versatile succulents, indoors and out, with wave hill’s harnek singh

SUCCULENTS: You probably already grow some perennial ones in your garden, and perhaps others that aren’t hardy are among your favorite houseplants. But what if some of those indoor types started playing seasonal roles in the garden, too?

That’s what Harnek Singh, a longtime gardener at Wave Hill in New York City, has been thinking about and experimenting with lately to some pretty stunning effect. It helps if you have a spare garden area to experiment in like they do at Wave Hill, where what’s called the Paisley Bed (because it’s shaped like a giant paisley) is planted in a whole new theme each year.

This year, until sometime in October, it’s all about succulents, and the design includes many of the plants in the cacti and succulents collection that Harnek cares for in Wave Hill’s conservatory, just one part of his overall horticultural role there. He recommended some favorite succulents for indoors and outdoors, and gave us some tips on how to grow them and use them (like why even the houseplant types need some outdoor time each year!), and even which ones are easy to propagate more of.

Read along as you listen to the July 17, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

versatile succulents, with harnek singh



Margaret Roach: Welcome, Harnek. Thanks for joining me today on this summery day in the garden.

Harnek Singh: Hi, Margaret. Well, thank you for having me on this show. I think it’s nice that I’m getting a little break from gardening. It’s hot [laughter].

Margaret: I know it’s hot there today, while we’re recording.

Harnek: I’m delighted.

Margaret: The Paisley Bed—I’ve seen many of its designs over the years at Wave Hill, but this is quite distinctive. Before we talk about the succulent version that you’ve done this year, tell us a little bit about some other recent paisley beds. And about this idea of having this bare area that can be something different every year.

Harnek: Yeah, it’s a small section that is right in front of the Visitor’s Center at Wave Hill. We plant usually spring bulbs in the winter, or in the fall. Then after those bulbs are taken out, we usually grow something just for the season. In the past, we have done it with the vegetables, multiple times actually, that’s what it was last year. We have done it with just foliage. That will be Coleus or Alternanthera or some other things that have seasonal effect by the foliage. Sometimes just easy-to-grow annuals from seeds, just throwing much of seeds in there and see how they go through the seeds. So it has done different ways in the past.

So I did it once before, about 10 years ago. That time I tried to make a little sort of knot garden, just really simple. So this was my second try on the Paisley Bed, so we decided to do it with the succulent house.

Margaret: And now you make it sound… You said “just vegetables” or “just foliage.” But it’s always spectacular because even if it’s “just vegetables,” it’s so beautifully designed, and we could say it’s “just succulents.” But boy, what you’ve done in this paisley-shaped bed, and I believe all around it is a little piece of lawn, yeah? So it’s cut into a piece of lawn. You’ve also made almost this mosaic of these sculptural, geometric plants in this bed. It’s pretty stunning. So how did you get the idea to bring some of the succulents from the collection outside?

Harnek: So I have been taking care of the succulent collection here for quite some time, more than 10 years. Actually, as a hobby gardener, I was fascinated by symmetry of some of the succulents like Agave, or Echeveria, Aeonium. I would always say, “Oh, who needs flowers when you have those beautiful shapes?” So since I was doing this for years and using plants outside in the garden in smaller scale, like a container, or just few plants that are planted in the ground. So over the time, we have quite a few things that were just growing here and there.

So we had a lot of plants that we thought, “Oh, we need to use them,” because we have been tending them for many, many years. So that’s how the whole thing started. I said, “Oh, well.”

Then we decided to take some cuttings off, some other easy circle so that we can talk about, that anybody can basically do and just grow them in a regular garden setting or in a household setting. So that’s how it started.

And all the plants that are actually planted this year are pretty much, I will say 95 percent of them we grew them in house. We didn’t need to buy much stuff. We did buy couple things like Dichondra or some other groundcover things that work well with the succulents, but mostly it’s plants from our collection, so that was the exciting part. [Above, Agave americana and other agaves summering outside the Wave Hill conservatory with the silvery groundcover Dichondra, and purple Alternanthera.]

