Smitten with succulents

Reinvent your garden with these versatile plants
Julie Chai

Robin Stockwell never planned to become a nurseryman. But when he and a friend discovered a cactus collection for sale along a California roadside 30 years ago, they saw a business opportunity ― a niche to fill in the booming retail nursery market.

Though Stockwell's first job, at age 12, was in a nursery, he had had no formal training in horticulture. It didn't take long for him to realize that succulents are as easy to grow as any other plant, and they look good in gardens of many styles.

Designing with them takes some thought "because they're three dimensional ― there's the texture and form that's unique to each variety," he says.

Born and raised on the California coast, Stockwell ― an avid surfer, scuba diver, and all-around water lover ― is drawn to succulents partly because they conserve his favorite natural resource. "Water is a big concern throughout the West," he says, "and these plants can live with very little.

Stockwell grows more than 400 varieties in a 42,000-square-foot greenhouse in Castroville, California, and labels everything he sells with full botanical names along with species-specific care information. He hopes to educate people about succulents' versatility and promote their forgiving nature. Succulents are the perfect plants for busy people, he says. "If the surf's good, I can go, and water another day ― the plants will be fine."

Info: Succulent Gardens (closed Sun; 2133 Elkhorn Rd., Castroville, CA; 831/632-0482) ships orders of $100 or more.

 

Design and care tips
Make the most of succulents with these ideas from Robin Stockwell.

In containers
Use a single color. Plant succulents whose leaves have the same color but differ in form.

Focus on shape. Group plants with the same form (such as ones that grow in rosettes) but in different shades of blue and green.

Play up color echoes. Combine different species whose colors amplify each other. At right, the solid pink leaves of one succulent draw out the pink leaf edges of another.

In the landscape
In mild-winter climates, succulents can play a prominent role in the garden.

Plant a hedge. Instead of boxwood, grow a border of jade plant or Crassula tetragona.

Soften a wall. Plant Senecio mandraliscae or Lampranthus deltoides and let the plants cascade down the wall.

Fill a bed. Mass aeoniums or hybrid echeverias in small garden beds.

 

Caring for succulents
While succulents require little attention to thrive, they're "low care, not no care," advises Stockwell. Here's what they need.

Soil. Use well-draining, well-aerated soil (work in organic amendments such as compost before planting.

Exposure. Though hardiness varies by plant type, most succulents tolerate temperatures as low as 32° (10° for some echeverias, sedums and sempervivums) and as high as 100° if protected from intense sun.

Water. In containers and in the ground, let the soil go nearly dry before watering.

Fertilizer. Succulents like a complete fertilizer. Give them a half dose every four to five waterings.