Tender Succulents for the Prairie Garden

By: Marilyn N. Dudek, Master Gardener

How does a prairie gardener become enamoured with succulents, namely tender succulents, which do not grow and survive winter outside in our climate? Approximately 20 years ago, while on European garden tours with Vancouver plantsman, Thomas Hobbs, he introduced the group to such succulents. Tom was the forerunner in growing tender succulents in one’s garden, and once introduced to them, I became ‘hooked’. Further travels to California where I visited the unbelievable greenhouse “Succulent Gardens” in the Monterey Bay area and to Arizona gave me the eye candy from the many unique beautiful genera and species of succulents, especially the non-cactus ones. I was most enthused with Echeverias, the beautiful rosettes in the succulent world. I discovered they varied in ‘petal’ shape, colour and size. As I planted more and more containers with succulents I realized that other succulent varieties, Senecio, Agave, Aeonium, Crassula and Sedum, entered into the plantings to give the containers variation in height, shape and texture. As in regular annual/perennial container planting, featuring the thriller, spiller and filler, this recipe works for succulent containers too. But as nature is not planted in perfect order, for example, succulent containers featuring all Echeverias certainly gives one the ‘wow’ factor.

The recommended soil mix for succulents is comprised of three parts: one part vermiculite or perlite; one part coarse sand; and one part soil with a slow release fertilizer (Osmocote 14-14-14). Top dressing the soil after planting helps prevent soil splashing up, keeps moisture from accumulating around the base of the plants, and adds an aesthetic look to these desert plants making them look right at home mimicking their natural habitat. Beige pea gravel and coarse sand are two examples. Adding some larger rocks, shells, large coloured-glass balls or fun whimsical items puts one’s own artistic touches into the containers.

Tender succulents can also be planted in your garden soil, which must be very well draining or has been amended with porous material such as coarse sand. For both planting conditions succulents must be planted in full sun, which means they must receive sunlight between six and eight hours. Alternatively, I have left the succulent in a container filled with succulent soil mixture and buried the container being sure to remove the entire plant and container once frost threatens.

Insects are not a common occurrence on succulents but on occasion a mealy bug will be discovered. They especially enjoy hiding tucked in closely where the leaf attaches to the stem. Removal method for these insects, which are visible as small white fluffs, is a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol. The actual insect is hidden under the protection of the white fluff and when touched with the rubbing alcohol immediately desiccates the underlying insect.

Planting succulents in containers facilitates the ease of overwintering as the entire container can be taken inside. I keep my succulent containers in my basement cold room. Before the containers are taken inside the succulents are thoroughly washed with a mild detergent and water solution being sure to wash both the top and underside of the ‘leaves’. The soap bubbles can be left on the plants. The containers when taken inside are under grow lights for 16 hours a day. With the plants kept in a cold area they are put into a dormant state. In dormancy they do not require much watering and no fertilizing is needed until the end of March and then a mild solution, approximately ¼ of the amount suggested in the instructions. The plants will tell you when water is required when their ‘leaves’ become slightly soft and/or wrinkly.

With the arrival of Spring one could possibly notice that some of the succulents have stretched somewhat and become unattractive. This is the time to “tweak” these plants. Cut the leggy plants, allow them to “callus” (for half a day to 3 days), dip them into rooting hormone #1, and replant them into newly prepared soil and clean containers. Succulents are very resilient and love this treatment. Any large leaves that accidentally break off can be rooted in separate “nursery” containers. Trailing succulents can be cut back to a desired length and these removed pieces cut apart to offer many new plants. One needs only to let callus, use hormone powder and plant. Planting succulent in containers stretches your garden experience from the common to the exotic and your creativity becomes endless with the many varieties available to you.

Find the MMGA videos “Wintering Tender Succulents” and “Reintroducing Tender Succulents to the Outdoors” here:
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Published: March 2018