Succulents are a dry garden's best option

In Fiona's garden: Succulents are a dry garden's best option


Life & Style
Spider aloe (A. humilis) is marginally hardy but easily propagated from small basal offshoots.

Spider aloe (A. humilis) is marginally hardy but easily propagated from small basal offshoots.

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Succulent plants vary in size from 20 metre tall Canary Islands dragon trees to tiny New Zealand ice plants.

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Mid-April finds highland and inland gardeners perpetually glued to the weather forecast. We're not necessarily desperate for rain but we like to be prepared for frost.

This is especially so for those of us mildly addicted to the dry garden's current plant group of choice, the many hardy, but also sometimes not-so-hardy succulents. Succulents or xerophytes as they're botanically known (literally meaning dry plant) are plants that have adapted to drought by storing water, sometimes in plump, fleshy leaves and stems, occasionally in a large, often weirdly shaped base called a caudex.

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Some succulents have the clever ability to close their pores during the day as protection against moisture loss in the heat, and then re-open them at night to breathe the cooler air. This is called Crassulacean Acidic Metabolism and many popular genera fall into this group including Aeoniums, Cotyledons, Echevarias and Sempervivums.

Succulent plants vary in size from 20 metre tall Canary Islands dragon trees (Dracaena draco) to tiny New Zealand ice plants (Disphyma) that I once saw growing in gorgeous, multi-coloured carpets on a remote Chatham Islands beach.

Succulent plants vary in size from 20 metre tall Canary Islands dragon trees to tiny New Zealand ice plants. - Fiona Ogilvie

Between these extremes are structural plants beloved of dry garden landscape architects - spiky Agaves and Furcraeas, curvaceous Aloes carrying colourful flowers, and the beautiful and striking grass tree, Dasylirion wheeleri, from the southern US. Others like Lithops, Haworthias and Conophytums look exactly like pebbles.

Nurseries often group smaller succulents in enticingly designed displays. This is where the unwary gardener can be caught out, as you can easily find hardy Sedums, Echevarias and Sempervivums squatting among tender Aeoniums, Crassulas and Kalanchoes regardless of cultivation needs.

I'm a passionate proponent of planting for your climate so I'd never suggest growing a potentially tender tree or shrub in a highland or inland garden. But ground cover succulents are easily propagated so replacement plants can be kept under cover during winter.

Leaf cuttings are quick and easy. Fill a tray with damp, free-draining cutting compost (half and half coir peat and horticultural grit). Snap or cut off a leaf, lie it flat on the soil and keep going until your tray is full, then place in a light but sheltered corner. Pot up the plants individually once roots are two to three centimetres long.

Large leaved succulents like shiny black Aeoniium 'Schwarzkopf' and velvety grey Crassula orbiculata 'Silver Wave' are better propagated from stem cuttings. Take portions up to 15cm, remove all but one or two leaves and place upright in cutting compost.

Succulents generally take three to four weeks to root. Use material from youngest available plants - like Dolly the sheep, clones start life at the age of their parents.

Lastly, many succulents produce small basal offshoots that quickly make new plants if detached and replanted.

Stephen Vella's Wild Meadows, 243a Coxs River Road, Little Hartley is open the weekend of May 11-12, 9am-3pm, admission $8. The flowery meadows, perennial borders and woodland are beautiful now with berries, seed heads and turning leaves.

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