Savouring succulents


Succulents. They come into fashion, they go out of fashion, but once again they seem to be making an appearance on the fashionable gardener's wishlist.

They are big business in the wedding industry, favoured by brides for their flower-like rosettes that look striking in bouquets. They are favoured by small-garden gardeners, who've found living succulent wreaths and vertical gardens an ideal for small spaces. I have made several succulent wreaths myself, both for their beauty and their nature of taking up little space.

A succulent wreath makes a great gift, though if you want it to look completely full as you present it you need a heck of a lot of cuttings. If you have succulents in your garden already, that may not be a problem, but if you need to buy them, it becomes a very expensive project. Propagation is the way to go.

Succulents multiply very easily. Just plant them and many will produce offsets, or pups, that can be plucked off and replanted. My echeverias are forever producing babies. I have accumulated a grand collection of plants from just the one mother plant.

Other succulents can be beheaded - the tops can be lopped off and roots will grow from the heads (try it with sempervivums, or hen and chickens). Some succulents grow roots from their leaves when removed (Senecio mandraliscae, aka blue finger, and Crassula ovata, aka jade plant, are two). Others you can just cut off stems and replant them, such as aeonium and crassula. In fact, succulents are remarkably obliging when it comes to producing more. A while ago I pulled out a large agave and dumped it in my waste pile. Even without soil, several pups grew, all of which were harvested by friends and replanted. And if you cut a stem off your crassula to replant, leaves will also form on the top of the cut stem of the mother plant.

Succulents typically slow down during winter so spring is an ideal time to start taking cuttings, be they stems, leaves or rosettes. With rosettes, remove the lower leaves. Roots will sprout from these leaf nodes.

Then set your cuttings aside for a few days, in the shade, for the cut end to seal over. This protects the cuttings from rot. Then pot them up in a container filled with a succulent mix, available from garden retailers, or a potting mix that has sand, grit or pumice added to it. You can plant them directly in the ground, but make sure the soil is free-draining. If the soil is too wet, there won't be enough oxygen to form roots. Succulents need a lot of air to produce roots. In fact, if you leave a succulent leaf on the benchtop, it will likely form roots out of thin air.

However, if you've taken leaf cuttings (you can do so with echeverias, crassulas, kalanchoes and sansevierias, among others), the best way to propagate is to put them in a pot, standing them up against the sides, with the stem end touching the potting mix.

Some people like to bury the ends, but with the standing-up method there is less chance of rotting.

Place your potted cuttings in a spot that receives bright but not direct sunlight. Water sparingly. After a while roots will form, as will small leaves. They can then be planted out in the garden.

If you want to make a succulent wreath, take stem cuttings from a variety of established succulents and set the cuttings aside for a few days for the ends to seal over. The strongest stems I've found for living wreaths are those of aeoniums. Many succulent stems are tricky to work with as they break easily - crassula is one of them. Blue fingers are also quick to snap, though you can wire the stems, using florist's wire, for easier insertion.

You can make a wreath base with chicken wire rolled into a tube and bent around to form a ring. Before you roll it though, lay it flat and add a layer of wet sphagnum moss. Add a thin layer of succulent mix, then roll. Tie the ring ends together with wire.

Then just insert your stem cuttings in the wreath. Add larger succulents first, then fill the gaps with the smaller ones.

The wreath will need to sit flat for a month or two to allow the cuttings to form roots that are strong enough to hold the succulents in place when the wreath is hung. For extra strength, you can support the succulent stems with florist pins.

In the meantime, use your wreath as a table centrepiece, with a candle or other decoration in the centre.

I have seen images of a vertical succulent garden using old shutters. The succulents were tucked into the openings between the slats and the stems and roots held in place with weed cloth pockets stapled to the back of the shutters. It looked striking as a patio screen, or you could prop it up against a drab wall.

Succulents are very accommodating however you use them and they are very easy to work with. They make nice gifts - start now with your cuttings and you could soon have all your Christmas presents sorted.

The Southland Times