How to Kill Succulents

How Not To Kill Succulents

What IS it with New Yorkers? Whatever we’re cheerfully crazy about on the West Coast is dismissed by somber-clothed subway sprinters as idiotic. Or at least that’s the vibe I got from a reporter with New York Magazine, who disguised her weather envy with a lot of polite questions. Evidently what she really wanted was yet more reasons to diss succulents.

Jamie Lauren Keiles emailed that she was researching an article on how to kill succulents, and would I be available for a phone interview? I responded that I had killed plenty and would be happy to explain how.

I figured she was kidding.

SHE WASN’T. An excerpt:

“What kind of asshole hates a plant? Me, I guess. A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a coffee shop in Bed-Stuy, glowering at a jade plant in a ceramic mug, unable to get the phrase benign uterine polyp out of my head. The surge of disgust took me by surprise. For most of my life, I believed myself to like succulents. I loved them, even. In the same way that a baby’s oversize head and round eyes provoke empathy, the plump and whimsical leaves of these desert plants felt undeniably cute. But as with babies, more plants does not necessarily equal more cute. One baby? Adorable. Hundreds of babies in twee upcycled teacups atop every coffee-shop table and windowsill in your neighborhood? A nightmare.”

I emailed her: “just read your article on killing succulents, and would like you to know that they forgive you, sappy plants that they are.”

To not leave the question begging—and because succulent lovers (as well as haters) need to know—

“But what if one did want to kill a succulent? Or many succulents? Hypothetically speaking.

‘Their roots are not set up to deal with too much water,’ Baldwin told me. ‘So the No. 1 way to kill a succulent is to love it too much.’

With this in mind, we succulent-haters wait in hiding. It’s only a matter of time.”

Btw, I had told Jamie, “Every reporter’s favorite quote from me seems to be, ‘People used to say they hate succulents. Now they say they love them.’ So would you please use a different one?”

She wrote:

“Baldwin worked with succulents before the current fad, in an era when plant-lovers considered them ‘common’ and ‘for poor people.'”

But hey, she did mention my books. Even linked to them…more or less. (After the article appeared without links, I sent her a heart-rending reminder.)

 

For another East Coast reporter’s opinion and perspective, you might enjoy my post: Why Are Succulents So Popular?

 

Also see: How to Keep Succulents Happy Indoors


 

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Succulent Driftwood Designs

Watch my YouTube video, Succulents in Driftwood (2:51).

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It’s surprisingly easy to make a succulent driftwood planter that looks professionally designed. Each piece of driftwood has its own personality and suggests a different flow of succulents. The plants resemble undersea flora, and the wood hints at something you’d see in a forest. The two combine to make a special, almost fantasy-like composition that works well as a patio centerpiece or special gift for a friend. These photos are from a recent succulents-and-driftwood workshop.

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Driftwood pieces (from Sea Foam Driftwood) come with pre-drilled crevices for potting.

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Materials include small potted succulents, cuttings, sea shells, bits of tumbled glass, moss, rocks and sand. Tools are clippers, hot glue, and a chopstick for tucking-in plants and settling roots.

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Begin by filling the planting hole with potting soil.

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Add small rooted succulents and cuttings, envisioning them as undersea flora and fauna growing in and on submerged logs.

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Use a chopstick to tuck floral moss into remaining gaps. Moss will conceal any exposed soil and help hold cuttings in place until they root.

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Cuttings selected by Julie Levi include trailers (Ruschia perfoliata, Crassula lycopodioides), colorful rosettes (Sedum nussbaumerianum and Graptosedum ‘California Sunset’), and Crassula tetragona, among others. A sea urchin shell, attached with hot glue, is the perfect finishing touch.

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Connie Levi chose a slightly different assortment: Crassula lycopodioides (watch-chain crassula), a dwarf aloe, Aeonium haworthii, Crassula perforata ‘Variegata’ (a stacked crassula), and for upright interest (at right), Hatiora salicornioides.

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Linda Powell filled her piece of driftwood with pieces of jade, Kalanchoe pumila, variegated aeoniums, an echeveria, a dwarf aloe that resembles a sea star, and dainty cremnosedum rosettes. I like how she clustered smaller shells, too.

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Libbi Salvo’s long piece of driftwood, with several areas for planting, would make a good centerpiece for a rectangular outdoor table.

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Watch my YouTube video: Succulents in Driftwood (2:51)

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Should You Let Your Flapjack Plants Bloom?

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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.)

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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!)

 

 

Shooting a Succulent Prodigy

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Country Gardens magazine, published by Better Homes and Gardens, sent Ed Gohlich, one of the top garden photographers in the US, to the home of Matthew Wong, then 11, to shoot him with his succulent collection. I served as field editor and writer and took photos, too. The article is in the early spring 2016 issue, on newsstands nationwide and online. If you’d like to give the magazine a thumb’s up, you can do so on its Facebook page. Also enjoy my ten-video series, Succulent Matters with Matthew, on my YouTube channel. (In the most recent, you’ll join Matthew as he explores my garden.) And if you’d like to visit Matthew’s blog and connect with this remarkable kid, here’s the link.
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Ed’s assistant arranges plants for Matthew to hold.