Margaret: You love propagation, do you? [Laughter.] Yeah.

Harnek: Yes. I mean, of course.

Margaret: Yeah. So within this paisley-shaped bed, you showed me an overhead picture the other day of its progress report, and it looks like there’s some paisley designs within the paisley. Is that the case?

Harnek: Yes, certainly there are. I always wanted to make paisleys within paisleys. [Laughter.] That’s what you see when you see paisleys sometimes.

Margaret: Fabrics and so forth, yeah.

Harnek: In the fabrics, yeah, exactly. So I never had the opportunity and when it wasn’t originally part of my plan. So when I start laying things out, it just clicked. I mean, I had the basic concept. So the way it’s planted, plants from the Old World are kind of on one side, and the plants from the New World are on another side.

Margaret: Oh!

Harnek: Americas or Africa. So within that, a range of plants that we have propagated, it just became kind of natural to have some fun, I will say. So creating paisleys within paisley was fun. So the bed is paisley-shaped. Then there are three paisleys within the paisley planting: One is with the large plants. Then those are large plants are mixed from cacti and large Euphorbia, Agave, and Aloe.

Then the smaller sections also, well, that I call them bedding plants, like any bedding animals. They’re easy to plant them in mass to create a nice effect. So yeah, one paisley with the African plants, and there’s one paisley with American plants within this paisley.

Margaret: Interesting. So this is not… Seeing a bedding-out scheme, so to speak, a design with mostly non-hardy plants. It’s not something you see with succulents in the Northeastern United States very much, is it? Something different, something really different. But it really encourages us to think about can some of the “houseplants” we have inside, some of which are probably succulent, play a role in our garden seasonally.

And you’ve really taken that to the maximum, because you have this great collection and you have the ability to propagate and so forth. But yeah, I mean it really is spectacular.

So I wanted to ask you, you’ve gone and liberated some of the collection. You’ve let them out for the summer [laughter]. What are they thinking? What are the plants? How are they responding, some of these plants that grow usually in a greenhouse? [Below, some of the plants were plunged, pots and all, in the Paisley Bed, others unpotted and put into the soil.]

Harnek: Well, from my experience, plants during the growing season, like all succulents, they want to be outside. They don’t really like being in the greenhouse. Even in a household setting, too, if somebody has a sunroom, it does get hot in places. Especially in a greenhouse it gets so hot, and I can’t even find enough time to water them. Even people say, “Oh, succulents, they don’t need water,” but they do. And it’s like 115 degrees in the greenhouse every day.

Margaret: Oh, my.

Harnek: So over the time when I was bringing plants out, I mean they were much happier. Still, I bring the plants out, the ones I bring them out during the season, just leave them as containers, they always are much happier than the ones that are left in the greenhouse from our collection. So that was kind of an encouraging part, just seeing potential of these plants. Some of these things, we are growing them as tiny… The way our greenhouse is, it’s a collection. We have almost 800 different kind of succulents in a tiny little greenhouse.

Margaret: Oof!

Harnek: So it is so hard to imagine that what these plants can do if they are given room to grow.

Margaret: So they’re growing. Some of them are growing [laughter]?

Harnek: They filled in, it’s been a month since the bed was planted.

Margaret: Wow.

Harnek: Some things have tripled in size.

Margaret: Wow.

Harnek: Yeah. Even some of the things that are generally are so unhappy, like Haworthia kind of stuff that doesn’t grow in the hot weather that much, but when they’re planted in the ground, just the air circulation, maybe just the company of other companion plants, they look so plump.

Margaret: Huh, interesting. So far so good. Not only is it beautiful, but they seem happy, too.

Harnek: Exactly. I will encourage anybody who collects succulents, or has few succulents as houseplants, just put them to work when the season comes. And a lot of these are so easy to take cuttings off as well. And some of them could be used as specimen plants, like Agaves or cacti kind of stuff. But then there are lot of plants that could be easily, you can make 10 plants out of one plant, even more, and divide some things. One plant could be divided into more. [Above, divided Echeveria runyonii ‘Topsy Turvy’.]

