Tag Archives: succulents

Yes, Virginia, There are Plants for People Who Can’t Grow Anything

The spherical Queen Victoria Century Plant, Agave victoriae-reginae, is a striking plant with precise symmetry and plump, variegated leaves. In cold climates, this succulent should be grown indoors.

Have you ever encountered people who claim to have a brown thumb?  I have.

Just as Virginia doubted the existence of Santa Claus, I doubt the existence of brown thumbers.  I’m convinced that, given the appropriate plant and adequate instruction, anyone can grow a plant successfully.

What better time is there than the holidays to bestow a gift of horticultural happiness on a self-proclaimed brown thumber?

“How?” you might ask.  By giving him or her a juicy succulent.

Succulents are ideal starter plants because they’re the very definition of low maintenance and water wise.  Before you shout “Boring!” and envision a plethora of prickly pears, be aware that succulents encompass a broad range of plants, including agave, euphorbia, cactus, echeveria, kalanchoe and sedum, to name just a few.  These plants come in exotic shapes, colors and sizes that render them great conversation starters.  Many of these spunky organisms also beget delightful blooms when you least expect it.

The leaves of the tropical paddle plant, Kalanchoe thyrsiflora, become tinged with red when grown in bright light. This plant does not tolerate frost so it must be grown indoors in cold winter months.

If you’re on a tight budget, you can buy a succulent, propagate baby plants from fleshy leaf cuttings, and give them as gifts. The process is easy. You simply slice off a leaf when the plant begins its active growth phase, usually in the spring.  Dust the sliced end lightly with rooting hormone.  Then wait for a callous to form, and insert the calloused end into potting mix (described below). Before long, roots will begin to grow.  Please note:  If you propagate a patent-protected plant and sell it for commercial gain, you’re required to pay royalties to the patent holder.

The key to success is making sure your succulents have good drainage. Standard potting mixes are generally too rich and dense for succulents so you’ll need to buy cactus potting mix.  Or you can concoct your own potting mix for transplanting container plants.  There are countless recipes.  One of the simplest involves mixing equal parts of low-peat potting soil and crushed granite.

Succulents’ often thick, fleshy leaves store water.  Typically, the thicker the leaves, the less frequently you need to water.  To determine whether a succulent needs to be watered, stick your finger or a screwdriver in the soil.  It the soil is almost or completely dry, it’s time to water.  When watering, soak the plant thoroughly and let water run out of the pot’s drainage holes.  Once all of the water has drained, put the pot back on its saucer.  Never leave the plant sitting in a saucer of water because it will lead to root rot.

If you’re more of an outdoor plant person, there are many winter-hardy succulents that can be grown outside in Colorado and other areas with cold winters.

This winter-hardy Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ is an eye-catching evergreen groundcover that changes colors with the seasons. In fall and winter, it turns reddish-orange.

To learn more about these fascinating plants first-hand, consider attending a meeting of a Cactus and Succulent Society of America chapter in your area.  There’s a list of chapters by state at http://affiliates.cssainc.org/chilne-cactus-and-succulent-society.html.  Be aware, however, that some site’s information is out of date, so be sure to verify meeting times and places with the contacts listed on the site.

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Tucson’s Gardens Reveal Architectural Majesty

Saguaro skeleton in Zwicki's Tucson garden

Parts of the woody skeleton of the Saguaro cactus, preserved here in a private garden, can be used for fences and other projects.

The mere mention of Tucson is likely to bring images of cacti and sand to mind.  Granted, this southern Arizona town has plenty of both.

But despite Tucson’s location in the Sonoran Desert, the town also contains gardens with abundant color, variety and sophistication that might make you wish we could grow more desert plants outdoors in Colorado.  The city’s gardens, often minimalist in design, offer valuable lessons in creativity and water conservation.

Last month, I visited Tucson during a writers’ conference and toured both public and private gardens.  Here’s what I found:

The Tucson Botanical Gardens offer a multi-faceted experience with, naturally, a cactus and succulent garden, as well as Aloe Alley, a shade garden, herb garden, butterfly garden, backyard bird garden, xeriscape garden, children’s discovery garden and even a Japanese garden, just to name a few.  Believe it or not, some areas of the gardens look downright lush, thanks to the use of xeric groundcovers.

Tucson Botanical Gardens

Trees and groundcovers combine to lend a tropical feel to this area of the Tucson Botanical Gardens.

One of the most notable features of desert vegetation is its dramatic architectural quality.  The Saguaro cactus, found only in the Sonoran Desert, displays spiny arms reaching for the sky.  According to the locals, it can take as long as 75 years for a Saguaro to grow a side arm.  Each of these impressive plants actually has a wooden skeleton that remains after the cactus has outlived its lifespan of 150 to 200 years.

Ocotillo, palm trees and other tall plants also add interest to the landscape.

Ocotillo at Tucson Botanical Gardens

Even when it’s not in bloom, the ocotillo (center) makes a strong statement, especially when combined with other architectural forms.

Agaves, with their wavy, spiky or puffy leaves, offer an attractive contrast to the upright forms of cacti, ocotillo and palo verde trees.
Variegated agave at Tucson Botanical Gardens

A collection of variegated agaves shows how colorful and exciting this genus can be.

Prickly pear cacti (Opuntia), on the other hand, lend a Dr. Seuss air to gardens because of the amusing shapes they take on as they mature.  As for edibility, the fruit of the prickly pear has a consistency and taste similar to watermelon.  When trying it, though, it’s important to make sure that the fruit has been peeled carefully to remove all the spines.

Dr. Seuss prickly pears in Zwicki's Tucson garden

The playful growth habit of prickly pear adds a whimsical touch to this private desert garden.

If you find yourself in Tucson sometime, I encourage you to visit its gardens to appreciate the richness of the region’s plant life.  Also, consider visiting the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  I hear that it offers fascinating lessons in desert ecology.

Tubular blooms at Tucson Botanical Gardens

Light and shadow add drama to this floral display at the Tucson Botanical Gardens.

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