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Create Living Art with Proper Care...and Your Imagination
Article and Photography by Linda B. Gay

Succulents are called “fat plants” because of the thickened, fleshy tissue they use to retain water in arid climates or rocky and sandy soil conditions. This ability allows succulents to survive on limited water sources such as humidity, mist or dew. Rain is never a factor in Southern California, which is where these plants thrive once planted.

Texas’ climate is the extreme opposite. We have high humidity, high heat, torrential rains and no cooling nights. I share with you now what I have learned in the past year on growing succulents successfully.

My “road trip” with succulents started last summer when I walked into the local hardware store and saw a sign, “All Succulents 75% Off.” I made four trips over the next two days to purchase most of the plants available and to start my educational process on growing and understanding succulents.

An interesting point I learned was when I opened a bag of cactus and soil mix and found it to be peat moss and perlite…and thought what the heck? They will surely die in this mix, so I didn’t use it and I continued to craft my own custom media.

I had no idea how these plants would grow, so I put like varieties together for evaluating and learning their names. There are so many intergeneric hybrids on the market — and more being created as we speak — that I now refer to them by their common names such as Living Stones, Sedums, Hens and Chicks and Kalanchoes.

Succulent plants can thrive here, but we have to work harder to keep them beautiful and healthy, and it starts with the soil media.

So what type of soil do I use? I started with a 50/50 mix of soil and shale, and last summer’s rains created “killing fields” of my collection. I rehabbed my clay bowls and started to use only expanded shale for the quickest drainage and best aeration of the roots. When you plant your succulents in the shale media, remove loose soil around the roots, as the media becomes a wet sponge that dries slowly and rots roots.

What about fertilizer? I didn’t really want the plants to grow, because as they grow, their shapes and geometric designs change. This growth cannot be stopped, however, but can be slowed down by not fertilizing and minimal watering.

When the succulents do start to grow, let them grow and bloom, then you will have to rehab them by propagating and cutting them back to plant in a different area. I placed them at the bases of large oak trees, in the crotches where the palm fronds attach to the trunks, or choose any little niche that suits your fancy.

Succulents inside the home need to be placed near a window. Succulents cannot grow in rooms with low light; they stretch and lose their interesting shapes. Clear glass containers, decorative bowls and other home decor pots usually do not have a drainage hole, so you need to mist sparingly. I recommend using a clean spray bottle to mist the leaves when you think about it. Go without misting and see what happens. If you are using succulents in the kitchen or bath, you may find misting is not necessary, as cooking and showering create humidity. 

Covered patios and porches outdoors are popular locations because the plants do not need watering and they are protected from rain and direct sun. They can be planted in small containers and used as centerpieces. You can use a grapevine wreath and create a succulent ring to hang on the wall or use it as a centerpiece and add a flameless candle.

If you choose to plant your succulents in the ground outdoors, till lava rock or shale in the soil, using stone to raise the area, and create little pockets with more shale for your plant communities. Use hardy varieties for this application, and there are about 10 different species that froze in January and returned from the roots. I now classify them as hardy succulents. I don’t think of them as common anymore!

• When using a large wire basket or plant stand with coco fiber, use lava rock in the bottom half of the space as the rock is larger and has less weight.
• As you are filling up your container with shale, place the plant at the right height in the container and fill in around it. You cannot get the plant deep enough trying to dig out a space because the rock keeps filling in. Get them planted at the right height and not too high.
• I like to use rocks and colored glass to accent my beauties, as this is great art therapy.
• You will learn what plants grow fast and cover up the slower growing ones — and to keep them separate. I pull these out and put them at the bases of my oak trees.
• If you plant Lithops, Living Stones and Baby Toes, you will want to move them inside during rainy periods as their water storage tissue will consume the rain and explode!

Your plantings are temporary, so be creative and adventurous. You will be redoing the planter as you become more experienced in what you like and how to grow them, so enjoy! Collecting containers to grow them in, along with colored glass and rocks, is as much fun as the plants themselves because you are creating LIVING ART.

Happy gardening!

Linda Gay is a horticulturist and gardener at The Arbor Gate Nursery in Tomball.

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