The best way to think of succulents is as ‘fat plants’. Parts of them, usually their leaves, swell up with water and this stops them from drying out in arid conditions.
Cacti are the most obvious examples but sedums and sempervivums are also common. They all share that fleshy, tender look and often have grey-green leaves, though there are plenty of others with leaves in colours that range from black and red through to yellow. Because they come from hot, dry places they tend not to be hardy, so if left outdoors over winter they’re likely to be killed off by frost.
Succulents make fantastic houseplants. They like dry air – so are perfect for our centrally heated homes – and don’t need to be watered very often. They require lots of light, however, so place them near or on a windowsill and make sure their roots are very well drained.
For a lovely display try gathering different coloured but similar-sized, rosette-forming sempervivums together in a shallow white bowl. A good place to start is with echeverias; maybe mixing red-pink Echeveria agavoides ‘Lipstick’ with grey and purple Echeveria agavoides ‘Vashon’.
If you have more space try rubber plants. They also need light so make sure they’re somewhere near a window and, if you can, have more than one in a room. Two look good, on either side of a window, or a line of three or more can make architectural shapes along a wall.
Place these houseplants outside in summer, as long as there’s no danger of frost, so they can get some fresh air. In winter the biggest danger to succulents is too much water, so make sure the containers are really well drained to avoid the roots sitting in water.
If you do have a disaster and the plant looks as though it’s dead, don’t write it off straightaway. Succulents have the capacity to rise again, so give the plant some tender, loving care and wait at least four weeks to see if it revives.
THE OUTDOOR TYPE
Hardy sempervivums and sedums, many of which will survive unprotected in frosts, are the most common succulents for planting outdoors, but do check the label.
As with the indoor variety, the best sempervivums have interesting varieties of tight rosettes.Sempervivum calcareum has grey-green rosettes with lovely contrasting red tips, andSempervivum ‘Moerkerk’s Merit’ is silvery- green with a soft velvet sheen.
Sedums are small- to medium-sized evergreen perennials, which are perfect for the front of the border and look amazing when planted en masse across a whole bed. Try the grey-purple combinations you get with Sedum ‘Ruby Glow’ or the tiny ground cover stonecrop Sedum cauticola.
These outdoor plants really look after themselves. In the spring cut back any dead or damaged stems or leaves right down to the base, but otherwise they’re very low maintenance.
If you don’t mind spending some time looking after them, tender succulents can look amazing outdoors.
The plant that every garden designer loves is Aeonium ‘Zwartkop‘, which has almost pure black rosettes of leaves on the ends of strong stalks. This purpley-black mixes beautifully with so many other colours such as the lime green leaves and flowers of euphorbia or grasses, or the pink flowers of Lychnis coronaria – creating a dramatic, exciting look.
Other amazing succulents are agaves. Exotic and impressive, they have spears of fleshy leaves coming from a central point. Two favourites are the smaller grey-leaved ones such as Agave parrasana or Agave parryi, which look great individually planted in terracotta pots and displayed in a regimented line. Alternatively, if you have space, try the Agave americana, which has huge grey-green spears that form the perfect centrepiece in a more jungle-style garden.