get creative with succulents, plus spring rehab, with avant gardens’ katherine tracey
ONE RECENT FALL, an unannounced package arrived. Inside was a “bowl” made from a pumpkin whose handle had been removed, with the pumpkin topped with sphagnum moss then somehow planted with a mad mix of colorful, textural succulents. Gorgeous. And it looked great till after New Year’s, when the pumpkin base finally let go.
It was a gift from my nursery owner-garden designer friend Katherine Tracey of Avant Gardens, who apparently believes there is no limit to creativity where succulents are concerned—using them lavishly as “annuals” in containers in her summer garden, in wreaths, in beds and borders of course, and also as with that pumpkin: as floral arrangements.
Despite her New England location, Kathy has amassed an extensive collection of succulents both hardy and tender. She encourages us to plant them in diverse ways, too—and walked us through how to revive and even upcycle some that may not be looking tip-top after a long winter.
Read along as you listen to the May 1, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
q&a: creativity with succulents, with katherine tracey
Q. Spring, spring, spring.
A. It’s a little zooey here.
Q. Me, too. Let’s say something upbeat to start, then, rather than talk about tales of my bedraggled succulents…
Q. …which are stretched out in the case of some of the non-hardy ones. We’ll get rehab tips in a few minutes. First let’s get some of the inspiration, and get people thinking of places to use these plants in the garden this year. If you could paint us a picture of some of the roles you use them in, in your garden and your life—you really do beautiful things with them. So paint some pictures.
A. Because we have so many plants to take care of, and we love to do container gardens, succulents are the perfect plants for the containers. Once planted up, they are virtually carefree—with an occasional watering throughout the weeks during the summer months.
We have so many great containers, and the succulents just make the perfect subjects. Besides the fact that they mix and match so beautifully, there are so many different forms and colors and textures. As we collect more and more varieties there is just more inspiration to try something new.
Q. If I recall correctly from seeing pictures of your garden, you have certain spots that are dedicated to holding a container—like in the beds in some cases, yes?
A. What we try to do is showcase the container and not necessarily by the front door. We might use a nice square piece of bluestone—something 2 feet by 2 feet—that we insert in a garden bed as a focal point. This way the container carries the show when perhaps the plants in that bed might be a little less interesting.
For instance, the bed might have some early spring color, but still gets a fair amount of sunshine—because the succulents do like sun—we would position a container in it. It could be something very traditional, like a Grecian urn, or it could be something contemporary, in a tall cylinder shape. It really depends upon what your style is, what your home’s architecture is like.
Q. So they can be the focal point even in beds—besides a traditional container arrangement like on a patio or something.
Q. With succulents in pots like that, what kind of medium are we using? I know we will get on to the technical, but before I forget—is this a different medium from a traditional potting soil?
A. Yes, and this is where people have problems with succulents: when they don’t use the proper soil mix.
Q. Because you said “carefree,” and I’m thinking maybe not if I use the regular potting soil.
A. Regular potting soil, which is mostly peat moss and perlite and maybe a little vermiculite thrown in, will hold too much water. Succulents hate wet soil. Here at the nursery we have access to a commercial bark-y mix, so it’s composted bark. It is pretty good as far as drainage goes, but to that we will add perlite and coarse sand. So basically, we use this fast-draining mix, which might be two parts this bark-y mix, two parts perlite, and one part coarse sand, with a small amount of an organic fertilizer like Bio-tone, which is an Espoma product.
But I was listening to Deborah Lee Baldwin give a talk last year in California, and she recommends something else—and this is California, so they have a different climate; they don’t have as much rain as we do. She uses half potting soil and half pumice. And the product that she uses is called Dry Stall, a very fine pumice rock. She incorporates the two, and that seems to give her something good to use for a potting medium.
Q. Good; just because I might forget when we are talking about the rehab later. So we can do them in pots, even pots in garden beds. We’ve had a previous conversation about succulent wreaths, which could make your vertical garden if you hung it, or be a tabletop kind of a thing. Those are gorgeous—and those are popular workshops, too—the wreath-making ones, right?
