How rain benefits succulents
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How Rain Benefits Succulents

How rain benefits succulents

Don’t be surprised if after a good rain, your succulents look brighter and more vibrant. Rain provides dissolved minerals and washes away dust that inhibits photosynthesis. It dilutes and flushes salts and harmful chemicals that have built up in the soil from tap water and provides nitrogen essential to growth, especially during electrical storms. It’s odd but true: Lightning nourishes plants.

To make the most of precious rain, collect it in buckets and use it to water house plants and in-ground succulents beneath eaves. When rain is forecast, move your container-grown patio plants where rain can soak them. (Once the storm is over, return them to their earlier location, lest sun scorch leaves—or if frost is a possibility.)

Succulents do best in regions where annual rainfall is less than 25 inches.  Excessive amounts can cause roots to rot, especially if soil stays soggy. Prepare for this by growing the plants in coarse, fast-draining soil, on a slope or atop a berm.

how rain benefits cactus


My blog post, Succulents and Too Much Rain, A French Solution describes a French botanical garden’s simple but effective method of protecting its cactus collection.

Opuntia appears to dance

Of all succulents, cacti seem to respond the most dramatically to rain. No surprise; they’ve been waiting all year for it. If they weren’t rooted, they’d be dancing. Opuntia (paddle) cacti that have been doing a whole lot of nothing for months rapidly grow new pads that can double the size of a young specimen in a matter of weeks. It’s as though the pads were water balloons being squeezed; the resulting bulge is a new leaf.

how to protect succulents from excess rainfall

And then there are ribbed cacti…those that look like round or columnar accordions. You can almost hear their crenellations pop and stretch as they plump with water. They’re such simple plants—not much more than balls or bats—and yet the way they grow is amazing. The process of becoming engorged with rainwater exposes more of their skin to the sun, enabling photosynthesis, which equals energy, which in turn fuels new growth. In the heat of summer, those same ridges and valleys deepen, shading and protecting the plant.

Now that succulents are hugely popular, I’m asked how to grow them in tropical climates that have a great deal of rainfall. It’s like asking how to grow monkeys in Alaska. Sure it’s possible, but is it worth it? By definition, succulents have the quality of succulence: juiciness. They’re expressly designed to get by without a lot of rainfall. The flip side is that they don’t survive well with it. So grow them in containers, and move them under shelter when the weather turns too wet. Even then, in humid climates, they may mildew. In which case, move them indoors, provide lots of sunlight and fresh air, and keep a dehumidifier going. (And get my book, Succulent Container Gardens. I wrote it for succulent lovers in challenging climates.)

Frost protection for succulents

Rainstorms are often followed by clear, windless nights, during which the temperature may drop near freezing or below. Many succulents are frost tender, meaning that at 32 degrees, the water in their tissues crystallizes, expands, and bursts cell walls. This can turn leaves to putty, irreparably damaging the plants. You can gain several life-saving degrees by covering your succulents with sheets, lightweight fabric, or frost cloth. But not plastic, which by trapping moisture and blocking light and air can cause more damage than it prevents.

Frost burned aeoniums

If your succulents have been damaged by frost, they’re not necessarily goners. Learn more about this in my recent posts: Oh, No, My Succulents Froze! and Frost Damaged Succulents? Here’s What to Do. Notice the damaged tips on these aeoniums? No need to do anything. In a few months the older leaves will dry and fall off, and the rest will be hidden by new growth.

Related info:

Greenhouse for succulents in display garden
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Succulents at the Spring Home/Garden Show

Succulent display garden

I zipped around San Diego’s Spring Home/Garden show right before the judging, cell in hand. (When in a hurry, I use my phone to take photos in dim light instead of my fancy-schmancy Canon.) I was delighted with what I saw. No question I’m biased, but the display garden (above) showcasing plants from Desert Theater nursery, and designed by Steve McDearmon of Garden Rhythms and Katie Christensen of Miss Katie’s Garden, was my favorite. You could plunk the whole shebang in your front yard for a great-looking, low-maintenance lawn-replacement landscape.

The show is the first Fri.-Sat.-Sun. of March every year. You’ll have to pay parking, but you needn’t pay the admission price of $9 at the door. Obtain a FREE PASS by going to the show’s Buy Tickets page and entering this special code for my fans and followers: DLBA.

Have fun!

