Succulent trial and error

Successfully growing small succulents is a tricky business in central Texas, or so it has proved for me. My god, how I covet the lush succulent planters—tapestries of color and texture—that I see online and in magazine photos of Southern California gardens. Austin’s climate, however, is decidedly not frost-free with warm, comfortable summers, which many small succulents demand. Here, summer’s Death Star will fry your succulents faster than spit sizzles on July asphalt, and winter’s occasional hard freezes (and peckish cardinals and mockingbirds) will finish off the rest.

And yet some succulents will hold up to the rigors of our climate, provided they are placed in dappled sunlight or morning sun and grown in a well-drained container. My cinderblock wall planter holds some of these (with the pink, rose-like echeveria sadly the least hardy of these). Sedums and ghost plant, along with spikier, cold-hardy dyckia, manfreda, and mangave, have proved the most adaptable in my garden.

A small, galvanized trough, which sits on the upper patio, holds my lushest mash-up of small succulents. ‘Bloodspot’ mangave anchors the mix, with a few ghost plants and a survivor echeveria adding floral-like accents (see top photo). Colonizing the whole thing is a creeping, cascading succulent whose name I don’t even know. Update: It’s likely Sedum hispanicum. Thanks to Teresa Brightside for the ID.

Whatever it is, and however it happened, this planter has filled in lush and full, just like a succulent dish is supposed to. I have no illusions that it’s because of anything I’ve done, beyond placing it out of the sun’s direct gaze. Trial and error pays off in the garden, as in any passionate pursuit.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

20 Responses

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I too drool over those succulent-filled pots. Yours looks to be filling in very good. I have one succulent and echeveria that winters over in my house pretty good but I can never get the “fillers” to do well. SIGH~~ Each time I see some of these beautiful pots I want to try try again.

    Me too, Lisa. Me too. —Pam

  2. Nell Jean says:

    Great display.

    There are only two succulents thriving for me: Graptopetlaum and Sedum acre. I’m using them in creative ways because every little piece of sedum and every leaf of Ghost Plant makes a new plant.

    My favorite combo is Firecracker Fern (Rusellia) with Ghost Plant.

    I’d LOVE to see pics of your rusellia-ghost plant combo, Nell Jean, as well as your creative succulent arrangements. Do you have a link to a post you could share? —Pam

  3. Jenn says:

    I just learned recently WHY all my succulents (sedum, graptopetlaum, echeveria, crassula, etc) all die at the end of summer.

    They are fine taking most of the heat in the day. But the reason they do that is because they ‘breathe’ at night. When the temps climb up over 90 at night, they can’t breathe and die.

    Which means I get to haul in my potted plants (in various and sundry combinations) twice a year. Once for the annual dip below 32 degrees at night, and once for the week or more that the temps are over 90 at night.

    While I’m happy to know my plants at least have a chance this year, my spousal unit gets grumpy with the house starts to resemble ‘a jungle’.

    Can’t. Win.

    Jenn, you’re in perhaps an even trickier climate for small succulents than I am—Phoenix, right? I would think the desert air would cool off nicely at night, but I guess not always? Good thing we gardeners don’t give up easily, right? —Pam

  4. Sharon Williams says:

    Love the cinder block planter wall. I don’t see any mortar holding it together. Did you use something or is it all free form?

    Hi, Sharon. No mortar was used. For more info, please read my how-to post on making a cinderblock wall planter. —Pam

  5. Anna says:

    Succulents are so fun with so many shapes, and colors. I see them at the store as tiny little things, and keep one or two in small pots. I forget that they can grow to significant size. I’ll have to try something like your beautiful large container soon.

    The trick is finding succulents that’ll survive the rigors of our climate. But once you hit upon a few tough ones, they do spread and make low-maintenance potted plants. I just wish a few more varieties really thrived here! —Pam

  6. Shirley says:

    The galvanized planter looks beautiful. I keep working at various combinations to overcome the heat and cold extremes we have. I have the same problem with annuals and would rather have succulents now anyway.

    Oh, me too, Shirley! I love succulent containers for summer. They are so non-needy about watering if you have to go away for a few days or even a week—so long as they have some shade. —Pam

  7. louis says:

    I guess I take our cooler summers for granted because I don’t think of succulents struggling in the direct sunlight. I do however know what frosts/freeze can do. And that is sad. I have found echeveria glauca and aloe aristata to be tolerant of the cold. You could try them in dappled shade in a planter? I’m thinking of making a succulent planter but using something like yucca bright star with it.

