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Home & Garden: Gardening with succulents -- plants thrive well inside

One of the biggest trends in gardening today is the use of succulents. Not only are succulent gardens attractive, but they are easy to maintain and thus are an excellent choice for people who like plants, but don't always find time for them.

West Fargo gardener, Nancy McKinnon has a passion for succulents. She has created a succulent garden along the south side of her house. Wide varieties of succulents form an attractive patchwork with rocks setting them off. Some of the plants will live outside over winter, but she brought many inside. These adorn her sunny east and south facing windows or are under basement lights. She potted some of the plants individually, but she also arranged many in pretty combinations.

Succulents (fat plants) are water-retaining plants adapted to arid climates or soils. They store water in their leaves, stems and roots and this gives them a fleshy look. Waxy, hairy or spiny outer surfaces help to create a humid microhabitat around the plants. The roots are very near the soil surface so that they can take up moisture from small showers or dew.

Succulents come in a variety of forms. Many are rosettes, some are upright and others hang, drape or creep along the ground. Most of the interest is from the leaf, which can be in many shades of green and other colors. Some succulents, such as the Kalanchoe, flower under the right conditions.

The most important factor in the cultivation of succulents is moisture. They can go for prolonged periods without water, but not forever. When they are growing outside in full sun, they need a good drink of water about once a week and in cool weather less often. Let the soil in potted indoor plants dry out between watering. Some, such as cacti, may need watering only once every other month. Do not fertilize in the winter.

Succulents like a sandy or gritty soil mix, with little peat. It is best to purchase a cacti mix, but you can mix your own by adding one part sand and one part grit or perlite to four parts potting soil. Ideally they should be repotted each year to give them fresh soil and room to grow. Since the roots are near the surface, it is best to plant them in shallow pots. Otherwise, the soil in the bottom area may stay wet too long and cause rotting. Clay, plastic or hypertufa planters may be used as long as there are drainage holes. For tall plants, such as a Jade, you may want to plant in a sturdy pot so that it does not get top heavy and tip over.

Gardeners are familiar with 'Hens and Chicks' or Sempervivums. They are frost resistant and easy to grow outside in rock gardens, planters and troughs. These are alpine succulents with about 3000 cultivars. They come in a wide range of rosette shapes, forms and colors. Full sun is necessary to develop colors from green through browns, yellow, orange, pink and red otherwise they stay green. Sometimes there are hairs along the leaf margins that give a cobweb effect. Occasionally a tall stalk will appear and a flower forms on top. Once this happens, the rosette will die and it should be removed.

The Jade (Crassula ovate) plant is well known and incredibly easy to grow. It can get as large as a bush and can be pruned to shape like a Bonsai.

Echeverias are native to Mexico and Central America. They look a lot like Sempervivums, as they form rosettes, but they are usually larger and more distinctive. Dudleyas are similar and are native to the southwestern states and Oregon. Aenoniums come from Africa and grow well in sunny windows.

Aloe is a popular plant that can be used to treat burns. Just break off a leaf and use the inside substance. Hawarthia is an attractive form with often-pointed leaves and interesting leaf markings.

It is very easy to propagate new succulent plants. Prune a stem from a Jade plant or cut off the stalk of an overgrown rosette one inch below the head. Let the cut end dry for a day or two before setting it in a pot of soil. Separate the chicks from the hens to start new colonies of Sempervivums.

Hardy low growing sedums, of which there are many varieties, make good fillers between other succulents. They have the added attraction of colorful flowers or the evergreen look of 'Blue Spruce sedum.' Use tender 'String of Pearls' or 'Burro's Tail' sedums to cascade down the sides of walls or pots.

This summer I made a living wreath with succulents. I wrapped a wire wreath form with sphagnum moss and set in several different succulent rosettes. I filled in between them with low sedums from my garden and used floral wire to hold everything in place. I hope to keep it alive under florescent lights this winter.