July and August in Virginia can be tough, frustrating times in the garden. Sun and heat are plentiful, but rain can be hit or miss (or just plain miss). Instead of fighting the fickle elements, work with them and bring some succulents into your container garden. Their needs are meager — low water and blazing temperatures. But the returns are high — gorgeous colors and textures that can become highlights in the lagging, late-summer garden.
All that being said, I have killed my fair share of succulents. I have a sneaking (somewhat embarrassing) suspicion that I pay too much attention to them and kill them as a result of all that fluttering and fussing. I looked to two experts for a reminder on succulent basics.
“Succulents are a care-free plant most people kill because they love them too much,” says Kelly Agee of Eltzroth and Thompson Greenhouses in Charlottesville. “[They need] bright light and water when very dry. Do not repot them very often. When you do, repot them using a soil made for cacti, not just regular potting soil.”
“Plump succulents are a sign of good water retention,” adds Janet Woody, librarian at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. “It’s OK to skip a week if your succulent looks fat and sassy.”
Succulents also make terrific houseplants and can be brought indoors after the summer season. But their light needs, when indoors, are more specific than I had realized. “Succulents like lots of light but need a break from hot afternoon sun,” Woody explains. “Plants (placed) close to window glass can get burned if the glass is not UV-treated. Move the plants away from the window, or add a sheer curtain for protection.”
Be forewarned: There are thousands of succulent cultivars available. For some, the initial bloom of love turns into an addiction. Here are a few gateway succulents to try:
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Intricate, multi-stemmed plants offer a nice complement to the larger rosettes, with some cultivars that trail (such as “String of Buttons”) and others that offer vertical balance (such as “Tom Thumb”). (Illustration by Phong Nguyen)
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These plump rosettes can be stunning, anchoring centerpieces in a larger container planting. Try the cultivars “Fleur Blanc,” “Red Tip,” “Blue Rose” and psychedelic “Afterglow.” (Illustration by: Phong Nguyen)
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Introduce some spikey, desert-inspired height to your plantings. Similar to the growth patterns of aloes, “White Star” is speckled white, while “Wide Zebra” is, as expected, bold and stripy. (Illustration by: Phong Nguyen)
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Also known as “living stones” or “pebble plants,” lithops look just like their nicknames imply. Their earthier tones and camouflaging tendencies make them great conversation pieces in the garden. (Illustration by: Phong Nguyen)
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These geometric, repetitive-patterned, Spirograph-like plants do well in windowsills. Also known as hens and chicks, the plants will send off babies to ensure future generations. Try “Kalinda,” “Ruby Heart” or “Cobwebs.” (Illustration by: Phong Nguyen)
Don’t overlook old-school, trusty succulent plants such as aloes and jade plants (which are actually also Crassulas). These vigorous growers are great for beginners and can take on another life if planted in creative ways.
Try planting succulents in hanging terraria or retro animal or dinosaur planters. Use them to create a dish garden, make a hanging wall garden with a vintage Coke crate, create a succulent wreath (kits are available on Etsy) or make a small rock garden in a container.
Treat each succulent like it is part of a palette contributing to a larger piece of art. Or just go ahead and plant a few to simply start and experiment. But most importantly, gently (and perhaps mindfully) neglect them — and watch them thrive.