Indoor dish garden
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Dish Gardens Bring Gardening Inside for the Winter

“Dish Gardens Bring Gardening Inside for the Winter” is the headline of a recent Associated Press* succulent story. Reporter Dean Fosdick interviewed me because, as he writes, “indoor gardens, with their miniature, low-maintenance plants, thrive in small spaces, and that makes them a natural fit for succulents.”

Indoor dish garden

Indoor dish garden

Quotes from the article:

— “Thanks to their intriguing forms and ease of care, succulents are replacing African violets as the plants of choice for indoor gardens,” said Debra Lee Baldwin, author of “Designing With Succulents” (Timber Press, revised second edition).
— “For a windowsill, a pot that fits into your cupped hands is perfect.”
— “If using a tall or deep container, fill it half full with empty plastic water bottles, tightly capped. You won’t waste soil that the plants don’t need and that might even compromise their health by holding moisture that causes rot. Plus the pot will weigh less.”
— Much of the fun in growing succulents is their adaptability, Baldwin said. “Give them adequate light, good air circulation and fast-draining soil and you can grow succulents in a pair of socks.”
Why I put plastic bottles in big pots
Any of those might be a launching point for an article, but perhaps the most useful is the empty-bottle idea. I use plastic bottles to make large pots lighter before I add potting soil. It makes pots easier to carry, cuts down on the amount of soil needed, and is better for shallow-rooted succulents. Before I plant any tall or large pot, I half-fill it with… [continue reading].
*The Associated Press is a US-based news agency headquartered in NYC. The article appeared in the Washington Post and other media.

Related Info on This Site:

How to grow indoors
About Debra page. Widely known as the “Queen of Succulents,” Debra Lee Baldwin is the award-winning garden photojournalist who launched worldwide interest in succulents in 2007 with…[Continue reading]
Go to TV, Radio and Media. Here you’ll find excerpts and links to a few of many media articles and interviews in which Debra Lee Baldwin is featured and quoted as an expert on succulents and their design uses. Included are book reviews, radio, podcasts, TV news, Wall St. Journal, Washington Post, KPBS… [Continue reading]
Books by Debra Lee Baldwin
Why I put plastic bottles in big pots
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Use Plastic Bottles for Lighter Pots

I use plastic bottles to make large pots lighter before I add potting soil. It makes pots easier to carry, cuts down on the amount of soil needed, and is better for shallow-rooted succulents. Before I plant any tall or large pot, I half-fill it with tightly capped empty water bottles.
Why I put plastic bottles in big pots
Good design and aesthetics dictate that large spaces need large pots. They make a “wow” statement in any garden, patio, entryway or sunroom. Pots that aren’t in scale with a big space can be visually lost or add clutter.

Problem is, if you fill a big pot with soil, you might not be able to move it, especially after you water it. And if succulents sit atop soil that never dries, roots may rot. My solution, a result of trial-and-error, also works for window boxes.

Kalanchoe luciae

To make my deep window boxes less heavy, there’s a layer of plastic bottles beneath the soil.

Mistakes to avoid

— Initially I tried placing a succulent, still in its nursery pot, inside a tall glazed pot. The plastic rim showed, which looked tacky. I tried the nursery plant in a different large pot. The plastic pot dropped too far inside, making the succulent look like it was hiding. Not to mention I hoped to put more than one succulent in the focal-point pot. I considered half-filling it with rocks, but being denser, they’re even heavier than soil. As for lightweight organic matter, like chipped wood, it makes the soil level sink as it decomposes.
— I tried keeping the lower half of a large pot empty by using a pot saucer as a shelf inside it. It was tricky to find a saucer that fit and would rest where I wanted it to (about a foot below the rim). Plus it needed a drainage hole.
— Next I tried filling the bottom half of a large pot with styrofoam packing peanuts. Later, when I emptied the pot to reuse it, I discovered that wet soil plus styrofoam equals a sodden mess that’s no fun to dispose of.
— I also tried dumping clean items from my recycling bin into a hefty pot, but discovered that bottles and crushed cans hold soil and water—an anaerobic mix that becomes a microbial soup. Even bubble wrap, when stuffed into a pot, forms nondraining pockets.

My cheap and easy answer

I fill large pots half full with empty plastic water bottles, tightly capped. As far as roots are concerned, bottles are the same as rocks. Yet empty plastic water bottles don’t weigh anything. Some soil does fall into gaps, so it’s a good idea to pour pumice into the pot prior to adding potting soil. Pumice, a lightweight volcanic rock, absorbs excess moisture. Make sure bottles are tightly capped, so inside them is only air and the weight of the soil won’t make them collapse.
Use bottles to make pots weigh less
Empty water bottles make big pots weigh less, save on soil, prevent soggy roots, and are easy to remove when emptying the pot. Simply hose them off before returning them to your recycling bin.