Margaret: I have a couple of really big Sansevieria, what do they call it? Snake plant or something?

Harnek: Snake plant, yeah. Or mother-in-law’s tongue.

Margaret: Mother-in-law’s tongue, right. A couple of big pots. And if I’m doing a group of pots outside, sometimes that just gives it so much. It can be other annuals from the garden center or whatever, but sometimes you just put those two sculptural pieces in the mix, and it just changes it all, doesn’t it? To have something… And those are succulent.

Harnek: Absolutely. I love Sansevierias personally. At home, I have a collection of them, small ones. I mean, some of them get quite big, like Sansevieria cylindrica, which is a great houseplant for a large scale, but it’s also a great centerpiece for any mixed container.

So these plants, they’re much happier when they’re outside. I mean, these plants, you do have to make sure you kind of acclimate them before you put them in… before you change their environment from a greenhouse, from a house, bringing outside. But eventually they are happy. I mean, they can take full sun, even these plants.

Margaret: Really?

Harnek: It depends, if you can adjust them to-

Margaret: Gradually, yeah.

Harnek: Gradually, yes.

Margaret: Oh, and now you said cylindrica, the species cylindrica. Now, is that the one that it does not have the flattened foliage, but it has the foliage that’s cylindrical, like a tube, like a finger? Do you know what I mean? That it’s pointed at the end.

Harnek: Yeah, it’s round. I mean, it can get pretty thick. I mean, I have seen them 4 feet tall, probably more some places, so yes. Then there’s a flat-leaf one, Sansevieria grandis, which is one of the widest leaf Sansevieria, which is another really, really beautiful plant. I love that plant. Makes a great houseplant, and just same, good garden plant if planted outside.

Margaret: So I could probably gradually give mine a little more light and a little more light. I had them in a bright, shady location. I never knew, because I’d never really taken them out until the last few years. One thing I will say, I shouldn’t say this because it’s a downer [laughter], but Harnek, what happened last year is in August or September we had a hailstorm, and I had them outside and they got, the cylindrica actually, and they got pitted by the hail.

Harnek: Yes.

Margaret: Yeah. I mean, my heart was broken because it doesn’t grow back in two minutes.

Harnek: Exactly. But yeah, that’s actually, talking about hail: So right after the Paisley Bed was planted, we had a hail storm within a week.

Margaret: [Laughter.] Oh no, I didn’t know that.

Harnek: So it was pretty big sized hail and all of those, Agave attenuata, I call it soft agave. All of their leaves got a little sparks on them with the hail. So the weather, there’s always a little bit of uncertainty, but being a gardener, you’ve got to take chances.

Margaret: Yeah. So I want to get some suggestions. I know you have many rarities, and you said 800 plants or something, and even some fussy things in that collection, and probably some that you have to give super-careful attention to. But as home gardeners, if we’re going to consider adopting more succulents maybe this fall or whatever, that then we’re going to have as houseplants and maybe use part-time outside next year, are there a couple of solid performers that you wish people would be alerted to adopt? Or some favorites that you think are really adaptable as houseplants?

Harnek: So I think I will start with the large plants. When we are talking about using these succulents outside in the garden, I usually divide them into three, four categories. One, your large plants or plants that stand out. They may consider a group of plants that I mainly use for texture, different texture and color. Then there a third of the plants are small, attractive plants, like Echeveria or Aeonium kind of stuff. I’m talking about the small Aeonium.

So when it comes to large plants, if somebody want to grow something as a houseplant, something that they can bring out and just use it in the garden, I will start with Agave, like Agave attenuata, which I call it soft Agave. It’s a great, great plant. As long as it can spend four or five months during the growing season outside.

Margaret: O.K.

Harnek: It’s a great container plant. Just keep it as a houseplant during the colder months, then bring it outside, put in the garden anywhere in a container. Then another Aloe is bracteosa, commonly known as Octopus agave, which is another great agave. It doesn’t bite, it is not as prickly as some other agaves. For home gardeners, I’m starting with these two that are. Basically easy-care. I mean, agaves could be vicious.