Q. And then I mentioned my pumpkin…[Laughter.]
A. Ah, the pumpkin. The pumpkin has its handle taken off, but we don’t carve out the pumpkin, just so folks don’t think that they should carve out their pumpkin first. You should use a good, solid pumpkin to do that.
Q. It was like the top was removed.
A. Just the handle or stem.
Q. You had this moss—sphagnum—and it seemed like these little succulent cuttings were attached to it. How did that happen? They lasted. I still have the cuttings; this whole top thing I still have, and the cuttings are all alive.
A. So this is a great way to repurpose your succulents that you have in containers at the end of the season. You might not have room on your windowsills, if you don’t have a greenhouse, to bring in all your succulent plants, but you don’t want to just see the frost take them away.
You can take cuttings off your succulents, whether they are the rosettes of something like Echeveria, or Sedum, or hens and chicks, the Sempervivum. And what you do is you just let them air-dry for a day or two to form a little callous over the cut stem. And then—this is going to sound really crafty…
Q. I used to work for Martha Stewart, so that’s OK.
A. Then you’ve probably seen some of these. [Laughter.]
Q. Don’t be shy with me.
A. Tacky Glue is what I use; I suppose you could use a glue gun, but I am afraid of them. And I use floral pins. It doesn’t have to be a pumpkin as your vessel; it could be a clay pot you fill with floral foam that you cover with the sphagnum moss, and that won’t deteriorate like the pumpkin will eventually…
A. …which I think you discovered it did. [Laughter.]
Q. It did, but it really hung on—that was a good pumpkin.
A. The trick is getting a pumpkin that has cured well beforehand. A fresh pumpkin off the vine that hasn’t cured is going to rot much more quickly than you would like it to. You use the sphagnum as sort of your planting medium, and you secure that onto the pumpkin or the pot you are using, and you can use some spray adhesive. Though it’s not good to inhale, I use it because it’s quick.
Then you take your cuttings and arrange them first before you start tacking the arrangement with glue, and once you’ve decided what the arrangement is going to look like, you glue the base of the cutting to the sphagnum moss. I use floral pins to help secure them in place, because sometimes they are top-heavy and the glue doesn’t catch right away.
Very carefully put pressure on each cutting to make sure it’s making contact, and then let it rest for 24 or 48 hours, so that the glue hardens, and then you have your arrangement. [The detailed step-by-step on making succulent pumpkins or other such “arrangements.”]
What will happen is that the sphagnum moss, if you just mist it periodically to make just enough moisture available to the cuttings, the succulent cuttings start to take root into that moss. So when your pumpkin begins to decay, and you say this is the end, what you can do is pull off all those cuttings. If they have roots, great; if they don’t have roots, but they’re still firm, they’re alive, and you can root them.
I usually take the unrooted cuttings and stick them in a little propagating tray with sand and perlite—that’s what I use as my propagation medium. Bottom heat helps, and eventually depending on how much heat is available, those cuttings will root. Once they have a decent root system, you can pot them up in small pots in a succulent potting mix and you’ve got some new plants for next season.
Q. It’s really like the ultimate recycling. These darn things—I had this beautiful arrangement, which I enjoyed in my house for months thanks to you and your surprise package, and now I have the little babies that will get upcycled into yet another crafty creation with your advice here. [Laughter.] It’s kind of fun.
Q. Not all succulents are available for all uses, and some are hardy or not depending where people are gardening. And you pointed out that for some of us without a greenhouse, some are less happy in our heated homes with low light in winter. I have found that even in a single genus, like the Echeveria, some species and varieties are more or less cooperative for certain uses. It’s not like “the Sedums are this, and the Echeverias are that…”
I thought maybe before we all go on another binge at the garden center and buy some that aren’t suited, what are some that are very versatile—ones that if we’re getting started collecting succulents. What do you think: Do you have a top 5, or a top 5,000, plants?