 

 

Below: Matthew mugs for the camera, pretending to bite a cactus.

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Below: Stapeliads have stunning flowers that smell like rotting meat in order to attract flies and other pollinators.

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Below: We shot some of Matthew’s drawings of succulents, too.

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Here’s what to look for when you’re in line at the supermarket. This issue’s article on monarch butterflies is another reason to buy it. (Saving the monarch is one of my favorite topics, too. Click here for my post about an aloe garden designed for monarchs.) 

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Rick’s Aloe and Butterfly Garden

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This one’s attached to an agave leaf.

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Here’s what happens next (photo courtesy of http://www.monarch-butterfly.com/):

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

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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

Favorite Photos from My Garden

Certain photos that I’ve taken in my garden over the years continue to be my favorites—some for their color, others for composition, whimsy or subject. I hope you enjoy them, too.

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I never tire of observing how what’s on the pot is the same as what’s in the pot.

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Above is the photo of my garden that publications request the most. They really like those maroon aloes. (It’s because they’re dying. Our secret.)

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I’m a sucker for great shadows.

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This diminutive stapeliad looked great in this thrift-store pot even before it bloomed. I ask visiting children, “Is the fish eating the plants or throwing them up?” Girls invariably say the fish is ingesting; boys, the other option.

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More fish.

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And an ant.

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Echeveria flowers in windowsill vases.

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This is the floral-style arrangement I made for “Stunning Succulent Arrangements,” the online Craftsy class I teach.

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When I discovered Euphorbia mitriformis, I fell in love. That shape! Those stripes!

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This, of course, is all about color. The orange plant isn’t a succulent—it’s coxcomb.

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This fenestraria surprised me not only with a flower, but also by its sepals’ perfect star.

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My favorite miniature landscape, from my book Succulent Container Gardens.

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The background looks like a poster, but it’s actually plants. I love the repetitions of form and the complimentary colors of orange and blue!

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When someone gave me a little stamped-metal box, I knew it would make a great treasure chest for an undersea themed terrarium.

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Speaking of undersea, doesn’t this haworthia look like it’s undulating out of a shell?

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Love the textures and the lighting—Mexican feather grass and variegated Agave americana.

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These aeoniums look metallic, sort of like vegetable steamers. Great sheen and symmetry.

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Ah-choo!

 

Succulents and Too Much Rain, A French Solution

I like how the Jardin Zoologique Tropical in southeastern France keeps their succulents from becoming waterlogged during seasonal rainstorms. Corrugated fiberglass panels atop metal bars tent the plants so excess rain doesn’t soak the soil.

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The structures are tall enough to allow good air circulation, and the panels are translucent, enabling maximum sunlight to reach the plants. The covers, which have a horizontal metal rod atop them so wind can’t lift them, also protect tender succulents from frost.

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Notice, too, that the plants grow in rocky, elevated, sloping soil, so water drains away from the roots.

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You might do something similar in your own garden with a patio umbrella secured in a concrete base. But keep in mind that the water has to go somewhere. The French garden’s panels channel rain onto the gravel roadway nearby.

Btw, this public garden, located near the village of La Londe-les-Maures, is deservedly proud of its succulent collection. Here’s a description from the website, courtesy of Google Translate. The common names of the plants are charming.

Our plant collection is rich in many varieties of succulent plants: agaves, aloes and euphorbias. Every season their blooms transform the gardens. We regularly introduce little-known species and observe them for their ornamental potential. Perhaps the best known are cacti native to the Americas. We grow several species hardy in our climate. Some are globular, like the famous “mother-cushions,” others are elongated, cylindrical and commonly called “candle cactus.” Visitors easily identify the “prickly pear,” also called “Mickey Mouse ears” or “cactus rackets.”

(Photos used with permission.)

 

Will Frost Hurt Your Succulents?

Succulents from certain parts of the world, notably lower elevations of South Africa and Madagascar, are vulnerable to freezing temperatures. If the forecast is for temperatures below 32 degrees F, throw a sheet over your crassulas, kalanchoes, aeoniums, stem euphorbias and aloes before nightfall and remove it in the morning. See how I do it in my own garden in this video, Protecting Your Succulents from Frost.

Frost that nips your succulents may turn their leaves brown and unsightly. How do you know if a plant is worth keeping? It may depend on how patient you are. Even badly damaged succulents are surprisingly resilient, but it may take months before they look good again.

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Temperatures below 32 degrees caused the fluid in this aloe’s cells to expand and burst, irreparably damaging the tips of many of its leaves. Luckily for the plant, those same leaves protected its core, which is still green and viable.

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If you decide to try and salvage a succulent with this sort of damage, wait until the weather warms in spring, then snip off the dead tissue. Because new growth forms from the center of the rosettes, pretty soon the old leaves will be barely noticeable.

