WHEN LIFE SUCKS – BUY SUCCULENTS
Either as living retail therapy or as inexpensive gifts, succulents are great buys
During some of my most recent shopping expeditions, I have come to the conclusion that succulents are something of a religion and certainly one that has many followers.
Given that, with all the stresses and strains of daily life, we all need inexpensive retail therapy, I’ve taken to adding to my succulent collection.
You’ll find them everywhere – from your local garden centre to some supermarkets and hardware stores. And, if you’re really looking for the more unusual varieties, you can even find whole nurseries that are dedicated to these somewhat enigmatic plants or find them online.
For someone that groans when she’s given plants as gifts simply because I often kill them with kindness (actually this applies mostly to orchids in my case), it might come as a surprise that these fleshy leafed specimens are proving to be more than a little addictive.
What I love most about them is that they are almost architectural in structure, come in a wide variety of colours, shapes and sizes and are as much an interior decoration as they are an excuse to add a little healthy foliage to my lounge or desk. They can fit anywhere from an empty corner where a large hanging basket is needed to a narrow kitchen windowsill where a tiny pot will do the trick.
An added bonus is that any plant gets a thumbs up for being healthy as it not only improves air quality but, when placed indoors, is known to destress and relax the occupants of any room.
Without so much as a flower, succulents can add colour to any spot and combinations of different succulents can be as decorative as a bunch of flowers. Add a lovely rock or stone or some beautifully shaped driftwood and you have something bordering on an artwork.
What I love most about succulents, though, is that they bring out the creativity in almost everyone – from owners of bed and breakfast establishments to interior décor shops and garden centres. I’ve seen succulents planted everywhere from inside little glass domes in supermarkets to tin mugs at my local nursery, not to mention, buckets, pots and even recycled tin cans at one of the many markets that I visit during the year.
Add a little ribbon or lace to a cast away baked bean can and you have a table decoration that is fit for a wedding. Place a bit of tinsel or team a succulent with a bauble or some beads and you have either a perfect Christmas decoration or a very affordable Christmas present at a time when many of us are pulling in Santa’s belt as tightly as possible to offset a rather costly year.
However, all this lauding of succulents comes with a big BUT –and a few things to look out for when buying these ornamental little critters either for yourself or as gifts. In short, many retailers (both small and large) often get carried away with the creativity part and forget that these are still living creatures – sometimes even referred to as plant pets.
Simply plonking them into an uber creative container may enable you to add a few rands to the price tag but will not ultimately guarantee that said succulent will survive into the New Year. Sadly, the cute or clever container suddenly becomes nothing more than useless flotsam without its botanical partner.
All that is because succulents are essentially desert plants that need well drained soil. That means that not only will not any old soil or potting medium do but that even the correct mix of 50% potting soil and 50% coarse sand or perlite will not help much if you either over water your new acquisition or have it in a highly decorative container that doesn’t allow for much-needed drainage.
My suggestion is to always peek under a decorative pot or clever container to make sure that it has at least one good drainage hole. When left in soggy soil, succulents simply rot, fall apart and die.
Simply not electing to water said succulent because there is no drainage won’t help much either – although they
do live up to their reputations as low maintenance plants that do not need large amounts of water, they still do need some about once a week.
All this is best kept in mind if you are dividing up your own succulents and repotting them into creative containers as gifts, too. Tin cans are okay as long as you drill a hole or two in the bottom and the same goes for buckets or tin watering cans. Think twice about planting succulents in old china tea cups or old tea pots. They may look cute but longevity is not a guarantee.
Another little comment when it comes to water – or is that over watering – and the tendency to place succulents in terrariums (glass domes) is that too much water increases the risks of both mold and insect infestations which also don’t go well with supposedly hardy succulents.
And, while on the subject of choosing containers, many of the succulent collections that have been potted together in decorative collections either in hanging pots or other containers that would make great table centre pieces also potentially have some short comings.
Different succulents that are crowded together either hold too much water and rot or become infested with pests like mealy bug or compete for water and nutrients and only the fittest survive. If well placed and spaced, they’re fine and make for a fascinating display – and it is here that well placed rocks or bits of wood can act as the perfect spacers.
If you are given a conglomeration of tightly packed different succulents, all is not lost. Simply divide them up after a week or so or replant into individual containers that can be grouped together to look just as creative as the original combination.
Although it’s a bit of a crazy analogy, I have found after quite a few not-so-happy endings to plant shopping expeditions to read labels in much the same way as I try to when buying food.
I’m not going to go into the finer details and quote complicated Latin names here. Suffice it to say, though, not all succulents are created equal or even originate from the same place in the world. That means they may need differing amounts of sunlight and growing conditions.
At a good garden centre, you’ll probably find all the info that you need – from the correct lighting and watering to the eventual size that your pint sized pin cushion may grow into in the not too distant future. Also, remember, that we have a wonderful collection of indigenous succulents that are not only better adapted to local growing conditions than their more exotic counterparts but also help to maintain biodiversity in out already stressed suburban gardens.
If you are buying from a market or a decorating shop, you can do one of two things – ask for growing advice or make sure that you can find the actual name of the plant that you are buying and ask google for some lessons on succulent horticulture. Because of the overwhelming popularity of succulents over the past couple of years, you’ll quickly find that there’s plenty of information out there.
Some other useful tips that I was given whilst shopping for succulents by a green fingered friend was to dodge higher price tags by buying smaller plants and nurturing them. You’ll be surprised at how quickly they grow. (Look out for Gardener Tanya Visser’s succulent babies)
Some garden centres also sell the more common succulents in seed trays of four or six. Without the price of a fancy pot, the overall amount you are spending per plant will be significantly less.
Then comes plant selection. My friend and I often shop together, selecting succulents that might be happily producing baby plants which can be divided with very little effort and shared.
If you are giving living treasures as gifts this festive season, another tip from my plant loving pal is to find a little gift tag and write some growing tips as part of your Christmas wishes – along the lines of whether or not your new succulent would do well in a sunny spot or only needs and hour or two of strong sunlight
per day. Remember that, even though they are trendy and beautifully shaped living decorations off the shelf, any succulent that does not get enough light will be prone to etiolation – a big word that simply means it will soon lose its trendy shape and become long and lanky as it puts on a futile growth spurt to try to find some much needed rays.
Another suggestion from me is that, if you don’t have a succulent friendly house (as in my case) you can enjoy these plants outdoors on verandas or indoors as part of the artwork or décor. I recently found a wonderful piece of fabric featuring succulents which I plan to turn into a few inexpensive scatter cushions.
There are also wonderful botanical prints of various succulents or even photographs that can be popped into frames and displayed. Log on to Pinterest or page through your favourite home décor mags for ideas. Then simply snap a few plants that you might see in a friend’s garden. These days, cell phone cameras are so good that you probably won’t even need to take your pictures with a standard camera. They can be edited or even made into black and white shots before being printed and slotted into a pretty but inexpensive frame for your own wall or as an inexpensive gift.