Succulent display garden

Apologies for photos that lack credits. None of the display gardens had names on them because they were about to be judged. If you want to ID them in a comment below, please do!

Greenhouse for succulents in display garden

St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center (display garden above) helps adults with developmental disabilities. Gardening, propagating plants and selling them is a big part of it. I love the greenhouse in their display garden!


Do I detect a trend brewing? This lovely display combines succulents (dudleyas) with red bromeliads and other low-water tropicals.

Succulent vertical display garden

Melissa Teisl and Jon Hawley design gardens as Chicweed Design & Landscaping. Although they sold their floral shop in Solana Beach, you can still see aspects of it in their gardens, like the lovely vertical display above. I’ll bet the sandbox behind it was inspired by their little boy.Potted aloe garden by Chicweed

This mosaic pot filled with succulents also is in Chicweed Design & Landscaping’s display garden.


Speaking of lovely succulent container gardens, this one is by Katie Christensen for Desert Theater. The gorgeous purple plant is a dyckia, a type of bromeliad that’s succulent. Dyckias would doubtless be more popular if they didn’t have leaf edges as sharp as steak knives. (Katie, are you bleeding?)


Also in the Desert Theater display is “Miss Katie’s potting bench.”

Succulent container gardens

Miss Katie brings a feminine aesthetic to succulents.


Judges give bonus points for labeled plants. This is a charming way to do it, don’t you think?

IMG_4306The display garden above, which incorporates agaves and dasylirions, utilizes a lot of interesting hardscape and topdressings, which after all are THE ultimate way to have a waterwise garden.

echeverias in metal bowl

And isn’t this stunning? So simple! Pass the oil and vinegar. (Kidding.)

Don’t forget, you can get a free pass by going to the Show’s website and entering my special discount code: DLBA. If you missed it this year, subscribe to my newsletter (below), and I’ll give you a head’s up for next year.

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Should You Let Your Flapjack Plants Bloom?


You’re probably aware of flapjack plant (Kalanchoe luciae), a succulent that’s popular because of the color of its leaves. (Shown above at Waterwise Botanicals nursery, perfectly timed for Valentine’s Day.)


Like other succulents with overlapping leaves along a single stem, when Kalanchoe luciae blooms, the entire plant elongates. This is how those in my window box looked in March of last year.


If your goal is to have a lot of new little plants, one option is to let the mother plant bloom. Providing it survives the effort (they usually do, but not always), you’ve hit the jackpot. Harvest each cluster with several inches of stem attached to anchor it, and start it as a cutting. Roots will grow from leaf axils (where leaves are attached to the stem).


I didn’t want awkwardly tall plants in my window box, so when the flapjacks started to elongate in March, I snipped off the bloom spikes. The mother plants seemed determined to flower regardless, and buds grew from leaf axils beneath the cut. I was just as determined they weren’t going to flower, so I pinched out the buds.


Within a month, the plants’ topmost leaves turned beige and crisp along the edges. I’m not sure why this happened, but I trimmed them to keep the plants tidy.


By June, new little leaves concealed the truncated stems, indicating that the plants had been gearing up to produce offsets. When they couldn’t do it along a bloom spike, they did so closer to the core.


Here’s how one of the plants looked in August.


And again in October. Other plants in the window box are blue echeverias and Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’. The composition looks fine, but would be even better if those flapjacks would turn as red as they were at the nursery! (Hm. Topic for a future post? “How to Keep your Flapjacks Red.” Advice welcome!)



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Rick’s Aloe and Butterfly Garden


The current population of monarch butterflies is a mere 4% of what it formerly was. These once ubiquitous butterflies are on the brink of extinction. Anyone with even a small garden, in any part of the US, can help reverse this sad trend.


I knew that Rick Bjorklund’s garden in San Diego would delight me with its aloes, but I didn’t expect to see butterflies who felt the same way. Not only do monarchs love aloe blooms, their offspring have settled into Rick’s garden, too.


This is because Rick also cultivates milkweed, the one and only food of monarch caterpillars. His numerous Asclepias curassavica shrubs are infested with striped, leaf-eating, antennaed tubes.


Hm. Which end is which?

Once they’re fat and sassy, caterpillars look for a place to hang out…literally. To pupate, they attach themselves to a branch or eve, and their skin splits open, revealing a conical box that resembles a jade earring. What a surprise to see a chrysalis hanging from a kalanchoe (below). It’s amazing that insects native to the Americas are at home in a garden of plants mainly from Madagascar and South Africa.