A. Oooohhh. [Laughter.]
Q. But seriously, when people come to your nursery, and your open days, if they’re not connoisseurs and super experts, are there ones that you find yourself recommending again and again that you know they will have a good time with?
A. With the hardy succulents, Sedum ‘Angelina’ is foolproof, and does well in so many different situations. It turns a wonderful tawny gold in the fall and winter. It’s evergreen, so you have it all year, and that is fun to bring a golden color into arrangements. So that would be one of the hardy ones.
Most of the Sempervivum—I always look for ones that freely offset. ‘Forest Frost’ is one that has the sort of spider web coating on it.
Q. I love that.
A. That one puts off a lot of offsets, and gives a fun, different texture.
For arrangements—you’ve got me thinking arrangements—you want to use succulents that are evergreen, ones that aren’t deciduous and don’t die back for the winter. So Sedum dasyphyllum, which is borderline hardy and is a little tiny pebbly powder-blue one, but seems to be there all year round.
Sedum album, which is a more hardy little green creeper, gets reddish tones in the wintertime. There are several forms: ‘Coral Carpet’ [below] is one, and ‘Red Ice’ is another one. So those are a few of the hardy ones.
Then in the tender succulents, Echeveria seem to be the most popular group, and I look for ones that produce offsets—that instead of growing up on a tall stalk like some tend to do, Echeveria peacockii is one.
Q. That’s a great name: peacockii.
A. Yes, peacockii. [Laughter.] I hope I’ve got the accent right.
Q. Whatever. It’s Latin so nobody is going to know. [Laughter.]
A. Graptoveria ‘Green Goddess’ is another one.
Q. So these are ones that we are going to have a little more success with. Sometimes I bring home ones that look great in the florist or the garden center in the greenhouse, but they’re a little more fussy. Others stay with me a long time.
A. Some tend to branch out more. Those are ones that people feel more comfortable with, because they are not fighting this gangly habit when the plant gets more mature after a year or two.
Q. With something like the arrangement or even our annual garden pots, can we mix hardy and non-hardy. Is that OK?
Q. So there are no rules there. In the ground of course you have to go according to your Zone and conditions.
A. If you want to be sure they come back every year.
Q. Speaking of coming back every year, I have a bunch of different groundcover sedums—I don’t even remember what they are. Some are red, some are blue, some are green, but they’re all textural and fun. But some look a little bereft by late winter or early spring, kind of loose; they’re older plantings. Can I give those a haircut?
Q. And can I use those little bits?
A. Yes you can.
Q. OK, oh boy do I have some ideas now. [Laughter.]
A. And the prostrate stems that are lying along the ground will eventually root in some more, but if you need to cover them with a little sharp-draining soil or sand in the garden, you’ll see the new growth popping right up through that soil and sand, and you’ll have a much thicker plant. I know what you mean; right now they are looking a little scraggly.
Q. So I can give them a haircut and topdress them a little with some sharp soil, and I could put the trimmings in a propagating tray like you described.
A. And then you’d have more.
Q. OK, I like that. Let’s then talk about the sort of gory stuff. We have these plants, especially the non-hardy ones. I indulged and bought them on sale at the end of the season, and brought them in my house. Some still look great, and some don’t. What’s the general protocol for rehab after winter?
A. Well, I think first off repot all your plants. I always do this. There is nothing like giving the plant’s root system some fresh soil to grab onto, to help them kick in. Because there is low light from October through March, and most succulents like a lot of light, they’re struggling for the light so they stretch.
The other issue, in the greenhouse anyway, is that humidity has an adverse effect on succulent foliage, and they can just look a little “eh,” like they just want some bright, sunny days and good air circulation and not so much humidity. First thing I would do: repot.
If the plant has stretched a lot, then you need to decide what you want to do. Is it a bushy type of plant that can regenerate from the base? Then you can chop it down and take all those cuttings and try to root them, and you’ll have fresh new growth coming from the lower part of the plant.
Most succulents will regenerate, but a few you won’t have as much success with. For example the sun roses, Aeonium, tend to grow on these tall stalks. Though there are a few varieties that are free-branching, many just want to go upright, so you have to behead them.