Use Plastic Bottles for Lighter Pots
Step-by-step [see the video]

— Assemble your materials: Pot, plants or cuttings, empty plastic water bottles, potting soil, pumice.
— Place empty bottles in the pot to midlevel, or to about 12 inches from the rim.
— Add enough pumice to nearly cover the bottles.
Use bottles to make pots lighter
— Remove plant/s from nursery pot/s and arrange in pot.
— Add soil so the crown of the plant (where roots meet stem) is a bit lower than the rim.
     OR, if planting cuttings, simply insert them in the soil.
— Move pot to its new location. Protect flooring from drips if need be. Water lightly to settle roots.
— After a week or so, insert a wood chopstick several inches into the soil to check its dryness. If the stick comes out clean, add water until it flows out the drain hole.

Related Info on This Site:

Showcase succulents in large pots

Use pumice to make pots lighter
Books by Debra Lee Baldwin
Gallery of large pots of succulents
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Showcase Succulents in Large Pots

For a dramatic, memorable enhancement to a garden or patio, showcase succulents in large pots. Big containers are both sculptural and eye-catching. Add succulents and you have a dynamic, ever-changing display as plants grow and seasons shift. Examples here are from my own garden and others I admire. Find more great ideas for succulents in large pots in my books, in particular Succulent Container Gardens and Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.).

Gallery of large pots of succulents

A nonfunctioning fountain planted with string-of-pearls and Dasylirion whipplei is at the end of an entry walkway adjacent to the front door.

 

Gallery of large pots of succulents

Big red pots planted with dasylirions add height and color contrast. The trio create a centerpiece for a rectangular bed of assorted ice plants. The pots also serve to relieve the eye in the midst of a lot of fine-textured plants.

 

Gallery of large pots of succulents

A series of knee-high pots planted with Agave ferox borders a walkway and contrasts with a coral wall. Beneath the pots, a topdressing of rocks and gravel provide texture and continuity.

 

Large pots in the garden

Large pots are an investment, but well worth it. This one, planted with Sedum burrito cuttings several years ago, is a surefire conversation piece. The homeowner sees it from inside her home and whenever she uses her patio.

 

Gallery of large pots of succulents

A sloped poolside planting includes succulents in large pots that stand out and add interest to a colorful assortment of succulents.

 

Gallery of large pots of succulents

Big pots needn’t be upright. This one, spilling Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’, lends whimsy to a garden and a suggestion of motion. This is also a great way to utilize a cracked or damaged pot.

 

Large pots in the garden

Red glaze on a pot in my garden repeats the upthrusting lines of a red aloe nearby.

 

Gallery of large pots of succulents

A rectangular pot fills wall space and adds a welcoming presence at the entry to Jeanne Meadow’s garden. She planted it with aeoniums, aloes and trailing Portulacaria afra ‘Minima’.

 

Gallery of large succulent pots

A red pot containing a variegated sansevieria makes a clean-lined statement in the side garden of a contemporary home. Rounded river rock covers bare dirt and provides contrasting texture.

 

Gallery of large succulent pots

A pot in my garden adds height and interest to a terrace overflowing with succulents. I planted the pot with lampranthus, sedum, Othonna capensis and a variegated yucca.

 

Gallery of large succulent pots

In a patio in downtown Carmel, CA, a large pot with overgrown Aeonium ‘Cyclops’ creates a photo op and focal point.

 

Large pots in the garden

This large unplanted pot serves as a sculptural element in Patrick Anderson’s garden. Its rounded lines contrast with spiky agaves nearby, and their orange leaf margins repeat its terra-cotta color.

Related Info on This Site:

Use plastic bottles for lighter pots

On My YouTube Channel:

Video how to make large pots lighter

 

Books by Debra Lee Baldwin

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Frost and Succulents: What You Need to Know

Frost and Succulents: What You Need to Know

Depending on how long temps stay below freezing (32 degrees F), “frost tender” succulents may show varying degrees of damage. When moisture in the cells of a vulnerable plant freezes, it expands, bursts cell walls, and turns leaves to mush. In a “light frost,” leaf tips alone may show damage. In a “hard frost,” temps stay below freezing for hours, which can collapse entire plants. Succulents typically don’t regenerate from roots.

Crassulas, aeoniums, euphorbias, and kalanchoes are among the most tender succulents. A few succulents have a built-in antifreeze that enables them to survive temperatures well below 32 degrees F—below zero, in fact.

