Succulents are everywhere! Long a staple in the schemes of gardens in mild winter and temperate summer locales such Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area I am seeing more and more creeping into the landscapes in my San Joaquin Valley. Even the big box home improvement stores have copious supplies practically year-round. The growing interest in low water gardening has us all looking at plants with new eyes hoping they will be just the solution to our current challenges.
Four or five years ago I toured the San Francisco Decorator Showcase home, an event held annually to benefit the city’s University High School. That year’s home was a gorgeous 4 story, very early 20th century mansion not far from The Presidio and overlooking the Palace of Fine Arts and the San Francisco Bay. The landing just outside the home’s very formal front door was flanked by the first examples I had seen of what we now call ‘living walls’. These horizontal facades consist of generally metal frameworks to which are attached individual plant openings made from root retaining bags or boxes. Each opening is individually planted and when the plants fill out, a solid wall of green is established. In the intervening years since this first glimpse many different systems of this kind, in all manner of sizes and materials, have been developed and are readily available to home gardeners. These particular walls were planted entirely in succulents and were preceded, as you walked up the steps, by two extremely large bowl shaped urns planted with additional succulents, mostly having very bold natural structures. I was in love! The juxtaposition of the century old limestone home with all its turn of the century ornamentation and these modern and very statement making plantings was not only fun but also gave the home an upbeat, young, fresh look. Unfortunately the photos I took did not survive the transition from Blackberry and PC to iPhone and Mac and my vivid memory of the scene cannot be inserted as media into this post! I have spent time each of the ensuing years trying to come up with just the right combination of structure and succulents to add a semblance of these pleasing points of interest to my own garden world.
Research was my first task so, of course, I bought a book to add to my gardening reference library. It was lovely reading but ever so much more academic information than I needed as I could really only buy whatever succulents are locally available and most of those are labeled only with the genus name or possibly just a common name. Wherein my book had descriptions of hundreds of Echeveria, many very different from one another, my ability to narrow down the labeled Echeveria at my local Home Depot to anything more specific was pretty pitiful. I abandoned my traditional desire to plan my plantings and keep detailed records and labels of everything and reduced my hunt to the lowest common denominator. I bought the smallest pots of as many different shapes and colors variations as I could find. Now the learning curve began!
My first attempts were in rather shallow broad dishes which I set out on the patio tables around the pool. These bowls were lovely when planted in the late spring but as the summer set in I quickly learned the difference between succulents and cacti. Almost all cacti are succulents but all succulents are definitely NOT cacti. I fried the whole lot in short order. I suppose had I actually read my book rather than just looking at the photos I would have learned that many succulents are not very tolerant of strong sun. And again the meagerness of accurate labeling weighs in to make it a challenge to determine whether what you are purchasing is a cast iron performer or prefers its sun to be filtered.
Somewhat chastened by this experience I put my sumptuous succulent planter dreams away for the season. Not to be outdone by these pesky but perky plantlets in their 3″ pots I gave it a go the next year, keeping my bowls in bright light under the covered patio and was rewarded with plants that quickly outgrew their containers. I transferred all of them to an empty concrete fountain, left by the home’s previous owner, which had enough fine cracks in it to make it unusable as a fountain but perfectly drained as a planter. Here you see that effort:
Upon the initial transfer of the plants into the fountain the center was quite flat and uninteresting. Several days later Dave came across a display of tall rectangular plastic pots at Costco which were preplanted with a variety of succulents and brought one home on a whim. We pulled out the smaller plants from the fountain’s center area and literally set the entire pot into the soil about 3″ so it would be stable. Height and importance were added instantly to the planting! The plastic planter remains in place as I write this some 3+ years later–a long term bang for our $12.99. Specimens have waxed and waned in the bowl through the seasons. I break off bits and tuck them in here and there. The fountain is sited in a morning sun only area and is protected enough to have avoided most loss from freezing winter cold.
Above you see a few bits from the bowl as it looked yesterday–overall a successful venture! I planted a second unused fountain in the front garden the next year. Sited in full southern sun it has been more challenging to keep going. It has become an “only the strong survive” site. I pop in a few new little pots each fall to give them the best chance of settling in and then it is up to them to hang on. A couple of specimens have flourished in that area of searing sun, including this very structural pencil like selection and the pebble shaped blue green mat in the foreground. Sooner or later I’ll hit upon just the right ones to acclimate to the spot but it clearly is not happening in an organized fashion. You live–you stay, you die–oh, well!
Because the ground freezes in the winter, local gardeners striving to maintain broad swathes of interesting succulents planted in the ground rather than pots face more challenges than our lucky gardening friends further south and in the more temperate Bay Area. Specimens need to be identified which can tolerate the proposed site in terms of summer sun and winter cold. I know I’ll be seeing many fine examples of these gardens as I travel south for the spring tours and I’ll post as many photos as I can. Let me tease you with a bit of the front garden pictured below. These photos were taken in Pasadena the first week of December. The low slung historic Spanish bungalow is a charming backdrop for a front garden chock full of mature succulent specimens and other unthirsty selections. Its charm was equal to any white picket fenced English garden I’ve seen.