Succulents are perfect for container gardens

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, May 20, 2010; LZ06

Container plantings bring color and joy to every patio. For city dwellers with small patios and balconies, or renters with no need to invest in the landscape, they may be the only garden to have.

But the watering needs are a burden. In the sapping heat of July and August, pots may require a soak twice a day to prevent annuals and tropicals from wilting. And what happens when you go on vacation, or have to travel for work?

As we toss the pansies for seasonal pots over the next two or three weeks, we are drawn to the wisdom and foresight of that great showman and gardener P.T. Barnum, who famously uttered: "There's a succulent born every minute." Or something like that.

In container gardens, succulents are a class of plants that come to the rescue in strangely beautiful forms. A few have been around for years, notably hardy hens-and-chicks or tender portulacas. Others have occupied only the arcane world of the rock garden hobbyist.

But a resurgent interest in succulents has spawned breeding and marketing programs that have produced an expanding palette of contrasting shapes, sizes and colors. Agaves, echeverias, aloes, stonecrops and aeoniums are now part of the savvy gardener's vocabulary. They share a key common trait: no need to be watered.

Once popular in arid states, "the craze has gone all over now," says Chris Berg, spokesman for EuroAmerican Propagators, a major grower in Bonsall, Calif. "They're stylish plants."

You can make a handsome combination of hardy succulents that will survive the winter outdoors, though you have to use a container that is frost-proof. Most terra cotta pots are not. If you expand the plantings to include tender succulents, the range of plants becomes broader, more colorful and wonderfully weirder. You can treat them as you would other annuals and discard them in November, and replant them afresh the following spring. Or they can be wintered indoors.

Once initially watered, they can live without the gardener's hand. Indeed, irrigation is the quickest way to kill them. "They're happier when you get back from vacation than when you left," says Berg.

Read more: Designing with succulents, Guidelines for growing and Ingredients for a pretty pot.

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