Imagine a container garden you rarely have to water.
Succulents make that happen.
The fuss-free nature of succulents — plants that store water — is making them an increasingly popular choice for outdoor planters. They need watering infrequently, they resist pests, and some types don’t even need fertilizing.
On top of that, they have intricate forms and complex textures that make them more structurally interesting than many common container plants.
“They’re subtle. They’re not going to shout like a red geranium,” said Dedee O’Neil, who grows succulents in containers at her home in Medina County’s Westfield Township and has created arrangements of succulents for events involving the Akron Garden Club and the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center.
Many people equate succulents with cactuses, but the category is much broader. Familiar types include agave, hens and chicks, aloe and sedum, but there are other succulents, too.
Some are spiky and upright. Some are spreading and will trail over the edges of containers. Some are daisy- or cabbage-shaped. Most are prized for their foliage, but a few types — notably kalanchoe and ice plants — produce blooms pretty enough to be their primary feature.
O’Neil is partial to echeverias, rosette-shaped plants that span the color spectrum and sometimes have showy, ruffled leaves. They tend to stay fairly short, she said, and they’re fairly easy to grow.
Succulents are the camels of the plant world. They hold water in their fleshy leaves, stems or roots, although some experts exclude plants with water-storing root systems from the succulent category. That water-storing capability allows the plants to survive in dry climates, which is why succulents can go so long without water.
Just how long depends on the plant and the time of year, although succulent aficionado Ruth Moorhead said hers can go as long as a couple of weeks between waterings during their growing season. When they’re dormant, the plants need even less water.
Moorhead grows dozens of succulents at her Braemar Farm in Broadview Heights. Some are arranged in hypertufa troughs or other containers. Some are grown individually in pots and gathered into collections that showcase their varied colors and forms.
Tender types need to come inside in winter to be kept in a sunny window or under grow lights. For hardy varieties, Moorhead either sinks the plant into the ground, plastic pot and all, or she lifts the root mass out of the container and places the plant into the ground to ride out the winter.
This spring and summer, she’s encountered some challenges. Some of her plants got sunburned when she first put them outdoors this spring, although she’s not sure why. During one recent rainy spell, she had to fashion a plastic sheet into a tent to shelter the succulents on her deck, since they don’t like an excess of water.
Succulents are native to arid regions where few other plants can survive, and where there aren’t a lot of decaying plants to add organic matter and nutrients to the soil, O’Neil explained. Consequently, most succulents like a gravelly, fast-drying soil with little fertility.
What rain those native areas do get tends to fall during only a two- or three-month period each year, she said. That rainy period might happen in either winter or summer, and that’s when the region’s native succulents grow actively.
Knowing that helps gardeners choose succulents wisely and care for them properly, O’Neil said. In creating a container arrangement, you need to put together succulents with similar water needs and the same active growing season, so you can water all of them properly.
As with any plants, consider how fast they’ll grow and how large they’ll get, she said. Otherwise you could end up with a fast-growing plant crowding out the rest.
Planting in a container with drainage holes is critical, she said, because succulents can’t tolerate soil that stays wet for long.
O’Neil said the container should be fairly shallow to promote drainage. Moorhead has even used ceramic baking dishes she bought at a discount store, with holes drilled in the bottom.
If you want more height, O’Neil suggested planting in a birdbath or perching a container on a pedestal. You can also plant succulents in the pockets of a strawberry pot, but she said that can be tricky because the plants near the bottom get more water as it drains down through the pot.
Don’t set containers directly on soil, she said. If the ground becomes waterlogged, the containers won’t drain. Instead, elevate pots a half-inch or more by setting them atop some stones or maybe bricks.
O’Neil recommended using in a gravelly planting medium made for cactuses and other succulents. Moorhead has had success creating a mix of half soilless potting mix and half grit, such as perlite, vermiculite, coarse builder’s sand or chicken grit from feed stores.
Not all succulents need fertilizing, but some need it during their growing season, according to Highland Succulents (www.highlandsucculents.com), a nursery in Gallipolis that specializes in rare and endangered succulent plants. It recommends using either a slow-release fertilizer such as Nutricote or Osmocote, or a good-quality, water-soluble fertilizer with an NPK ratio or 20-20-20 or 20-10-20.
If you use a water-soluble fertilizer, the company suggests mixing it at one-quarter the recommended strength and applying it every time you water during the growing season. Taper off the fertilizer as the plants enter dormancy, and don’t fertilize when they’re dormant, it says.
Succulents generally like a lot of sun, but not all want the harsh, hot sun that cactuses thrive in, Moorhead said. It may take some research and some trial and error to determine the right amount of sun for a particular plant, she said.
One cool thing about succulents: They’re made for sharing. When they get too tall or leggy, Moorhead said, you can just cut off the ends of the stems, let them dry a couple of days so the cut ends develop callouses, and then stick them into the ground or into a mix of potting soil and perlite. The cuttings will root and start new plants.
O’Neil waters her cuttings in well when she transplants them, but then she stops watering and protects them from rain for a while to force the roots to grow deep to find water. “Sometimes I describe it as tough love,” she said with a laugh.
Tough love produces tough plants. What’s not to like about that?
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MBBreckABJ, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckABJ and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.