succulent flower

How To Plant Up Succulent & Exotic Plants

If you are looking for something different to fill a space on your patio and you have some room to over winter plants in a frost free place, why not start a succulent collection? Even better, if you want to liven up your conservatory you can keep your display looking good all year round!
With the effects of global warming being felt in many UK gardens and hosepipe bans even coming into effect in Cumbria, these drought tolerant plants provide an interesting alternative to the normal bedding plant display. The fleshy leaves of succulents come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and colours from deep purple to glaucous grey and bright green. Some of them even have exotic flowers of their own but these are often small. They are versatile evergreens that look great mixed in together, possibly with strong architectural plants such as Phormiums or bright bedding plants dotted between. So which to choose?

Sempervivums or houseleeks are a hardy species which are easy to obtain and you may already have growing in your garden. They are drought resistant succulents which form rosettes in a wide variety of colours from green to purple, some with darker or lighter tips and some covered in fine down. They produce runners in summer from which a new rosette will form to produce a clump of different sized rosettes. When mature, they will produce a scaly stem bearing a cluster of flowers at the top, often in pink. Once this has seeded the mother rosette will die leaving the offsets to continue. Propagation is by removal of young rosettes, often with roots, which can be gently pushed into compost and left to establish. They can be grown almost anywhere as long as there is sun and good drainage, try them in pots as part of a larger display or in an alpine trough.

Aeonium's are tree-like with rosettes of succulent leaves arranged at the end of each naked branch. They can grow to about 3ft and will provide height in a display without being too heavy. They are not frost hardy and once they flower and seed the rosette will die. One way to avoid this and also keep the plant to a reasonable size is to cut a section of stem off and replant it. Often the remaining stem will sprout a number of side shoots each bearing a rosette. Aeonium ‘Zwartkop' is stunningly beautiful, starting the summer with green rosettes that darken through purple to almost black with exposure to the sun.

The large sculptural shape of the desert Agave gives another dimension to a succulent display. Choose Agave americana for a brighter display with its spiny curved leaves of variegated gold and green or the smaller Agave parryi for cooler colour combinations with its stiff, blue-grey leaves radiating from a basal rosette. Mature plants (7 to 20 years old) may produce a tall stem bearing creamy-yellow flowers. Propogation is usually from offsets produced at the base of the plant, cut these off with a portion of the parent stem then leave for a couple of weeks to form a callous and plant in gritty compost.

Other species which you could include are:

  • Crassula falcata which has fleshy, twisted grey leaves arranged around a stem.
  • Echeveria which comes in a variety of shades and rosette shapes, Echeveria gibbiflora var. metallica has grey-green fleshy leaves suffused with pink or Echeveria elegans which is a silvery blue clump former.
  • Aloe striatula, with long, spiny-edged grey-green leaves and yellow poker-shaped flowers, which can reach 3ft tall.
  • Euphorbia myrsinites, a hardy prostrate Euphorbia with glaucous succulent leaves along its stems or Euphorbia milii (Crown of Thorns), an upright, tender Euphorbia with spines and green leaves with red bracts surrounding the flowers in summer.
  • Sedum - the choice of sedums for this type of display is almost bewildering.  They range from tiny, innocent-looking but rampantly spreading evergreen ones through to herbaceous perennials, but in nearly every case are hardy and easy to grow.

Succulents have evolved over time in order to survive life in arid environments. They have the capacity to store water in their fleshy leaves to carry them through drought conditions. Some are found in rocky deserts whilst others come from mountainous regions, where they have to cope with extreme cold as well as heat. This means that they prefer to be kept in a well drained soil, so mix soil-based compost, such as John Innes No 2, with plenty of grit or vermiculite and make sure the container you use has drainage holes with a layer of crocks. Larger pots can be half-filled with polystyrene packing to make them easier to move in winter. You may not need to water during the summer, apart from a foliar feed, but I would advise using a vine weevil control such as Provado in late summer as many succulents are a tasty treat for the grubs.

Many succulent species will not survive outdoors over winter but others can withstand a certain degree of cold weather. If you live in a frost free area or have a frost free micro-climate in your garden you may get away with leaving some of them outside but they will not relish the wind and damp. If you experience low winter temperatures it is better to be safe rather than sorry and move them into a frost free greenhouse, a garage with some natural light or a window sill in a cool place like a spare room. Water sparingly over winter to keep them on the dry side otherwise they may rot.

If you don't mind watering some plants and want to make your display really stand out you could introduce some colour to set off the exotic shapes of your succulents. If you have stuck to the cooler glaucous greys you could introduce blues and pinks with pale pink and white Impatiens, rich purple Begonia rex ‘Helen Lewis' and flowing grasses in shades of blue. If you want to really make a statement, go for hot colours, reds and oranges including Crocosmia, Dahlia's, Rudbeckia and deep purple Phormium.

Julie Parker
My interest in gardening & wildlife stemmed from childhood days spent working in the garden with my parents & reading books on anything from robins to giraffes. As time has moved on these influences have stayed with me inspiring the creation my own garden & leading to interests in fish keeping & the natural world around me. I still love to read & hope that the knowledge I gain will make topical reading through these articles.