This one’s attached to an agave leaf.


Here’s what happens next (photo courtesy of

Butterfly emerging

Monarchs also like Verbena bonariensis. I photographed this in a northern CA garden in early autumn.


What every friend of butterflies should know: 

— To promote the survival of monarch butterflies, cultivate milkweed (one or more plants in the genus Asclepias).  Native to the Americas, milkweeds can be cultivated as far north as Quebec.

— When designing your monarch-habitat garden, position nectar-producing plants (like aloes, daisies and verbena) near milkweed. Adult butterflies look for both when laying their eggs, to ensure that their offspring will have plenty to eat.

— Refrigerate milkweed seeds three to six weeks prior to sowing. Get them off to a good start in peat pots with a thin covering of topsoil (they need sunlight to germinate). Transplant into the garden when rooted, four to six weeks after germination, in a full-sun location. Daytime highs should be at least 70 degrees F. Plants grow 36 to 60 inches tall, and can be spaced 12 to 18 inches apart.

— Monarchs and other butterflies have liquid diets. They like muddy water for its minerals, and the nectar of numerous flowers, which they ingest through a proboscis that unfurls and serves as a flexible drinking straw.

— Monarchs produce four successive generations annually, each with phases of egg, larva, pupa and butterfly. Adults of the first three generations live two to six weeks. The fourth generation, born in the fall, migrates to a warmer climate where the butterflies live through the winter, mate, and then return north.

— Butterflies fly best when temperatures are between 80 and 100 degrees. They’ve been clocked at 12 mph.

— Make sure butterflies have plenty to eat by supplementing their diet with a quality commercial nectar. To keep ants out of a butterfly feeder, coat an inch or so of the rod that supports it with Vaseline. Clean the feeder and replace the nectar daily. Place the feeder close to the milkweed and flowering plants in your garden, but out of direct, hot sun lest the liquid evaporate.

— Provide a mud puddle as a water source, ideally near a boulder on which butterflies can sun themselves.

Resources for butterfly gardeners:

Online article on saving and aiding butterflies, by British expert Clive Harris of DIY Garden, who emailed me: “76% of our butterfly species have declined over the past 40 years, so anything that helps spread the word about protecting these little chaps would be massively appreciated.” 
Milkweed seeds
Butterfly feeder
Butterfly nectar

Reference books:

Milkweed, Monarchs and More by Rea, Oberhauser and Quinn
Monarch Butterfly by Gail Gibbons

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No-Water Succulents


Garden plants that don’t need to be watered are not as rare as you might think. Certain readily available succulents not only get by on rainfall alone, they’ll grow in nutrient-poor soil and can handle searing sun and frost.

These easy-care succulents native to the Southwest and Mexico: dasylirions, agaves, cacti and yuccas. They thrive from Mexico to the Bay Area and in parts of Colorado, Texas and the Carolinas (Zones 7b and higher).

The Laguna Beach garden shown here has all four.

No water succulent garden
Above: Mark and Cindy Evans’ hilltop garden in Laguna Beach, CA has all sorts of dasylirions, agaves, cacti and yuccas. Also in their garden are euphorbias, crassulas (jades) and aloes.  Can you tell which is which?

Above: In the Evans garden are Yucca rostrata, Agave attenuata and Yucca aloifolia (Spanish bayonet). A topdressing of golden decomposed granite lends a finished look.

Above: Two Dasylirion whipplei (which resemble pincushions) are 15 years old. The Yucca aloifolia at left was there when Mark and Cindy bought the house in 1999. “I think it’s pretty old; its base is huge,” Mark says. Four silvery blue Yucca rostrata also are 15 (the much larger one at right gets more sun). Mark planted the spineless paddle cactus along the wall from cuttings six years ago. Behind them, at right, is a 6-year-old blue Agave americana. Growing in the dry fountain are 8-year-old foxtail agaves (Agave attenuata).

How is it possible that yuccas and dasylirions, which have thin leaves, are succulents?  It’s because the store water in their trunks. A succulent by definition is “any plant that stores water in fleshy leaves or stems in order to withstand periods of drought.”

Go to my Agave page

Read my article, “Is Cactus the New Black?”

See my YouTube video: What you MUST know about century plants (Agave americana

Be sure to get my comprehensive guide to succulent landscaping, Designing with Succulents.