those playful growers.

“Succulents were my first introduction to plants as a kid,” she recalls. “A neighbour had these amazing terrariums, and she started a horticulture club at my school.”

Now a mom herself, Jen has gone beyond using clay pots and terrariums as containers – she plants succulents in toy dinosaurs glitzed up with silver or gold spray paint. “They’re a great thing to do with kids,” she says. “I give them away as birthday presents.”

They’re easy to make, she assures me. Here are her directions:

  • Choose a dinosaur at a toy store (not one of the floppy, wiggly ones).
  • Spray paint it any colour you want. Let dry.
  • Use a sharp X-Acto or other craft knife to cut a hole in its back.
  • Put a layer of tiny pea gravel in the bottom of the hole. (If your dino has a tail, you can fill the tail, too, for extra stability, Jen suggests.)
  • Add a half-and-half mix of sand and compost or soil.
  • Firmly poke in your succulent plants.
  • Finish by adding a top layer of small decorative stones, if you want.

You can put a single plant or several in your dino-pot.

“I tend to make as big a hole as I can, so I have room for more plants,” Jen says. “You can put in different kinds, and it’s like a little arrangement.”

…or be a little more sedate

Dino-pots are irresistible, but succulents look fabulous in plain clay pots or ornamental Italian or Mexican terra cotta. A colony of them in a small stone trough makes a good accent piece outdoors, too. They don’t have deep roots, so people often use unconventional containers like shallow bowls, sea shells, old tackle boxes or bird baths.

Surprisingly, many succulents will grow outdoors in your garden and live through our freezing winters – sempervivums, hen-and-chickens and those amazing yuccas, for example. Plant them in rock gardens, gravelly raised beds, and other bare spots where more finicky plants refuse to grow. Just use your imagination, do your research and don’t over-water.

Find general information about growing succulents at simplysucculents.com (catalogue with photos and names) and csssj.org. You can also attend a meeting of the Toronto Cactus and Succulent Club, which has an annual show and sale open to the public.

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