    That would be lovely, Louis. I was just admiring ‘Bright Star’ on Danger Garden’s blog today. It’s one I haven’t tried. You know, I think Jenn (commenting above) is right—in hot climates like ours, it’s not just the intense sun you have to think about but the humidity and nighttime temperatures that often remain high. It simply exhausts some plants. (Not to mention the gardener.) —Pam

  8. Those magazine photos of succulent combinations make me jealous too, Pam – and plants freeze more often here than in your garden.
    But Nell Jean’s Russelia-Ghost Plant combo is giving me ideas … so far both those plants are alive here.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    I’d love to see a picture of that combo, wouldn’t you? The only thing is that Russelia is kind of large and gangly, at least in my garden, and I wonder if it wouldn’t overwhelm the little ghost plant. —Pam

  9. jenny says:

    Never mind the magazines, your success with succulents is making me jealous. And if you are offering a few pieces of that unknown succulent you have a taker here.

    I’ll bring some on Saturday, Jenny. Happy to share! —Pam

  10. Cat says:

    Yes, I’m with Jenny … any sprigs you’re willing to part with?

    Be there on Saturday, Cat, and I’ll save you some. —Pam

  11. Robin says:

    uh oh, I was about to say the same thing as Cat and Annie! If a petal happens to fall off, save one for me. That’s gorgeous Pam, and I also have succulent envy, of both yours and the ones in California. Even my chocolate chip manfreda is limp and looking sad now.

    I think ‘Chocolate Chip’ tends to wilt a bit in winter. Don’t you think it’ll snap back when spring arrives? I’ll be glad to share a piece of the mystery succulent with you. You going to be at the Go-Go on Saturday? —Pam

  12. So pretty Pam – crazy full! Love it!

    Thanks, Heather. :-) —Pam

  13. cheryl says:

    I just lost a bunch of succulents here in sunny Sacramento due to three weeks of freezing temps.
    Pam, for some reason the photos don’t come up when I open your e-mail version of your postings. I don’t know if that is my computer glitch or your program glitch. At least I can see all your lovely photos on FB as well as your blog.

    I’m sorry to hear about the freeze knocking off some of your succulents, Cheryl. And yes, I’ve noticed that the photos don’t appear with the email subscription to Digging. I haven’t figured out how to fix it though. At least it still serves to let regular readers know a new post is up, and maybe they’ll pop on over to see the photos. —Pam

  14. commonweeder says:

    I am just starting to grow succulents. I have a couple of sedums out in the garden. Then last spring I built two hypertufa troughs and planted various unnamed things which seem to be surviving in my unheated Great Room. I wasn’t so worried about the cold’s effect on the plants, as on the troughs.

    Your level of cold weather, Commonweeder, requires a type of winterizing that I’ve never known, having always been a Southern gardener. I hope your hypertufa proves winter-hardy. I’m sure the sedums will be! —Pam

  15. Beth says:

    And I just learned which crazy birds promptly eat any succulents I put in the pot on my front porch…mockingbirds…I had no idea :) I love your galvanized pot grouping. Maybe I’ll try that too, just not on the front porch.

    Crazy, succulent-eating birds—so frustrating, I know! And yet they are so cute it’s hard to begrudge them a few (OK, all) the succulent leaves, right? —Pam

  16. Excellent! I have one particularly dry spot under a roof overhang where I was planning to plant cold-hardy succulents. But I have tall Lilies in front. So putting the succulents in a galvanized trough to raise them up a bit is perfect! Now I can’t wait to pull it all together. Thanks!

    And the beauty of it is that those little galvanized troughs can be bought so cheaply. I found them at a general/farm-supply store here in Austin called Callahan’s. —Pam

  17. I have some hens and chicks that refuse to die so I might add some more this summer. They’re the only succulents that survive our winters. I love your trough plantings!

    Thanks, Casa. I’m glad you have some succulents that’ll survive your winters. They can be surprisingly hardy. —Pam

  18. Jeanette says:

    Love your succulents, Pam. Isn’t it nice to get all these comments about what survives and doesn’t in differing zones. You convinced me to try a few varieties. Love the echeveria. I have a pot with Blue Rose Echeveria, Mother of Thousands, Gollum Jade, and Agave Furcraea gigantea striata. Mother of Thousands is the most tender, I would say, because the freeze killed back much of the plant even though it was covered with a heavy cloth. I guess I will have to replant these as they outgrow the pot but it is very pretty now. Nice to share combinations that are aesthetically pleasing! I love your galvanized trough planting, too.

    I thought your book would be a great resource to have in our library so I will request the librarian order it if she hasn’t already.

    Oh, thanks so much, Jeanette! Man, would I be wowed to see my book on my local library shelf. I’d probably have to take a picture! —Pam

  19. Robin says:

    Pam, re: your email feed not showing photos. I wonder if it is a browser security issue? Perhaps if the readers add your feed email address to their address book and declare it to be a trusted address, they might show up?

    Perhaps that’s what it is, Robin. Thanks for the suggestion. Maybe someone will try this and see if it works for them. —Pam

  20. cheryl says:

    It isn’t birds so much as deer who love to eat my succulents.They particularly love the sedum.

    It’s always something, right, Cheryl? I hope you have room for some of your sedums in a more protected area. —Pam