Should you be worried about your outdoor succulents in winter? It depends on where you live. See “Cold Weather Care for Outdoor Succulents, By Region.”

Your area is frost-free (lucky you!) if…

Agave attenuata grows in gardens, and the plants look like this year-round.

Cold Weather Care for Garden Succulents

Agave attenuata is the first succulent to show damage from frost in winter.

In my garden, this soft-leaved agave is the canary in the mineshaft where cold is concerned. A lot of succulents breeze through a brief frost (less than an hour), but leaf tips of Agave attenuata show damage right away.

Frost and Succulents: What You Need to Know

After a brief exposure to 32 degrees, Agave attenuata will look like this.

Such damage is unsightly but seldom fatal. See the healthy green part of each leaf? Use scissors to trim off the tissue-paper-like frozen tips [see how], cutting each leaf to a point. When you’re done, the damage will be barely noticeable. By summer new growth will have hidden those shorter, trimmed leaves. (Note: Such damage is similar to scorching caused by too much sun and heat, typical of desert climates, and by—believe it or not—wildfire.)

 

Cold Weather Care for Garden Succulents

What about an agave or other succulent that has frost damage only on its leaf tips? Don’t bother to trim them. It’ll lose those oldest leaves in a few months anyway.

Areas of occasional, mild frosts (like inland Southern CA):

Watch the weather forecast, and if there’s a “frost advisory” for your area, before dark go outside and cover your tender succulents. Frost tends to happen after midnight, with temps getting colder toward dawn. Cold air is heavier than warm, and flows down slopes and collects in low spots. Consequently, succulents in swales are more at risk than those atop berms. You may have heard that Christmas lights raise the temperature a few degrees. Yes, if they’re the old-fashioned kind. Those sold nowadays (LEDs) don’t generate heat. The succulents you have to worry about are those out in the open, with nothing above them. I sometimes stand over a succulent and gaze upward. If there are no tree limbs or eaves directly overhead, it gets draped.

I live in the foothills NE of San Diego at 1,500 feet (Zone 9b). And yes, I’ve been outdoors in my pajamas and slippers at 11 pm after hearing the weather forecast on the late-night news, shivering as I throw sheets on vulnerable plants, while my husband holds a flashlight. If frost is predicted for a series of nights, I may leave the plants covered; otherwise, I remove the sheets the next morning. To make sure they won’t blow off, I secure them with clothes pins and rocks. Do NOT use plastic. It doesn’t allow the plants to breathe.

Frost and Succulents: What You Need to Know

Frost cloth protects jades and other vulnerable succulents in my garden. See the video. 

Why cold damages some succulents and not others

A lot has to do with where a particular kind of plant originated. Succulents, which store water in their leaves to survive drought, are mostly from dry, hot climates. But some are from dry, cold climates—and those are the ones that don’t freeze. See my article in the Wall Street Journal: Showy Succulents for Snowy Climates. Among the “hardies” are:

Frost and Succulents: What You Need to Know

Stonecrops (small-leaved sedums), like those above in a Colorado rock garden…

Frost and Succulents: What You Need to Know

sempervivums (hens-and-chicks, above) of which there are numerous species and cultivars; certain cacti, yuccas and agaves (like Agave utahensis, A. montana and A. parryi), and lewisias from the Pacific Northwest.

Related Info on This Site:

Overwintering

How to grow indoors

Cold Weather Care for Outdoor Succulents

Frost damage

 

Learn more in my books:

Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.):
— Cold-Climate Succulent Gardens, pp. 111-113
— Cultivating Succulents in Challenging Climates, pp. 143-148

Succulents Simplified:
— Protection from Frost, pp. 48-50
— Frost Damage, p. 72 and p. 77

I also recommend Hardy Succulents, by Gwen Kelaidis, illustrated by Saxon Holt:

Screen shot 2016-01-05 at 7.59.00 PM

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Oh No, My Succulents Froze!

Will succulents recover from frost damage? It depends. Here’s how frost-tender succulents looked before temps dropped into the mid-20s F, and after:

IMG_9517annotated_resized

Here’s the same Euphorbia ammak ‘Variegata, after the frost:
IMG_1410_annotated_resized

Likelihood of recovery: Nil. Too much of the tissue was damaged. But what about the Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ behind it? It’s hope of recovery is excellent because only the top growth froze. It protected the stems underneath, which are still healthy.

IMG_3059annotated_resized

If something similar has happened to your plants, succulent or otherwise, once all danger of frost has passed, prune the dead top growth and the plant will be good as new…except smaller, of course!

