MELISSA DAVIDSON, Lifestyles55

Succulents are plants that store water in their leaves and stems to help them adapt to arid conditions. They often have waxy coatings, and hairy leaves and stems. Sometimes, they are spiny. These are all devices designed to conserve moisture. The hairs, for example, modify the climate directly next to the stem or leaf, preserving humidity and regulating temperature.

Some of these plants, the jade plant would be an example, even go so far as to keep their stomata (the breathing apparatus found on the underside of the leaves on most plants) closed during the day to avoid transpiration. They open at night to collect carbon dioxide, which they use during the day to photosynthesize. These plants also generally have shallow roots that grow close to the surface of the soil in order to capture every slight bit of moisture, from the lightest shower to heavy dew.

Succulents are vastly overlooked as a possibility in the garden and in garden design and yet containers full of succulents project the height of sophistication that strikes a sympathetic note with today’s spare interior design lines.

Outdoors, too, we tend to ignore the options succulents offer us. We plant sedums but we don’t use them as features in our garden design. Many of us never consider isolating our shiny leafed bergenia in a container and surrounding it with some other smaller but equally attractive fleshy plants, such as a saxifrage, sempervivums or sedum.

The combination possibilities are endless: a row of sempervivums (hens and chicks) in a low trough, a mosaic of sempervivums and sedums in a square container, a brightly coloured vessel highlighting a fluorescently flowered cactus – all are guaranteed to get a second glance. Look to create geometric patterns with the varied shapes and colours of these plants.

Busy homeowners and gardeners have to love these plants, because they are so easy to grow and take so little care. Once planted outdoors, you can forget them because they will look after themselves. Indoors or in containers, they need infrequent watering – in winter, as little as once a month or two depending on the size of the container – and little fussing.

You can plant succulents in the hottest, driest, stoniest part of the garden and they will thrive. If planting in containers, mix your potting soil with some sand, vermiculite or perlite to improve soil porosity and drainage because succulents don’t like standing in wet conditions. Be sure your container has adequate drainage holes.

Yucca plants and aloe vera are two other succulents you may not have thought about. Yucca filamentosa and Yucca glauca are both hardy to Zone 3 and can be very effective, mulched with river stone. The white flowers are beautiful and the plant itself is an exotic looking, structural specimen that shows well as a feature plant.

In the cactus family, Opuntia fragilis, O. poryapantha and O. humifusa are native to many parts of southern Canada.

Take a second look at succulents – you no doubt already have a number of them in your garden: hens and chicks, saxifrage, sedum, bergenia are just a few. You may have a few even more exotic examples indoors, including burrow tail plants (Sedum morganianum) and kalanchoe that will benefit from a summer outdoors. And an added advantage to these plants is that they are very easy to propagate. Many of them will grow if a leaf or part of a stem is stuck in the soil.

Succulents deserve a bigger and better place in the home and in the garden. Next chance you get try out a leaf or two or a new plant; it could before long add a new element of interest in your garden.

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