Easy-care succulents have long been considered the boring last resort of brown-thumb gardeners. But fans are proving that used in the right setting, these plants are unsurpassed for beauty, drama, and toughness.
Along a path in Rancho Santa Fe, California, Suzy Schaefer has planted succulents whose leaves of cool blue and apple green carpet the ground around pavers like a well-crafted tapestry. Bowls of sedums and aeoniums perch on pillars nearby. Not far away, in Escondido, Peter Bailey's wide bands of silvery-blue agaves wind across a rocky slope; interspersed with rose-tinged flapjack plant ( Kalanchoe thrysiflora) and the ice blue senecios, they create a landscape as dramatic and otherworldly as the seafloor.
Succulents thrive where other plants tend to throw up their roots in despair: in rock gardens with thin, nutrient-poor soil; on arid slopes; between paving stones; and in pots busy owners forget to water. Varieties range from immense, sprawling century plants to dainty sedums with leaves no larger than grains of rice. Aeoniums, echeverias, and sempervivums form rosettes; agaves and aloes have fleshy, pointed leaves that give them a fountain shape. All have in common a camel-like ability to store water in their leaves and stems. And most are easy to find in nurseries; for broadest selections, try a succulent specialty nursery.
Versatile garden jewels
Though not often grown for bouquets, many succulents produce striking, long-lasting blooms. Kalanchoe marnierana is so loaded with salmon pink bells in spring that they look as though they might jingle noisily. Aloes send up candelabra-like flower stems from midwinter through midsummer in flaming hues that are unforgettable against a blue sky. Flowering types are especially effective when interspersed among those that seldom, if ever, bloom.
Other succulents make lush groundcovers. Aptenia cordifolia 'Red Apple' may be the most popular choice for this purpose, but it's by no means the only one. Sedum rubrotinctum, which resembles red-and-green jelly beans, offers color and texture. And if plants can be fashionable, blue senecio ( S. mandraliscae) is the Gucci of the garden. Its fingerlike leaves form blue rivers against which other succulents ― such as Euphorbia tirucalli 'Sticks on Fire' ― blaze with otherworldly beauty.
On slopes, some ice plants are favored for their searing spring blooms. But they needn't be restricted to slope duty: Tuck them into pots for percussions of color ― perhaps at the base of a burgundy-leafed Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop', a coral aloe, or a purple-pink Echeveria 'Morning Light'. Or fill hanging baskets with lampranthus and 'Red Apple' aptenia.
You can create bold tapestries in larger pots by mixing various sedums and succulents whose leaf sizes and colors provide pleasing contrasts. Simple combinations are often the most effective.
For a finished look, choose a pot that echoes the succulents' colors. A pink or yellow pot, for example, provides a softly elegant setting for an aeonium with green-and-cream striped leaves edged in rose (such as A. decorum 'Sunburst'). White-glazed pots add a light, summery look to white-variegated agaves, such as striped A. americana 'Striata', which stays much smaller than its pot-breaking cousins; A. parviflora, which has curly white threads; or short-leafed A. victoriae-reginae. Set potted succulents in entryways and sitting areas where their tidy geometry can be enjoyed up close.
Caring for succulents
Certain stonecrops and sempervivums tolerate bitter cold, but most succulents need frost protection. In cold climates, grow them in pots and move them to a greenhouse or other protected spot during winter. Full sun is fine for most agaves and aloes, but aeoniums and echeverias prefer partial shade, especially in hot inland areas.
If temperatures in your area seldom dip below 30° or exceed 100°, you can grow succulents effortlessly on a bright patio or in dappled sun, in soil that drains well. Indoors, set them near a sunny window and provide good air circulation.
Once established, succulents seldom need pruning or thinning. Fertilize them lightly in spring, clip spent blooms, and give them just enough water to keep their leaves plump.