How about the frozen aeonium below? Pretty much hopeless. But look a the Sedum ‘Angelina’ surrounding it. It’s a succulent too, and perfectly fine!
IMG_1237resized_annotated

Why does frost kill some succulents and not others? A lot has to do with where a particular kind of plant originated. Succulents, which store water in their leaves to survive drought, are mostly from dry, hot climates. But some are from dry, cold climates. See my Wall Street Journal article on this topic.

If Your Succulents DO Become Damaged

Remove collapsed leaves if it’s likely they’ll rot, because that threatens the health of the plant. If instead they dry out, they’ll help protect healthy tissue from future frosts. Leave them on, then prune after the weather warms.

Preserve the symmetry of slender-leaved succulents (such as agaves and aloes) by trimming tip-burned leaves to a point, rather than cutting straight across. (See below.)

Chalk it up to experience. Now you know that particular plant is vulnerable and needs a protected location.

How to trim a frost-burned Agave attenuata

The tips of the leaves of this agave melt at 32 degrees, but the plant is usually fine. Here’s how to make it look good again—only takes a minute!

Related articles and info:WSJ article

Cold Weather Care for Outdoor Succulents

 

Winter Protection for Succulents: Products  Soggy soil, dim light, high humidity and freezing temperatures can be death to succulents native to warm, arid climates. These items will help you get your succulents through cold, wet North American winters…[Continue reading]

My books have info on growing succulents in challenging climates and how to protect them from frost and excess rain.

All the info you need, all in one place: 

I also recommend this excellent book about succulents that survive freezing temps: Hardy Succulents, by Gwen Kelaidis, illustrated by Saxon Holt.

Screen shot 2016-01-05 at 7.59.00 PM

Cold weather care for outdoor succulents
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Cold Weather Care for Outdoor Succulents, By Region

Cold Weather Care for Outdoor Succulents, By Region

Should you be worried about your outdoor succulents in winter? It depends on where you live.

It’s all about frost. The temperature at which water freezes—32 degrees F—is the Great Divide. Above that, most succulents are fine. Below that, most are at risk. See “Frost and Succulents: What You Need to Know.

Hardiness Zone Map

The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is a good basic guideline. However, it doesn’t take into account climate variables potentially harmful to succulents.

Regional Care for Succulents, An Overview

There’s very little of North America where every kind of succulent will grow outdoors year-round. The “banana belt” is the heavily populated California coast. Of course, you can grow any succulent anywhere if you’re able to replicate the conditions it likes, either in your home or in a greenhouse. But this article is about cultivating succulents outdoors, in the garden, during the most challenging season: winter.

If you live in…

Coastal CA from the Bay Area south: You don’t get frost (at lower elevations), and humidity and rainfall are minimal, so simply make sure your succulents get good drainage during occasional rainstorms.

Cold weather care for outdoor succulents

My garden is in Southern CA inland, in the foothills NE of San Diego at 1,500 feet (Zone 9b). A freak snowfall happened on New Year’s Day, 2017. When temps rose above freezing, I hosed off the snow. The Agave attenuata at left was damaged but recovered.

Central and Southern CA inland: Frosty nights tend to follow rainy weather, December through February. Like a citrus grower, I pay attention to “frost advisories for inland valleys.” When temps are predicted to drop below 32, I drape succulents with bed sheets or commercial frost cloth made of non-woven fabric[Learn more about how I protect my garden.]

Cold Weather Care for Garden Succulents

When a non-gardening friend noticed bedsheets draped over my plants, she asked if my dryer wasn’t working (!).

Areas of hard frost: You get temps below 32 degrees that last for hours, so it’s not adequate to merely cover your in-ground succulents or shelter potted succulents beneath eaves. Move them indoors or into a greenhouse. Depending on where you live, an inexpensive temporary shelter may be OK. [See “Four Ways to Overwinter Succulents” on this site.]

Northwest and Northeast: Protect and shelter your succulents indoors (perhaps in your basement) or in a climate-controlled greenhouse. [On this site, See “Cold-Hardy Succulents for Northern Climates” for exceptions; “How to Grow Succulents Indoors;” and “Winter Protection for Succulents: Products].

Desert Southwest: You get hard frosts, so protect and shelter tender succulents indoors or in a climate-controlled greenhouse. Those that do well for you include cacti, agaves, dasylirions, yuccas and other succulents specific to your region.

South: If you get frost, see above. But even if temps stay above freezing, you’ll still contend year-round with trying to grow arid-region plants in a wet, humid climate. Find out which succulents you can grow outdoors in Florida and other states too damp and humid for most succulents.

