Succulents aren't just for the desert anymore.
These heat and humidity lovers, with their dramatic leaf shapes and their striking colors, are the answer to the Mid-Atlantic summer and perfect for containers, pots and window boxes, even vertical gardens. And they have one more advantage.
"I love the idea of having plants but not actually having to take care of them," said Catonsville DIY blogger Jocie Hagan, who offered a workshop on planting succulent dish gardens recently at Home Depot in Ellicott City. "I can brag that they aren't even plastic."
Succulents, in all their variety, are at once exotic and tough. They flourish on neglect, unlike the conventional container annuals that can require watering twice a day when a Maryland summer gets up and running.
"The gospel of succulents has moved beyond the Banana Belt," said landscape designer and photographer Debra Lee Baldwin, who lives in San Diego, what she calls the "epicenter of all things succulent."
"I've been getting emails from all over the country, like I never did before," said Baldwin, who has written three books on gardening with succulents, including the just published "Succulents Simplified."
"The ball is rolling and it is heading your way."
Big-box stores like Lowe's and Home Depot, as well as local lawn and garden centers, are starting to offer lots of succulents for customers, ranging from single plants than sell for $2.49 to dish gardens that sell for $50.
Bell Nursery of Elkridge, for example, is providing 1,000 varieties to the Home Depots in the Mid-Atlantic.
All sorts of varieties are available through mail order catalogs, too, such as Plant Delights and High Country Gardens, but Baldwin blanches at the prices — some as high as $16 a plant.
"That's because I can walk out my door and get a cutting and start it for free," she acknowledged.
Some succulents, like sedums, can be used in the garden. Others will thrive during the winter if brought indoors. Many can take the cold on the deck and rebound the following spring. (After all, it does snow in the desert.)
"The only challenge might be a wet year without a lot of sunshine," said Kindal Marin, director of marketing for Bell.
Succulents are native to Madagascar and South Africa, and they survive periods of drought by living off the moisture in their stems and leaves.
They have almost no root system and all they ask of soil is that it be sandy and quick-draining. Many don't flower in the traditional sense but come in colors from lime green to deep red.
Others send up daisy-like flowers, and others sent up spikes with delicate buds. Still others, like grandma's favorite "hens and chicks," seem to multiply like ... well, hens and chicks.
Succulents are popular in novelty or repurposed containers — the high-heeled shoe planted with succulents is a cliche. But these plants deserve their dignity, said Baldwin.
"It can be fun to repurpose the kitchen colander," she said. "But that is so downscale." She also loves including them in bridal bouquets, she said, where they provide a delightful surprise.
Hagan, who writes the blog One Project Closer, credits Pinterest with spreading the word about succulents and the ways they can be used: in dish gardens and terrariums but also in vertical gardens and wall art or as part of a green roof on a birdhouse.
But the dedicated non-gardener had her own take. "I planted mine in a bird cage."
Tips for succulent container gardens
Here are some tips adapted from "Succulents Simplified," by Debra Lee Baldwin, and an interview with Kindal Marin of Bell Nursery.
Be bold! Because succulents have such unusual architecture, they can present a design challenge if you are used to using common annuals in a dish garden or a container. Jade plants are perhaps the most common succulent. Think about treating it as a bonsai, pruning it to give it an interesting shape. Plant in a shallow dish and add miniature figures or moss and small rocks to replicate the bonsai look. Don't be intimidated. Let your imagination go.
Stabilize. Succulents do not have substantial root systems and anchoring them in a pot or dish can be a problem. Use pebbles, stones or colored glass to help stabilize them.
Make sure the soil is sandy and quick-draining. Add drainage material at the bottom of the pot and don't over-water. Succulents hate wet feet. Soil should be dry at least an inch deep before watering. Water the soil, not the leaves. Small pots can be watered once a week, larger pots every two weeks. Over-watering is more of a problem than under-watering.
Watch the exposure. Most succulents like bright light, but introduce them to the outdoors gradually so the leaves don't burn. On the other hand, bright sun can turn the leaf tips of some varieties bright red.
Feed your plants once a month at about half the recommended rate. This is true for most plants, which want less food than plant food companies suggest.