Margaret: Would I use artificial light, like my seed-starting lights or something like that, to make them happier in the months indoors, or…?

Harnek: Well, if you have a south-facing window or west-facing window, I think they should be fine.

Margaret: O.K., just wanted to ask.

Harnek: Yeah. It depends on if somebody’s giving these extra plants in the basement or something, yes, you certainly need some kind of artificial light.

Then among the little smaller plants, or the plants that I grow them for their shape and color, there’s a Euphorbia called ‘Sticks on Fire.’

Margaret: Oh, yes!

Harnek: It gets beautiful, bright orange, and it also need to go out in a cooler weather a little bit to get the best color. Then there’s a lot of beautiful Kalanchoe (or Kalanchoe, however everyone wants to say them).

Kalanchoe pubescens has a beautiful leaf that, so much fun to touch. Then there’s Kalanchoe called orgyalis, which is rusty, brownish leaves. It’s pretty common plant, I mean it could be. And it can get two, three feet tall. So then same with the Aeonium, Aeonium arborescens, they get pretty large and have beautiful leaves. Euphorbia milii is a good star, which I’m terrible with the common names. Milii is the one that-

Margaret: Oh yeah, it’s the crown of thorns.

Harnek: Crown of thorns, thank you. Especially its variegated form. This is a very good form of it, beautiful, beautiful leaf.

So there are plants that that could be easily used as a… They could add texture to any sort of planting. Then there are small plants that could be used as fillers or for their color and texture. There’s so many Echeveria. Echeveria, you could easily divide them. There’s Echeveria prolifica, which as it’s name says, one plant becomes 20 plants in one season.

Margaret: Prolific [laughter].

Harnek: Yes, so there are plants like that. Or when people are going shopping for these plants, one should also look for… Even the perennials, I look for a plant that I can bring home and divide into more than one plant right away.

Margaret: Yes, that’s a good point.

Harnek: Yeah. So same for these circles. Sometimes you, there’s a Echeveria called ‘Topsy Turvy,’ I think species is runyonii, which it also, it’s a beautiful plant. Each plant could be 8 inches wide when it’s happy, but also forms pups readily. So if you’re buying one plant this season, guarantee you’re going to have early six plants for the next year’s planting.

Margaret: Right. Yeah, that’s a beautiful one. Yeah.

Harnek: So picking plants like that, that helps.

Margaret: And I want to make sure we have time. We don’t run out of time to talk about how to make more. And I think as you said earlier, you propagated a lot for the beds for the Paisley Bed, so you could have multiples of some of the things in the collection, and grew them yourself, which was kind of fun. And what are a couple that are really good, easy to take cuttings of, and when do we do that as home gardeners? When do we do that?

Harnek: So it could be done in the fall or late winter, like February or early March. Being in a garden setting, we have all different kind of things. If somebody has those cellpack flats, one could take cuttings and put them in those individual little cells. [Aeonium cuttings being propagated, above, in cellpack flats.]

Margaret: Oh.

Harnek: Just basically leave them alone for like two months, and they could be directly planted from those little cell packs directly into the garden bed that they want to do with the succulents. So all of the Paisley Bed planting, basically all plants were kept in flats. Nothing was potted in 4-inch pots. So Senecio are great. There is Senecio cylindricus, which is a blue chalk plant. They’re two different species, then there is Senecio mandraliscae.

Margaret: Yeah, that’s a hard one [laughter].

Harnek: Yeah, exactly. Like a tongue twister for me. So then a lot of Aeonium. Especially small Aeonium, there’s a variety of Aeonium called tricolor, which looks like a small Echeveria, but one could take cuttings off it to make multiple plants.

Margaret: So to take a cutting, you’re talking about Aeonium or the Senecio, what am I cutting off? If it’s something that has a rosette, so to speak, am I just hoping it makes pops and separating the smaller rosettes? Or am I taking pieces of, what am I using as cuttings?