Q. But it’s so hard, because you bought it for that beautiful “sun rose” head, as you said, and to cut it off…
A. I know. It takes courage. But what are you going to do? [Laughter.]
Q. How far below the head do you cut?
A. I usually cut enough so I can root that Aeonium, so I might cut 2 inches off. But then you have that stalk. Look along your stalk and see if you have any little buds. Sometimes there are little buds starting to form, and if you have a lot of buds you can wait until the buds develop and then bring it down more if they break more at the base than up above.
Q. Oh this is not for the faint of heart.
A. It’s not. Another trick that I did with the gangly succulents is a form of layering [above]. For example, those Aeonium that look like Dr. Seuss plants on gangly stems: What I will do is remove some of the soil and put it in a tall enough pot that might mask that tall stem. I’ll plant the bottom portion in a succulent soil mix, and then I’ll fill around that main stem with perlite—I have that available. It allows air, so you won’t rot the stem like lots of wet soil would.
What will happen is along that stem, you’ll start getting roots that will start to fill in the perlite. Once it seems like it’s rooted in, I might take it out of that pot, shake it off, and pot it up in more succulent soil mix.
Q. So it’s a two-step process to rehab that one.
A. You could maybe leave it in the perlite and topdress it with gravel, but the only trouble is perlite is not very attractive. You don’t want to see that as your soil base.
Q. So I have various Echeveria in my sunny mudroom, and some look OK and some look like hell. Let’s say I cut some back, and get gutsy and so forth. But when do they go back outside—things that have been indoors? You don’t want to just drag them out into the bright sunshine of May one day, do you?
A. They will get sunburn if they’ve been in a low-light situation and you put them out on a strong sunny day, where the temperatures are in the 70s or 80s.
Q. That’s what I thought.
A. I’d put them out maybe in the morning the first time I started to harden them off, then bring them in or cover them. Or put them in a spot where there is morning sun and afternoon shade. As soon as they are starting to get acclimated and there is no marring of the foliage and you think it’s safe, you can start the transition anytime we have some nice, mild days. And of course you want to make sure we have frost-free nights before you leave them out.
Q. It’s almost like hardening off your vegetable seedlings. You don’t put them out and say, “The heck with you!” It’s a transition.
A. You have to watch. Your listeners are from all over the place. Some are ready, and some up North still might have 25 degrees, and have to bring everything in.
The other thing that I was going to say is patience. It takes awhile for those cut-back succulents to regenerate.
A. We’re used to cutting back things like tomatoes and basil that after a week of two, after you’ve pinched them back, they are already starting to put on more growth.
Q. This ain’t that.
A. About two or three years ago, I had all these remnant succulents that I cut back hard in late April, and they looked horrible. I hid them from view, and then they started to regenerate. I threw them into this wonderful pot I had, that had a crack in it. I thought, “OK, this is going to be the misfit pot.” But the pot was wonderful, and I threw those succulents in.
One thing I might add is that I tend to put a lot of succulents in a container, because they don’t grow fast (or need a lot of soil or water). We have short growing seasons here; I don’t want to wait three months for it to start looking good. I want it to look good from June through September anyway.
That container of misfits was so fabulous in September, but whoever would have thought? I didn’t take the before picture, but I took the after one. It was in a spot where I didn’t have to look at it earlier in the season.
Q. On that note, may my best ones be half as good as your misfit pot, Kathy the Succulent Queen. You really do inspire me.
more from katherine tracey
- Succulent rehab after winter
- Pre-winter prep for tender succulents
- Succulent pumpkin how-to (or other succulent “arrangements”)
- Making succulent wreaths
- The Avant Gardens Nursery website
- All Kathy’s container ideas (succulents or otherwise)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 1, 2017 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Disclosure: Avant Gardens is a friend, a plant source I use, and a sponsor of A Way to Garden, for which I am grateful. Photos courtesy of Avant Gardens, used with permission.)