Related info on this site:
How to grow indoors
Overwintering

Frost and succulents Frost damage

Learn more in my books:

Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.):
— Cold-Climate Succulent Gardens, pp. 111-113
— Cultivating Succulents in Challenging Climates, pp. 143-148

Succulents Simplified:
— Protection from Frost, pp. 48-50
— Frost Damage, p. 72 and p. 77

I also recommend this excellent book: Hardy Succulents by Gwen Kelaidis, photos by Saxon Holt.Cold Weather Care for Garden Succulents

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Four Ways to Overwinter Succulents

These four ways to overwinter succulents give you several options, depending on how cold it gets where you live. Most varieties can’t handle temps below 32 degrees F.

These common winter conditions can lead to damage or death for dormant (not actively growing) succulents:
— soggy soil (causes roots to rot)
— excess rainfall (engorges cells)
— frost (causes cell walls to burst)

Some succulents do have a built-in antifreeze. Those indigenous to the Americas, such as cacti and agaves, or to northern climates like many sedums and sempervivums, tend to fare better than those from Madagascar and South Africa (kalanchoes, aeoniums, aloes and crassulas). But no succulents want a lot of water when dormant, nor high humidity at any time of the year. All prefer well-draining soil, bright but not intense light, and good air circulation.

#1: Cover your plants

If you live where frost is occasional and lasts only a few hours (inland valleys of Southern CA), cover vulnerable, in-ground succulents with bed sheets when there’s a frost advisory for your area. Or use what nurseries do: Pellon nonwoven fabric or Agribon’s floating row cover. These are made of spun nylon, like fusible interfacing without the fusible part. It will protect about 2 to 4 degrees below freezing. For a bit of extra warmth, use C-9 Christmas light strings (the old-fashioned kind).

Ways to overwinter succulents

In my YouTube video, Frost Protection for Succulents, I show how I do this in my own garden. In the foothills NE of San Diego at 1,500 feet, it’s subject to cold air that settles in inland valleys. 

Also:
— Don’t peel away dry leaves attached to a succulent’s trunk or stem. They protect it from temperature extremes (cold and hot).
— Keep succulents on the dry side. Cells that are turgid are more likely to burst when the liquid within them freezes and expands.
— Move cold-sensitive succulents beneath a deck, tree or eaves. Such structures help to keep heat from dissipating and protect leaves from falling ice crystals.
— Or place pots against walls, hardscape, boulders and/or shrubs that absorb and slowly release the day’s heat. South- and west-facing exposures do this best.

If you live in Zones 8 or lower, grow tender succulents as annuals or in containers that you overwinter indoors. These members of my Facebook community graciously shared their winter set-ups:

#2: Outdoors, Temporary Greenhouse

Candy Suter, Roseville, CA (near Sacramento): Midwinter nights may drop into the 20s F but seldom go lower than 25 F. Candy moves her succulents into a small walk-in greenhouse (center) or a gazebo (right), which she covers with 5mm plastic to hold in warmth. She anchors the plastic along the bottom, secures the seams with duct tape, and adds a small heater with a fan on the coldest nights.

Ways to overwinter succulents

#3: Indoors, shelves with lights

Pat Enderly of Virginia Beach, VA: Midwinter lows average 32 F. Pat brings her plants indoors and tucks them into shelving units she purchased online. Each shelf has a waterproof tray, and each unit is lit by two T5 bulbs. “They do a wonderful job of keeping my succulents from etiolating (stretching),” Pat says, adding that the lights, on timers, stay on from 7 am to 7 pm daily. Pat moves her succulents indoors in Sept. and Oct. and takes them outside in April.

Ways to overwinter succulents Ways to overwinter succulents

#4: Climate-controlled greenhouse

Tenaya Capron of Buffalo, TX: Although average midwinter lows hover above freezing, occasional winter lows may drop into the single digits. Tenaya and her husband built this 24×20 free-standing greenhouse, which they outfitted with exhaust and overhead fans, an overhead heater, and double sliding barn doors on either end. I love the library ladder, don’t you?

Ways to overwinter succulents

Find more info in my book, Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.):
— Cold-Climate Succulent Gardens, pp. 111-113
— Cultivating Succulents in Challenging Climates, pp. 143-148

Related Info on this Site:

Temporary greenhouse


Succulent FAQs, Basics

How to keep succulents happy


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How to Grow Succulents Indoors

If you’re wondering how to grow succulents indoors, basically you need to outfit a basement, sun room, spare room or alcove with tables and shelves that can withstand moisture, plus lights and a fan that run on timers. Fortunately succulents need very little water. Dribble a little at the base of each plant every three weeks or so, enough to hydrate the roots but not so much it puddles on the floor. Don’t fertilize succulents when they’re dormant (growth slows to a standstill, usually in winter).

