I’M ALREADY DREAMING about summertime containers each year, even before the first flat of spring’s pansies arrive in the local nurseries as winter fades. My extra-early visualizations often feature succulents—sculptural, low-care plants in a range of textures and colors—pots full of them, and maybe even a “wreath” (above) for the patio table. I knew Katherine Tracey of Avant Gardens Nursery in Massachusetts would be able to help me with how-to and succulent design ideas.
Background: My keenest gardening friends–some really tough customers–make annual pilgrimages across Massachusetts to Dartmouth (not to be confused with the college in New Hampshire, but under an hour from Newport, and just a bit farther from Boston). They’d come back from Avant Gardens having outspent their budgets, with one gem after another packed into their cars.
I eventually called owners Katherine and Chris Tracey, plant collectors since the 1980s (who have in recent years become seasonal sponsors on A Way to Garden, too). Katherine says the nursery was born “when it really got out of control with our hobby.” They’ve got 25 years of nursery experience–selling both retail and mail-order—and a particular passion for foliage and especially succulents, two big loves of mine.
Listen to our entire conversation on my public-radio show and podcast using the player below (or read the recap of all the highlights I learned below). First recorded in 2013, it has become one of the most popular subjects on my website, year after year. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Note: If you want to skip to the early spring succulent rehab tips for overwintered plants that may be all leggy, or need repotting, try this other interview, too.
avant gardens’ succulent wreath how-to
REQUIRED SUPPLIES: sphagnum wreath form such as this type (they come in various sizes; 9-inch is a good starter); topiary pins (you can see them in the photo above); a generous number of small succulent plants and cuttings from existing older succulents.
DESIGN ADVICE: First, says Katherine, have realistic expectations. Like any “garden,” the wreath is alive, and doesn’t stay “just so” forever.
“You get a 6-month enjoyment maybe,” she says, “and then you have to do some rejuvenating.”
It also uses a lot of plants and cuttings, so it’s not cheap—but you can harvest snippets of succulents you may have in the garden to include, and then as your first plants outgrow the wreath form, you can take cuttings to root, and fill future wreaths or pots. Recycling at its best, after the initial investment.
For a wreath, unlike a container, upright-growing beauties such as Aeonium are not ideal. Focus on rosettes (Echeveria, for instance, and Sempervivum) and “filler” types, such as hardy and tender low-growing Sedum.
Choose a mix of color and textures, Katherine advises. “All succulents mix and match well,” she says, “but try to select light medium and dark tones so your wreath has dimension and contrast.”
HOW-TO: Soak the sphagnum wreath in water.
Distribute the larger rosettes first equally around the wreath, using a pencil or other pointed utensil to poke a hole for the stems. Remove any lower leaves off the stems if necessary, insert the stem, then use a topiary pin to it.
Next, begin filling in between the rosettes with creeping types such as Sedum album, S. sichotense and S. pachyphytum. The idea is to conceal all the moss. Sedum ‘Angelina’ (which is golden) is wonderful for this, too.
AFTERCARE: When happy with your creation, move it to a sunny warm spot to grow, undisturbed, while the cuttings fill in over the next month or so.
“When the sphagnum form feels dry,” Katherine says, “soak the form in a basin or spray with water—but do it in the morning or at the end of the day, so water spots don’t sunburn the leaves.” Don’t overwater; these guys can do with very little.
After months of enjoyment, pull out sad-looking bits and insert fresh ones, or trim things that are misshapen, just as you would groom a pot or a garden bed as it evolves.
Don’t feed until things are well-rooted, and then use liquid seaweed/fish emulsion occasionally during watering, according to label directions. The succulents are happy to grow “lean,” so not a lot of food is needed.
Once things are well-rooted, you can hang your wreath, but remember to turn it to avoid stretching, or give it periodic downtime on a sunny, flat surface for even growth.
katherine’s top tips for potted succulents
‘SUCCULENTS ARE my ‘go-to’ plants for containers in sunny spots, and a perfect solution for gardeners with weekend homes,” says Katherine. You can see some examples of container designs on her blog, and more of them (including the pumpkin arrangement above, and spring rehab tips) are here. Some helpful tricks for success:
- When growing succulents in containers, use a sharp-draining potting mix of 50 percent sand or more, such as a cactus mix or one you blend yourself. Small gravel, such as the type used for poultry grit, would be another possible amendment.
- When planting, “Don’t be stingy!” says Katherine. “Succulents don’t fill out fast the way an annual like pansies or verbenas do, so pack them in right from the start.”
- Use some fillers. Not every plant has to be a specimen type, or costly. Low-growing Sedum, in particular, can make great, bountiful filler to spill over edges or fill between special things.
- Try some non-hardy types, and experiment with overwintering in house. Select a spot indoors with the brightest light possible, but they’ll stretch eventually anyhow. No worry; the pieces you cut off can be rooted in a sandy mix for use later, and many of the parent plants they came from will usually outgrow their haircuts.
- “Even Aeoniums respond nicely to cutbacks,” says Katherine. “I got over my worries when I saw people in Southern California growing them multi-branched as hedges and the landscaping guys were shearing them!”
- Don’t always segregate your succulents (though they can be stunning used alone in all-succulent designs). Katherine collects many other interesting “container plants” (including these unusual annuals and tender perennials); be creative!
more from avant gardens
- More succulent design ideas, plus spring rehab tips
- visit Katherine’s blog, called “Garden Foreplay” (!!!)
- shop Avant Gardens’ mail-order catalog
- the Avant Gardens succulent department
(Photos courtesy of Avant Gardens. Disclosure: Avant Gardens is good friend, alce I buy plants for my own garden, and also a seasonal sponsor of A Way to Garden.)