WICHE: Succulents looking especially good this summer

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By Jeneen Wiche

These are the summers that I am glad I have maintained a growing succulent collection for outdoor containers. It has been dreadfully hot this, and spending all my time watering containers is not m idea of fun.  

If we removed the Ohio Valley humidity factor, this summer would be like a Zone 9, Mediterranean climate with pop-up thunderstorms. I bring up the Mediterranean because plants that thrive there have adapted to a weather pattern marked by, among other things, mild wet winters and warm dry summers.

It has been explained this way: 6 months of rain, and 6 months of drought.

Plants that have adapted to this Mediterranean climate have done so to survive prolonged drought: they can be short-lived but good at producing seed; die back to the ground during the summer and survive as underground corms, bulbs or fleshy stems; or be a succulent with the ability to store moisture for times of need. The succulent success stories translates into a great container plant here (unless we have a super wet summer).

There are so many interesting succulents to chose from but the very dramatic seem to be only hardy from zones 8-11. Kentuckiana is Zone 6, with some localized areas in Zone 7, so growing some succulents is like growing tropical hibiscus, gardenia or other houseplants.

We must bring our succulents indoors for the winter before nighttime temperature, dip below 45-50 degrees. But, hey, in the summer, you only need to water your containers every couple of days!

The Echeverias are my favorite and widely available. There are a great many different species so just choose the ones that are aesthetically pleasing to you.

Typically they form rosettes of broad succulent leaves in greens, blues and reds. Hybrid Echeverias offer ruffled edges and variegation and prove to be more reliable summer bloomers in climates that have a shorter outdoor growing season.

Crassulas, from which the familiar jade plant heralds, typically formrosettes of succulent foliage that spiral, twist, stack and overlap. This genus, overall, is also a good spreader so it can fill in a pot rather quickly. Not a bad thing with the succulents because they don’t mind sharing a crowded pot with others of their kind.

Round out your collection with Senecio, Glottiphyllum or Dudleya and you will have a diverse display of color, texture and form.

Senecio serpans has finger-like succulent foliage and Glottiphyllum nelii has wavy uneven erect “fingers” and dandelion-like blooms by early summer.

Dudleya, closely related and similar in form to the Echeverias, have a tendency to be more powdery blue in color but offer a variety in leaf form.

For the craziest in leaf form, next to the Crassulas, is Cheiridopsis. This succulent offers some very interesting leaf shapes that appear sharp or angular, heart or egg-shaped, flat or rounded.

Several succulent choices that are consistently hardy in Zone 6 include some of the Sempervivums (hens and chicks), Euphorbias and many Sedums.

Several species of Saxifraga are hardy or borderline hardy so these would be good for some experimentation in well-drained, warmer microclimates that may exist (or that you create) in your landscape.

All of these succulents and their offspring form crowded, dense clumps creating a sea of repetition.

Propagation of succulents is very easy and they do well when you allow them to “harden-off.” Take cuttings and allow the fleshy stems to air dry before you root them out in containers or the ground.

Be sure the soil is amended with sand or gravel to improve drainage. The more stones you can incorporate into the planting scheme the better for those that are hardy or borderline hardy because the stones can store a bit of heat during the day.