Skip the finicky selections and go for these unique yet reliable beauties

Color isn't hard to come by with a landscape full of succulents; neither is texture or form. Mix and match succulents to create an inspiring scene.

Photo/Illustration: 
Michelle Gervais

Succulents are the modern designer’s favorite freaks and geeks. They are a celebration of geometric form so rigid that the plants hardly seem to be living things. They can look like stones, can be toothed as an alligator, and occasionally morph into monstrosities that defy genetics. Every gardener should have at least one succulent plant. Despite plant tags and grower tips, however, some of these fleshy fellows remain notoriously fickle—prone to sudden meltdown, rot, and mummification. With so many succulents out there, it’s impossible for home gardeners to tell the easy growers from the finicky specialties. The selections here offer a diverse mix of no-brainers to help you get started without risk of failure.

1. Add color to a dreary winter

Paddle plant

Photo/Illustration: 
Missy Johnson

Name: Paddle plant (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora)
Zones: 10 to 11
Size: 1 foot tall and wide
Conditions: Bright shade


Paddle plant is the most popular modern succulent due to its whimsical form and intense winter color. Its leaves are flat, like pancakes, layered into an odd rosette. This plant bolts when it blooms, with the center stem elongating into a gangly white stalk. Those sold in nurseries are youngsters raised to maximum size for immediate use, but they do not last more than a year before bolting, which spoils their looks. Once paddle plant flowers, cut off the stem and give the remnant of the plant good care. It will soon produce many new offsets that can be plucked off and rooted.

2. The succulent for zinnia lovers

Photo/Illustration: 
Michelle Gervais

Name: Tree aeonium (Aeonium arboreum and cvs.)
USDA Hardiness Zones: 9 to 11
Size: 6 to 24 inches tall and wide
Conditions: Full sun to light shade


If a zinnia were a succulent, it would be a tree aeonium. This species features two of the hottest varieties in the modern succulent world. Deep burgundy to black ‘Zwartkop’ (pictured) is a power­ful contrast against light green or yellow plants. ‘Sunburst’ has large cream-colored variegated leaves that can take on pink highlights. Over time, tree aeonium develops a thick trunk and may branch into sizable subshrubs that produce foot-long, cone-shaped stems of vivid yellow flowers.

3. Donkey's tail is a unique spiller

Donkey's tail

Photo/Illustration: 
Todd Holloway

Name: Donkey’s tail (Sedum morganianum)
Zone: 11
Size: 2 feet long and 1 foot wide
Conditions: Bright shade


Show children a donkey’s tail and they will reach out to pinch the leaves of this unique vinelike succulent. It’s typically grown in a hanging basket where perfect drainage is assured. It also grows well dangling from a pot on a wall or balcony. This is not a heat lover, but it’s a cinch to grow in spots protected from wind. Give it a shaded location with filtered light for best results.

Potted succulents need the right soil

Photo/Illustration: 
Jennifer Brown

The biggest problem afflicting potted succulents is the use of soil mixes that are too rich in organic matter. Many bagged cactus soils, often labeled as suitable for cacti and palms, contain a lot of woody material, mostly because these soils are lighter and more inexpensive to ship than the coarse sand that succulents require. This organic matter then becomes a haven for infectious fungi. Succulents need lean, well-drained mineral soil, porous enough that water runs nearly straight through it. An easy test to see if the cactus soil in question contains the right mix is to lift the bag: If it’s heavy, then you’ve found a good mix that includes sand; if it’s light, you’ll need to modify the soil. You can also modify regular potting mixes to suit your succulents. Follow some simple tips to provide the best soil for your succulents:


· Screen out woody particles from cactus mixes with a sheet of ¼-inch-grid hardware cloth to make it downright tough to overwater your succulents.


· Modify regular potting mixes by creating a 50/50 blend of potting mix and sharp sand.


· Fertilize regularly with low-dose fertilizer during the active seasons of spring and summer to compensate for a lack of fertility in the soil mix.


· Pair succulents with other succulents rather than with plants that require rich soil and even moisture. The two are typically not compatible.

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