Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Container Gardening with Succulents

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture

The near-record hot weather this week reminded me why sometimes container gardening becomes more a chore than a joy. It took me an hour to get everything watered one morning this week, and I knew full well that I would have to do it all again when I got home in the evening.

A sane person would probably cut back and plant less containers. I tried to do that, but the attempt was short-lived. My attempts to reign in my container planting were derailed when I bought two containers a couple of years ago that I thought were very unique: one was a wreath-shaped planter that could hang on a wall, the other a planter that hangs down on each side of my mailbox. The locations that both of these planters could be used at my house had just about as much light and heat as the surface of the sun. But that didn't stop me from buying them.

Short of providing a constant source of water to these planters, they had no chance of surviving my yard. I turned my attention to succulents, since these plants are adapted to hot, dry conditions. I had seen many different succulents for sale at local garden centers, but hadn't ever really stopped look at them. A friend of mine is a big collector of succulents, always looking for unique specimens. I looked at her collection with new eyes when I was considering what to plant in my "surface of the sun" planters. Inspired, I hit the garden centers.

I found a palette of soft muted colors, spiky dangerous looking plants as well plants that were soft and velvety. I even found a few flowers in the bunch. Some of the plants I found were sold among other more traditional annual plants, but I found some in the houseplant section as well.

One of the things that initially pushed me away from using succulents was the price. Some of them can be quite expensive, costing more than most of the annual plants I was accustomed to using. I only bought a couple of the pricier succulents and filled in with less expensive ones. The rationale I used to justify the cost was the fact that they could be overwintered indoors. Now, I will admit that I also had the advantage of a friend with a greenhouse, so that made finding a winter location for the wreath planter and mailbox planter a lot easier.

I found that planting container gardens of succulents is a bit like eating potato chips—it's hard to stop at one or two! I did plant a couple more, this time just regular pots for the blazing sun on my patio. I overwintered these pots indoors with my other houseplants. They are alive and well today. The wreath and mailbox planters were overwintered one year, and looked pretty good the next year. But by the end of the second year they had overgrown the planters, and this year it was time to start over.

A few succulent plants to try:

Kalanchoe thyrsiflora, Flapjack plant—large, round green leaves edged in red are stacked like pancakes. This plant produced an enormous flower spike indoors in early spring at my house.

Aloe sp.—There are numerous different species of Aloes, differing widely in color, shape, and size. They tend to be spiky, a good vertical element in containers.

Crassula sp., Jade plant—Another genus with incredible diversity in color, shape and size. Try the variety 'Campfire' which has brilliant red and orange foliage.

Sedum sp.—Some species of this plant is probably already in your perennial garden. You could use these in containers, but there are also plenty of Sedum species that are not hardy in our area, but make great container specimens. A favorite of mine is Sedum morganianum, also called Burro's Tail. Tiny blue green leaves hang down from a fleshy stalk and resemble a tail.

Echeveria sp.— Plants in this genus grow in a rosette, and there are many different colors, shapes and sizes available. A drawback with this plant is the tendency to lose lower leaves as it grows, leaving an often unattractive bare "neck" on older plants.

Sempervivum sp., Hens and Chicks—Another plant that grows in a rosette, but forms thick clumps, with the larger, parent plants called the "hens" and the smaller offshoots called "chicks". Some species in this genus are hardy in our area, some are not.

There are many more succulents out there than I have room to list. Also keep in mind that the term succulents is a broad category that can include cacti. So that broadens the available plants to use as well. My best advice is to have fun, and plant what appeals to you. And in the end, you just might have a little less watering to do this summer.

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