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Living sculpture, in a dish


Succulents are sculptural plants, but they are just as charming as they are intriguing. There is a great variety of them, and each seems a work of fine art. An arrangement of small succulents crowded in a shallow dish makes an enchanting sculpture garden.

"Succulents are geometric and tailored," says Thomas Hobbs, owner of Southlands Nursery in Vancouver, British Columbia, and a connoisseur of succulents of all kinds. "They are very jewel-like, opalescent and metallic. I am obsessed with them."

Any plant that stores water in its leaves, stems or roots is a succulent. Hens and chicks, kalanchoes, sedums and aloes are well known succulents, but the fascinating world of these plants is becoming more familiar to gardeners every year as the selection of echeverias, orostachys, jovibarbas and sempervivums expands at garden shops.

Hobbs uses hundreds of succulents, especially echeverias, to make fantastic dish gardens every year. "I plant them to look like underwater scenes," he says, "with big chunks of coral in with them and all kinds of wacky things."

Dish gardens in shallow clay saucers, troughs or bowls are easy to plant and maintain. Hobbs devotes an entire chapter to them in his book, The Jewel Box Garden, which will be published this spring by Timber Press. Hobbs says even a tiny container can be "a jewel box of horticultural treasures."

Succulents thrive in warm, dry conditions, but you don't have to live in the desert to grow them. These shallow-rooted plants adapt easily to containers, as long as the pots have drainage holes and the potting mix drains well.

Hobbs likes to combine a variety of succulents in his dish gardens, placing plants with fat, spiky foliage next to others that grow in rosettes like tiny cabbages. He looks for succulents with blue- or silver-tinged foliage, inky variegation on the tips of the leaves or a striking wine-red blush.

Some have ruffled edges, as though they have been washed by the waves or sculpted by the wind. Many succulents produce exotic blooms, but Hobbs isn't interested in the flowers. He chooses plants for the color and texture of their foliage and for their interesting growth habits.

Each miniature garden should combine plants of various sizes and one plant that is larger than the others. Hobbs recommends a kalanchoe "or something odd-looking" for this leading role.

Usually Hobbs packs his succulents together as tightly as sardines in a tin so they'll look as though they have been growing together for years. If there are open spaces between plants, he fills in with gravel or decorates the gaps with seashells or luminous tumbled sea glass. In the course of the summer, some succulents will colonize and grow over the edges of the dish.

Hobbs places his miniature gardens in groups on sunny terraces, on the risers of porch stairs and at the corners of the patio. Dish gardens make beautiful centerpieces on tabletops and catch the eye when they're placed on garden walls or raised on pedestals.

Dishing it up

Nurseryman Thomas Hobbs sometimes calls his dish gardens "succulent pizzas." He uses clay saucers from 8 inches to about 20 inches across and plants them with a variety of succulents.

Here are some of his tips and ideas.

* Terra-cotta plant saucers make fine dishes for succulent gardens. Use a ceramic bit to drill three half-inch holes in the bottom for drainage. Soak the saucers first so they won't crack.

* It's also a good idea to place a few pieces of broken clay pot in the bottom of the saucers before adding potting soil.

* Hobbs plants his succulents in a mix of equal parts potting soil, coarse perlite and builder's sand.

* Succulents are usually sold in small pots, from 2 inches to 6 inches. They're not expensive, so buy more than you think you'll need and plant them close together. An 8- inch saucer will hold three to five plants.

* Place the largest succulent a little off-center in the dish and cluster the other plants around it. Hobbs says his miniature gardens look like deep-sea scenes.

* Seashells, pieces of coral, luminous tumbled glass and other interesting objects can be used as accents in the dish. Hobbs used a blue-and-white ceramic jar lid in one garden, placing it on its side "like a bit of wreckage."

* Fill in around plants with fine gravel. Hobbs recommends earth tones, which look natural and complement the succulents.

* Succulents need sun. In partial shade, they'll languish.

* Shallow containers dry out quickly. Water your dish gardens when the soil feels dry, and be sure the water drains thoroughly.

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