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Succulent Collections Go Chic

January 27, 2010
By Dean Fosdick

Container gardening and online marketing are increasing the popularity of succulents, transforming the likes of hens and chicks to collectible chic.

It wasn't long ago that the eye-catching perennials grew primarily in sun-seared settings. Now they're the playthings of people living in temperate zones.

"There are so many succulents available now (that) we weren't even aware of 10 or 20 years ago. The Internet makes it possible to purchase these plants," said Debra Lee Baldwin, author of "Succulent Container Gardens" (Timber Press, 2010).

Many of the most attractive succulents are native to Madagascar, South Africa and the Caribbean, meaning they're frost tender and do well outdoors only in USDA Zones 9 and 10, Baldwin said.

"Container culture offers an ideal solution; anyone, anywhere can grow succulents in pots, which can be sheltered indoors," she said.

More than 10,000 plant species are classified as succulents, including those of the sizable cacti family. Some are tall and irregularly shaped, resembling living sculptures. Others are small and develop laterally, making an effective ground cover. Many bloom. Most are survivors, durable once established.

"They'll store water in their fleshy leaves in times of drought, which can be interpreted as owners forgetting to water them," Baldwin said. "They can so easily be loved to death - by that I mean by over-watering, making the roots rot. Succulents really prefer neglect."

Planting succulents in containers not only makes over-wintering them easier but also makes growing them more rewarding.

"It's gardening in miniature, ideal for space-constrained, time-challenged gardeners who like mating plants with pots," Baldwin said. "It's a lifestyle enhancement kind of thing. You want to display them in sitting areas or entryways where they can be enjoyed close up."

Succulents need good drainage, particularly when planted in containers.

"They're a 'special needs' plant," said David Salman, founder and chief horticulturist at High Country Gardens, in Santa Fe, N.M. "Succulents appreciate fast-draining soil. A rich loam won't work. It gets too wet and stays too fertile. It's better to blend coarse sand and gravel with a soil-less potting mix."

As for containers:

"If you like to hike, gather some rocks or gnarled wood during the course of your adventures. They will provide a little interior decoration with your potted plants, making them rock gardens in miniature."

Planting succulents in containers opens the way for a hobby within a hobby. You can use potted succulents for creating bonsai, shaping topiary or carving out miniature landscapes. "There are so many different ways they can be interpreted," Baldwin said.

Dean Fosdick grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota, gathered and propagated wild edibles during his nearly two decades in Alaska and now does his gardening from his home in New Market, Va. He can be reached at

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