Move potted succulents indoors when temperatures drop into the 30s. Clean the pots’ exteriors and check for pests. Keep them above 32 degrees F but not higher than 60 (cold is necessary for flowering later on). Keep a fan running to enhance air circulation, and a dehumidifier if the air is moist.

Place your succulents near a window. Maximum sun exposure is on the south and west sides of your house. The farther north you live in North America, east will provide bright light, but not enough for crassulas, echeverias and aloes to maintain their red hues.

Don’t set plants near heaters or furnace vents. They’ll cause the soil to dry out and your plants to desiccate.

Install grow lights. Situate indoor succulents beneath lights that stay on six hours daily. Fluorescent is fine and economical. Experts in growing succulents in gray-sky climates recommend T-5 grow lights. If your plants stretch toward light (or flatten their rosettes to expose more of their surface area), add more lights or move the plants closer to the ones you have.

Agrobrite FLT44 T5 Fluorescent Grow Light System, 4 Feet, 4 Tubes, about $120 on Amazon.

 

No room? Go vertical. Create a “light island.” There are shelving units designed for indoor plants. Each shelf has a waterproof tray, and each unit is lit by two T5 bulbs. The lights, on timers, stay on from 7 am to 7 pm daily. Shown below is arguably the ultimate indoor plant-shelf unit. Made of lightweight, powder-coated aluminum, it has adjustable lights with energy-efficient, full-spectrum bulbs; plastic drip trays; and wheels for easy positioning. Three shelves provide 18 square feet of growing space. From Gardener’s Supply Co.; about $600. 

Get a timer which automatically turns the lights on at, say, 7 a.m. and off eight hours later. I like this one, below, because it has multiple outlets:  Titan Apollo 14, about $26. 

Watch the temperature. If it falls below freezing (32 degrees F) many succulents may show long-term damage (or die). This indoor thermometer is digital and also has a humidity gauge. But what I love about it is that it keeps daily high and low temps for 24 hours!

AcuRite 00613 Humidity Monitor with Indoor Thermometer, Digital Hygrometer and Humidity Gauge Indicator, about $12 on Amazon.

Watch for pests. Succulents in cramped conditions are at risk of mealy bugs, spider mites and other pests. At the first sign of infestation, spray with 70% Isopropyl alcohol. Isolate infested plants so pests don’t spread, and clean the surrounding area.

Related info on this site: Overwintering

 

How to keep succulents happy


 

 

Bizarre succulents
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Bizarre Succulents

Bizarre Succulents for Your Collection, Bwa-ha-ha

To me, a bizarre succulent is one that suggests something it’s not in an eerie way—i.e. a cancerous growth, reptile or body part. When I take a second look and ponder what the heck it is, I experience a deliciously unsettling ah-ha (or bwa-ha-ha) moment. Of course, what’s bizarre is in the eye of the beholder. You might go to a Cactus & Succulent Society show and hear members exclaim how “beautiful” a lumpy plant is and wonder if their eyes need checking. With that in mind, here are some of my own choices. (More to come!)

Btw, the bizarre succulents shown here inspired one of my few forays into fiction: Professor Mordant’s Sea-Sand Succulents. Do enjoy “moonlit” photos and a pleasantly unsettling reinterpretation of collectible-yet-creepy succulents. An excerpt: I was the only one who accepted the professor’s invitation. I calmed my trepidation by anticipating a big story…or at least a small adventure. It turned out to be both. But except for these photos, I’m unable to prove it. I fear that now, after the tsunami, this is the only record that remains…[Continue reading]

Debra’s Gallery of Bizarre Succulents

 

Bizarre succulents

Mammillaria elongata, crested

This is the crested, or monstrose, form of a fairly ordinary cactus that consists of fuzzy cylinders, commonly called “ladyfingers” (after the golden pastry served with afternoon tea). When ladyfingers turn monstrose, they enter an entirely different world…that of horror movies. Anyone need a couple of brains?

Bizarre succulents

Lithops sp.

Lithops, or living stones, is always plural (no such thing as a “lithop,” please). These grow glacially and can be difficult to keep alive because their tap roots are prone to rot if overwatered. In their native habitat of South Africa, lithops go without rain for months, sometimes years. To avoid being eaten by thirsty animals, they’re buried in sand to their tops, which have translucent fissures that enable sunlight to enter.

Bizarre succulents

Lophocereus schottii (totem pole cactus)

Recently at his nursery in Fallbrook, CA, succulent expert Don Newcomer showed me a rare columnar, spineless cactus from Mexico: Lophocereus schottii (totem pole cactus)…[Continue reading]

 

Bizarre succulents

Crassula ‘Baby’s Necklace’

These remind me of eels emerging from an undersea crevice. They look as though they’re swaying in a current, hoping to ingest passing plankton or tiny fish. This is one of the “stacked crassulas”  subsection of a genus best known for jade plants. What makes such different-shaped plants similar are the flowers, which to botanists are THE defining characteristic.

