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Succulent Container Gardening
By Paula Mabrey of Tiny Shovels Landscaping
Have you ever heard the term “thriller, spiller and filler” for container gardening? Usually garden magazines and experts are talking about the use of annuals and perennials – not many people think about thrilling, spilling and filling with succulents! Here is all you need to know to make a successful succulent container garden…
Plants -The plants I refer to as succulents include (but are not limited to) sempervivums, sedums, aloes, kalanchoes, echeverias and other fleshy-leaved species. Also, think outside of the usual succulent box - Crown of Thorns (euphorbia), portulaca, Snake Plant (sansevieria), Madagascar Palm (pachypodium). Cactus is just fine in a succulent garden; just place it in a spot where it will not be watered as often as your other plants in the container.
Containers - Because succulents don’t need a large soil reservoir and have fairly shallow roots you can use your imagination when it comes to picking a container. They are uniquely suited to unusual containers - shallow bowls, trays, vintage planters – all are suitable for a succulent garden, just make sure they have a drain hole or two. Succulents are also beautiful planted in stone, concrete or hypertufa troughs.
Soil – Succulents need a fast draining soil. There are specialty soils formulated for cactus and succulents but any loose, light potting soil will work just fine. Heavy garden soil with high clay content will not work, so if you use your garden soil make sure to mix it at least 50/50 with perlite, sand or pea gravel. Use a coffee filter, coir, newspaper, pebbles or gravel to block the hole. We do not recommend an old pottery shard unless you can make sure it will not shift and block the drain. Fast and complete drainage is essential; succulents hate to sit in water for any amount of time!
Planting – Now on to the fun stuff – picking your plants! The thriller can be that special, single plant (usually taller or unique) that provides your background or center specimen, or it can be a few plants of the same variety that provide a strong structural statement. The fillers are those mid sized plants you choose to compliment or contrast with your thriller. The spillers are those plants placed closest to the edge of the container so that they can spill over and provide added interest. Succulents won’t spread much in one growing season; space plants according to what looks good rather than according to the instructions on the plant tag.
Remember that you are planting a little garden - keep your plants in the pots and arrange them on top of the soil or on the tabletop until you are happy with the look. This method will ensure that you do not overly disturb the root system of your plants. Once the succulents are planted you can add a top dressing to keep your soil in place and prevent it from splashing on the plants when you water. This can be sand, pebbles, stone chips, glass pebbles or small seashells. Finally, water them in well. A good initial watering is important to get your succulents established.
Light & Watering – Most succulents today are hybrids; they do not like to be placed in full sun. Four to six hours of indirect sunlight is acceptable, if the plants need more light they will let you know by “reaching” for the sun or becoming lanky. Most succulents only need to be watered every week or two. If you have cacti in your arrangement water them only once or twice a month. Check your soil before you water, it should be completely dry. Water in the morning so that the plants don’t have moisture on them overnight. Succulents require consistent moisture, not constant moisture!
Fertilizer – This is easy! Once in the spring after frost danger has passed and the night temps are consistently in the 60’s. Use a well balanced fertilizer like 20-20-20 with minor minerals (iron, zinc, copper, etc.) at 1/3 the recommended rate.
Winter – Here in Houston we can leave succulent containers outside. If you wish to bring it inside place it in a bright window and water infrequently.
Finally – Enjoy! Succulents are a water and time wise choice for today’s busy lifestyles. They have evolved in some of the toughest growing conditions on earth, and are actually at their best when slightly ignored. Practically carefree, succulents will reward you daily with interesting textures, shapes and colors and as an added bonus, beautiful blooms!