Succulents: the plants of the future?
When I first moved from London to the south of France, I was thrilled to find an apartment with a large, wrap-around terrace that basked in full sun all day. One of my earliest shopping trips was to the local garden centre, where I bought pots of geraniums, solanum, marguerite daisies, bougainvillea and lavender. More adventurously (and expensively) I went in for trees, too – lemon, mandarin, lime and kumquat. The terrace quickly filled up and looked stunning – but I seemed to spend the whole summer watering – not to mention dead-heading.
As I’d wander around my village, I’d admire all the pots and window-boxes, and the strange, exotic-looking specimens that frequently inhabited them. Not as bright or colourful as geraniums, admittedly, but there was something alluring about these plants all the same. A friend then gave me a mother-of-pearl plant (Graptopetalum Paraguayense) from her garden. It settled in quickly and began to multiply, without me having to do much of anything. I was intrigued.
I bought a book on Mediterranean gardening (the wonderful ‘Create a Mediterranean Garden’ by Pattie Barron, really intended for non-Med climates). I came to her chapter on ‘Sizzling Succulents', and suddenly I got it. Although these plants certainly do need water, they can go for far longer without, and are therefore infinitely less labour-intensive. They’re also easy to propagate and incredibly characterful. This is what the locals all knew, and the more I looked, the more I saw them – bursting between rocks and out of crevices, some apparently living on little more than air. I became hooked.
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You know how a gentle hobby can turn into an obsession? It started with the garden centres, where I’d shun the water-intensive pretties and, like a furtive adult shopper, head straight for the ‘exotic’ department; next I moved on to the local vide greniers, where villagers would sell cuttings for a euro apiece, and the more you bought the cheaper they became; and finally I graduated into sheer theft, pinching cuttings from wherever I could to call my own. I’m not proud, but I doubt anyone ever noticed. (Or minded, for that matter.)
Planting succulents is a piece of cake, and fun to do with children. When my neighbour’s seven-year-old pops down, we usually end up cultivating and re-potting succulents, and her success is a source of huge pride.
All you have to do is:
Snip off a plant head – go for a side one, so it’s not noticeable (especially if you’re pinching it). Some people (including Pattie Barron), advise you to leave it a few days for the cut to dry over, but I rarely bother, and usually it works just fine. If I have any special cactus/succulent soil I’ll usually mix it in with regular, but I have used just the regular stuff and that’s worked too. Find a pretty terracotta pot, cover the drainage hole with some stones (or bits of broken pots) and then fill with the soil mix. I tend to put normal at the bottom and cactus soil on top. Then make holes in the soil and arrange your plants. Give them a little water (but don’t overdo it – you don’t want them to rot) and that’s about it. Just check on their position – most succulents tolerate sun but some prefer a little shade.
What they don’t appreciate, however, is frost or snow, so they’ll need to be taken in during a cold spell. All the same, if climate change is upon us, and water a precious resource, then succulents are surely the plants of the future? I think it’s time we all embraced these strange, quiet, uncomplaining and infinitely-varied friends.
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