Bizarre succulents

Gasteria hybrid

Doesn’t this look like it’s crawling toward you? I don’t know much about this specimen, which I shot at a nursery, other than it’s a gasteria (related to Haworthia). The color and texture alone makes it bizarre, but its shape takes it over the top.

Bizarre succulents

Medusa euphorbia in flower.

Medusa euphorbias are oddities even when not in bloom. Their stems radiate from a central point in a Fibonacci spiral, forming what looks like scaly snakes. “In Greek mythology, Medusa was a monster, a Gorgon, generally described as a winged human female with living venomous snakes in place of hair. Those who gazed upon her face would turn to stone.” (From Wikipedia.)

Bizarre succulents

Euphorbia grandicornis

This is a euphorbia that sure looks like a cactus, but its thorns don’t radiate from central points (aureoles), and the flesh has a milky sap. The Latin means “large horn;” the common name is “cow’s horn.” Plants can form thickets 6 feet tall.

Bizarre succulents

Tillandsia sp.

Air plants (Tillandsia species) are not succulents, but often are paired with them. They have a wonderful tentacled look, and some suggest spiders or sea urchins.

Bizarre succulents

Echeveria ‘Mauna Loa’

This is one of many carruncled echeverias hybridized by Dick Wright. The lava-flow leaves doubtless inspired him to name it after a volcano. Such bumpy echeverias polarize collectors, who tend to love or hate them. I think they’re cool in a weird way, and I like how each cancerous-like mass is different. Definitely a plant that makes you look twice!

Bizarre succulents

Pilosocereus sp.

I turned this photo sideways in my fictional story about sea-sand succulents, so the flowers would appear to grow upright. This cactus is truly blue, and its blooms, especially when they turn black, truly bizarre.

Bizarre succulents

Kalanchoe luciae (Flapjack plant)

Comparisons to confections come to mind with this marvelously swirly succulent. Not all members of this species of Kalanchoe have loopy leaves, so perhaps this specimen is a cultivar (I shot it at Roger’s Gardens nursery in Corona del Mar, CA). Regardless, to keep Kalanchoe luciae compact, don’t let it bloom. 

Bizarre succulents

Fenestraria aurantiaca ‘Baby Toes’

I bought my first Baby Toes at the county fair when I was around 20. I put it on the kitchen counter and overwatered it, thereby causing it to stretch, rot and die. During the decades since, I’ve come to realize it wants a few hours of sun daily, and although sensitive, can tolerate more water than most plants in the “living stones” category (like lithops). The name comes from the Latin for “window,” referring to translucent tissue at each tip.

Bizarre succulents

Euphorbia obesa

When the succulent craze took off, these little fatties became so popular that they’ve since become scarce…typical of highly desirable succulents that are extremely slow growing. I hope sometime soon we’ll see marvelous nursery inventories of obesas again, like this one shot in ’07.

Bizarre succulents

Myrtillocactus geometrizans, crested

I associate this with Jeff Moore of Solana Succulents nursery and the undersea garden he designed at the San Diego Botanic Garden. Jeff, a lifelong resident of Solana Beach, CA, is fond of snorkeling. As a nurseryman specializing in succulents, plants like these reminded him of what he saw underwater, and voila: a trend was born.

Bizarre succulents

Boweia volubis (pregnant onion)

Here’s another succulent that polarizes collectors: Do you love pregnant onions or hate them? The bulbs, which sit atop the soil, have peeling skin and a hole at the top from which frizzy stems emerge. These twine around whatever they can find, then die back. Interesting? Definitely. Beautiful? Uh…perhaps not.

Bizarre succulents

Astrophytum ornatum, crested

You may have noticed that many bizarre plants are crested. As I explain on page 199 of Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.), “cresting happens when new growth emerges from a line rather than a point…Odd lumpy forms, sometimes but not always caused by cresting, are monstrose.” The fang-like spines on this crested astrophytum are icing on the cake.

Bizarre succulents

Aloe vanbalenii (Van Balen’s aloe)

Aloe vanbalenii is a fairly common landscape succulent, but it’s seldom this red and compact. As with many succulents that stress to colors of red and orange, this colony has tightened up, creating what looks like a multiheaded squid.

Bizarre succulents

Wooly filaments provide this high-elevation cactus with warmth in winter and sun-protection in summer. And if that weren’t off-putting enough, it’s armed with spines too. Those odd scaly protrusions are flower buds.