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And now you know that this is one succulent that needs covering next time there’s a frost advisory for your area. Here’s how my garden looks when temps are predicted to drop below 32 degrees F.

Notice that Agave attenuata tucked beneath the tree on the left? It’ll be fine because the tree will protect it. The plants you have to worry about are those that are 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 use old sheets. Several years ago a nongardening friend, stopping by for a visit, asked if I was doing my laundry.)

How do you know if you live in a frost-free area? Your neighbors grow Agave attenuata in their gardens, and the plants look fine. In my garden, this soft-leaved agave is the canary in the mineshaft where cold is concerned.

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It’s the first plant to show damage from frost in winter. A lot of succulents can handle cold below 32 degrees for short periods. But Agave attenuata will look like this the next day. This is a nuisance, but fortunately not fatal.

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See the healthy green part of each leaf? Wait until spring, then use scissors to trim off the tissue-paper-like frozen tips, cutting each leaf to a point. When you’re done, the damage will be barely noticeable. By summer new growth will have hidden the short lower leaves.

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What about a 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.

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Kalanchoes tend to be quite frost-tender. One similar to this melted to the ground in my garden at 27 degrees, and I assumed it was a goner. Fortunately I didn’t dig up the damaged plant and discard it, because a few months later…

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…it came back from the roots.

Jade plant is another widely cultivated succulent damaged at 32 degrees. The leaves turn squishy and putty-colored. This is not pretty, but if the plant’s stems are firm, it will recover and grow new leaves.

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Actually, the jade plant in the photo was not a victim of frost. You know the term “frost burn?” This plant actually was burned…by a wildfire. The only indication that it wasn’t “burned” by frost is that frost tends to damage the top of a plant. This one was scorched on the side closest to the fire. (Which just goes to show, succulents cook rather than burn, but that’s a different post.)

If you live in an area where you can’t grow most succulents in the ground because it gets too cold, take heart…there are varieties that will do well for you. I recommend this excellent book: Hardy Succulents by Gwen Kelaidis, photos by Saxon Holt.Screen shot 2016-01-05 at 7.59.00 PM

Go to my posts: Four Ways to Overwinter Your Succulents
How to Keep Succulents Happy Indoors

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

Garden Gossip Radio with Debra Lee Baldwin
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Debra on Garden Gossip Radio in Santa Barbara

On Garden Gossip Radio (AM 1290 KZSB), Lisa Cullen and I talked about decorating succulents for the holidays, and how to decorate WITH succulents as well. This post illustrates several of the topics and gives links to more in-depth descriptions. The link to the full interview can be found below!

Debra Lee Baldwin on Garden Gossip Radio

 

 
 


 

Decorate Your Agaves!

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Turn your agaves into an explosion of festive color with glass ball ornaments. Agaves can be a bit treacherous, so be careful, but the risk is worth the reward!

Crassula tetragona is a type of jade that looks like a pine tree.
Crassula tetragona

Make a Wired Succulent Bouquet

Succulent Bouquet by Debra Lee Baldwin
For a lovely hostess gift, make a succulent bouquet with a dozen rosette succulents, floral wire and tape, and a simple ballast such as sand. Perfect for holiday parties!

 

Easy, Breezy Succulent Wreath

What’s the secret to a great succulent wreath? Color!

Succulent Wreath by Debra Lee Baldwin
My recent blog post on Katie Christensen’s Succulent Wreath Class has lovely photographs and a ton of ideas to choose from. Don’t miss it!

How to make a Succulent Topped Anything


In this video, I discuss how to make a succulent topped pumpkin with San Diego garden designer Laura Eubanks. With over 10,000 views on YouTube this video is a treat and, for all you DIYers, easy to follow. Use this technique to add succulents to anything from pine cone ornaments to napkin rings.

 


Special thanks to Chris and Lisa Cullen from Garden Gossip Radio for having me on the show!

Chris and Lisa Garden Gossip

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Katie’s Succulent Wreath Class

On a December Saturday that couldn’t have been more perfect weather-wise, a couple dozen ladies assembled at Buena Creek Gardens nursery north of San Diego to make succulent wreaths. Katie Christensen, a talented young designer from the Seattle area conducted the class. I had fun helping her, seeing old friends and making new ones, and recording the occasion with my camera.

For more about wreath-making, see my other blog posts: Make a Succulent Wreath and Succulent Wreath Tips and Ideas; go to my books Succulent Container Gardens pp. 176-178 and Designing with Succulents (1st ed.) pp. 113-117; sign up for my Craftsy class (get 50% off); and watch my YouTube video, Design and Plant a Succulent Wreath.

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For more wreath-making tips and ideas, view my other blog posts: Make a Succulent Wreath and Succulent Wreath Tips and Ideas; see my books Succulent Container Gardens pp. 176-178 and Designing with Succulents pp. 113-117; sign up for my Craftsy class (get 50% off); and watch my YouTube video, Design and Plant a Succulent Wreath.