Sorting a few outdoor succulentsBy FELDER RUSHING GUEST COLUMNIST,
Getting fond of hardy outdoor succulents? Time to sort a few out.
I grow several dozen, partly because as a zany relief from the same old, same old plants I deal with daily at work; and partly because, unlike needy African violets and such, they can hunker down and survive my hit-or-miss care, especially when I’m gone for weeks or months at a time with nobody to water anything.
And now they are trending like crazy, with potsful for sale at garden centers and even big box stores. Mingling three or more different kinds together creates a cool tabletop centerpiece, indoors or out. Plus, when mixed up, if something dies nobody can tell.
On a personal note, my very earliest clear-as-a-bell plant memory, from when I was five years old, was of a prickly pear cactus with yellow flowers catching my brand-new inflatable beach ball. I also remember Mom’s loving attempts at patching with sticky tape which back then had only temporary holding power.
But I don’t hold plant grudges. Plants are neither good nor bad, just sometimes inconvenient to humans. I mean, even poison ivy has incredible fall colors, and lawn stickers led to the invention of flipflops; the cactus was just protecting itself from a multi-color projectile.
Actually, the cactus/beach ball encounter led to a curiosity about uncommon and underappreciated plants that persists to this day. Especially cacti and succulents, which many folks don’t think much about, other than their peculiar leaf or stem shapes and unique flowers.
Quick FAQ: A cactus is a succulent, but not all succulents are cacti; some are tropical and frost-sensitive, while others are native to Canada and grow wild across the prairie states. Main thing they have in common is the ability to store water in their stems or leaves to get them through dry times.
Some prefer full sun, others need light mid-day shade to protect them from our humidity-laden sunlight; I’ve sunburned some accidentally. Some, including some cacti, actually require cold, dry winters, and, being native to arid climates, can rot from our heavy winter rains.
To get around this, I grow them in containers or in raised beds with a LOT of grit or coarse gravel worked into the soil; those from cooler climates I keep in pots that get just morning or afternoon sun or under a small Japanese maple that doesn't get too shady.
Trouble is, very few stores separate the hardy kinds from those too tender to survive our summer humidity and rain, and winter cold. It’s confusing when garden centers push them all together based just on their being succulents. It’s like treating all pets alike.
So after many years of running different succulents through my acid test trials - including in the garden planted in the back of my old pickup truck - I’ve found nearly two dozen that normally tolerate way too much rain, no water for weeks, and sudden winter freezes.
My favorite survivors for growing outside all year include thornless prickly pear, giant century plant Agave, two smaller agaves (parryi and lopantha), variegated yuccas, red yucca, hedgehog and powder puff cactus (both native to Oklahoma), Southern hens and chicks (Graptopetalum), northern hens and chicks (Sempervivum), and several really cold hardy sedums including dragon's blood, Blue Spruce, Chinese stonecrops (Sedum tetractinum), the old garden standby goldmoss sedum, and Autumn Joy which dies down in the winter.
I included a bit of Latin in case you want to look any up. Or to see mine go to felderrushing.blog.
I have more, and am sure there are others. But these are good outdoor starters.