 

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Books by Debra Lee Baldwin

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Professor Mordant’s Sea-Sand Succulents

Every year as Halloween approaches, I recall my visit to Professor Mordant’s remote island to tour his collection of sea-sand succulents. The island was rumored to be an eerie, inhospitable place—a volcanic outcropping devoid of vegetation, nothing like the mainland resort where I and other garden photojournalists had been sunning ourselves in style.

I alone accepted the professor’s invitation. I calmed my trepidation by anticipating a big story…or at least a small adventure. It turned out to be both. But except for these photos, I’m unable to prove it. I fear that now, after the tsunami, this is the only record that remains.

The moon had risen on All-Hallow’s Eve by the time the boatman set me ashore on the island’s rocky beach. Serpentine foam rustled black pebbles, and a chill wind brought the scent of seaweed and something seductive. Vanilla? Surely not.

The professor, his black cape billowing, was silhouetted by the full moon. Beyond jagged rocks, a greenhouse glinted. If he were disappointed that I came alone, Mordant gave no indication. Gesturing grandly, in a voice silken and slightly accented, he explained that his greenhouse was semi-submerged by the tides. “It contains the largest collection of sea-sand flora anywhere in the world,” he said proudly. “It’s low tide, the perfect time to see it.”

Bizarre succulents

His bony fingers steadied my elbow as I stepped over tide pools that mirrored the moon, and what appeared to be brain coral. “Furred eel cactus,” Mordant murmured, but the surf blurred his words. “Fur seals?” I asked. One, near my ankle, uncoiled. OK, not a seal.

Bizarre succulents

“Numerous sea-sand succulents appear furry,” the professor continued. “The adaptation enables them to trap and ingest plankton.” His lips pursed as though he, too, might enjoy plankton now and then.

Mordant explained that many of the plants in his collection—like these fanged clams—were nocturnal and beginning to awaken.

Bizarre succulents

Rusty hinges groaned as he opened the greenhouse door. Inside the air was dank and vanilla-scented. What at first I thought was frost on window panes were salt encrustations. It was a relief to be out of the cold wind. And when I saw sea-sand specimens on rock ledges and waist-high teak benches…oh! I felt as gleeful as an archeologist in King Tut’s tomb.

Bizarre succulents

Onion-like orbs bobbed in a tank of water. “When dormant, they rise to the surface,” the professor told me. “In the open ocean, they might float for years before washing ashore.”

Bizarre succulents

I gasped. “Surely those aren’t green sea spheres? I thought they were extinct! That is, if they ever existed.”

“Yes. They’re rarer than ambergris, and more valuable—to collectors.”

Did this explain the bulging burlap sack that he had handed to the boatman? I glanced at the professor’s angular profile. Was it possible this hermit was wealthier than any pharaoh?

He squinted at a sea-sand succulent that had bubbly, cancerous-like growths. “Careful. That’s a Pele plant.”

I drew back. “Pay-lay?”

“Named for the mythical volcano goddess of Hawaii. The plant is bioluminescent when submerged. Out of water, it exudes a substance that can burn skin.”

Bizarre succulents

I felt droplets on my arm and looked nervously for the source. Perhaps that azure plant with figlike fruit? The vanilla smell was cloying and I felt oddly hungry and weak. Mordant grasped my arm. “For heaven’s sake, don’t inhale! Mermaids give this to victims to subdue them. Salt-water taffy was named for it, but of course is very different.”

Bizarre succulents

So many wondrous things! Floral jellyfish with delicate tentacles…

Bizarre plants

…a sea euphorbia in full bloom

Euphorbia caput-medusae

…a coal-black gaster-lobster

Bizarre succulents
…a crested reef ariocarpus

Bizarre succulents

 

…windowpane coral (Fenestraria aquaticus)

Bizarre succulents

Myrtillocactus ‘Whale Spout’, crested

Bizarre succulents

 

Aloe ‘Atlantis’

Bizarre succulents

Crassula ‘Sea Snakes’

Bizarre succulents

…and an impressive colony of tartan sand urchins (“sea floor euphorbia”).

What Mordant called “blister plants” were everywhere. I might not have noticed them, so closely did they resemble pebbles. “They’re the largest single-celled flora,” he said of plump buttons each about an inch in diameter. “This group is undergoing mitosis.”  When I pressed one with my fingertip, I expected the plump cell to yield like a water balloon, but it was firm.

Bizarre succulents

“What genus do blister plants belong to?”

He sighed. “Mordant,” my dear, “Mordant.”

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I hope you enjoyed my Halloween spoof. For the true names of the plants, which are primarily cacti and succulents from very dry climates, go to my Bizarre Succulents page. — Debra

 

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