Harnek: So if the plant is a rosette, which is mostly Echeveria plants, the rosette is closer to the ground, so there you don’t have too much chance of taking a stem cutting. So those plants has to be grown from the leaf cuttings, which is a little longer process. So that’s why I was emphasizing on the plants that you can divide, certain varieties.

Margaret: Thank you, yes.

Harnek: Yeah. When comes to other plants like Senecio, some Aeonium, Euphorbia kind of things, and there’s some Kalanchoe, so those are the plants that you can take cutting cuttings off. So those are the things that usually the multiple stems. Usually your plant gets leggy, by end of the season it gets, and that little Senecio cylindricus could be 2 feet tall, so you can take multiple cuttings from that one plant.

Margaret: From the top of the stems.

Harnek: Exactly.

Margaret: Tip cutting, so to speak.

Harnek: Yes.

Margaret: Yeah. Okay, so not unlike if I have a Coleus that I let grow, and it’s really a special one, and I want to have it again next year in the fall, I may root some fresh stuff from the top, yeah?

Harnek: Exactly. I mean, just snipping multiple cuttings from one stem, one on the top, then another one.

Margaret: Oh!

Harnek: Just make sure you remember which side is you’re going to stick in the medium. You don’t want to stick them upside-down, that will not be good.

Margaret: So I can take not just the very tip, but I can take from behind that. Oh, interesting.

Harnek: Exactly. It’s not, I mean.

Margaret: Wow.

Harnek: Most succulents, they’re so translucent, so they will root. But you have to make sure you’re using the right material. I mean, you want to make sure your soil is porous. You don’t water them; you kind of mist them until they start rooting.

So it takes a little bit of time. It takes about a month at least during those days when there is not a whole lot of light. But now any succulent could root within two weeks.

Margaret: Oh, wow. That’s pretty exciting actually, the idea that I could make more. Now you see, I’m going to be in big trouble Harnek because of you [laughter].

Harnek: Well, it’s going to be a lot of fun though. [Above, a bowl of succulents from the collection, including a couple of different Mammillaria, Sedum rubrotinctum, Echeveria and Pachyveria.]

Margaret: Yeah, that’s great. Well, so we should say to people in this last minute, we should just say, obviously people, anyone who’s never been to Wave Hill, it’s in the Riverdale section of the Bronx in New York City, and it’s just this incredible public garden. Really a special place, an old estate, fantastic views of the Palisades across the river, right across the Hudson River. I mean, it’s a must destination. And now there’s one other reason to visit, which is this crazy succulent Paisley Bed that you’ve made, yes?

Harnek: Oh, certainly. Well, Wave Hill, one won’t be disappointed even coming here in during the dead of winter. It’s a beautiful place. But during the growing season, it’s an escape for so many people. So I encourage everybody to come in and just wander around and see all gems that we have here.

Margaret: Well, thanks for giving us yet another reason, Harnek. I’m so glad to talk to you, and I hope I’ll talk to you again soon.

Harnek: Thanks, Margaret. It was so wonderful talking to you.

(All photos from Harnek Singh and Wave Hill.)

more about wave hill (and the paisley bed)

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. 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 July 17, 2023 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).

  1. heidih says:

    I am in Southern California but some things apply for you. Yes succulents are forgiving. Most do well in light shade v. blazing sun. Low water please. Aeoniums are winter growers and those from Canary Islands are used to surviving on a marine layer.. Cuttings – cut and let callous form in shade before planting. No need to root. I propogated for our Botanic garden for sale and ran sales and shows. Agreed – a lovely assortment makes a worthy visual bouquet. As always listen to your plants. Oh and euphorbias – that sticks of fire – get that milky sap nowhere near your eyes or nose- ER time. Like poinsettia.

  2. Mel says:

    What a spectacular paisley bed! Did Harnek prepare the soil with any particular additives before planting succulents in the ground? I was wondering how the plants are taking all the rain we’ve had recently. I’m in Virginia, but I know New York has had similar weather lately, and I got 2 inches of rain last night! Isn’t that a lot for succulents, and particularly for the cacti?

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