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Showy Succulents for Snowy Climates (Debra’s WSJ Article)

Showy Succulents for Snowy Climates (Debra’s WSJ Article): A shorter version of this article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, 3/9/18. This is the unabridged original.

Showy Succulents for Snowy Climates (Debra's WSJ Article)

Snow heightens the color of hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum globiferum ‘Connie’). Photo: Mountain Crest Gardens

Is it a given that Northerners can’t grow succulents? Not at all. Granted, most of these moisture-storing, arid-climate plants prefer warm, sunny habitats. Yet in response to demand, major growers are cultivating tough, showy varieties that sail through subzero winters. The two main kinds are stonecrops and hens-and-chicks, but there are others that may surprise and delight you.

Stonecrops

Showy Succulents for Snowy Climates (Debra's WSJ Article)

Golden barrel cactus is cold hardy only to 14 degrees F, but dainty-looking ‘Angelina’ stonecrop will go well below zero.

Arguably the best known cold-hardy succulent, because of its wide distribution and tolerance for nearly any climate except desert, is Angelina stonecrop (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’). The feathery-textured ground cover turns from chartreuse in summer to orange-tipped gold in winter. This trailing spreader makes a good filler plant for potted and in-ground gardens alike.

Tiny-leaved ground covers like ‘Angelina’, commonly known as stonecrops, spread “even in Zone 3,” notes Panayoti Kelaidis, senior curator of the Denver Botanic Gardens. “They’ll root from little pieces. There are hundreds of different kinds, and they’re the backbone of green roofs.”

Showy Succulents for Snowy Climates (Debra's WSJ Article)

Kelaidis says that clump-forming succulents once classified as Sedum (now in the genus Hylotelephium) are “probably the most important succulents for perennial gardens” because of their size and year-round beauty. Like sedums, these have star-shaped flowers in clusters, but unlike true sedums, hylotelephiums form tap roots and have rosy flowers rather than yellow. Although the top growth of hylotelephiums dies and turns brown in winter, “don’t cut them back until spring,” Kelaidis advises. “The dry flower stalks look great covered with snow.”
Showy Succulents for Snowy Climates (Debra's WSJ Article)

Plant breeder Brent Horvath of Intrinsic Perennial Gardens in Hebron, IL is perhaps best known for upright sedums with serrated chartreuse leaves and flowers that blanket the plants with clouds of pink. Horvath authored “The Plant Lover’s Guide to Sedums” (Timber Press, 2014).

Showy Succulents for Snowy Climates (Debra's WSJ Article)

In his book, Horvath says of the best-known perennial sedum, Autumn Joy (Hylotelephium ‘Herbstfreude’), “The flower heads of soft raspberry pink deepen to garnet as fall approaches. What’s more, in all but the harshest climates, this tenacious plant continues to delight through the winter months as its flower heads turn copper, then bronze.”

Monrovia nursery notes, “This sturdy perennial is as tough as they come. Clumping foliage displays large, plate-like flower clusters… Succulent foliage will die back to the ground in cold winter regions, but will re-emerge in early spring.”

Hens-and-chicks

Showy Succulents for Snowy Climates (Debra's WSJ Article)

Succulent hens-and-chicks, so called because offsets ring the mother rosette, are in the genus Sempervivum, meaning “ever-living.” “Many of our semps and hardy sedum spent over a month buried in 18 inches of snow last year, resulting in tremendously vivid red, pink, purple, and even some orange tones later in the spring,” says Matts Jopson, VP of Mountain Crest Gardens near Mt. Shasta in Northern CA. “They also survived a record -15 F night without issue.” Certain semps will look different throughout the year, depending on variety and climate, and warm colors caused by cold may settle into shades of green by late summer.

One of a handful of nurseries specializing in hardy succulents, Mountain Crest Gardens’ “rapid growth has continued through 2017, and we’ve been expanding our selections like never before,” Jopson says. “We should have at least 200 different hardy varieties for sale this spring, at least 50 of which we consider to be rare collectibles.”

Nearly all of the succulents found in the nursery’s Hardy Succulent category can be grown outdoors year-round in zone 5 (-20F) areas such as New York, Boston, and Chicago. “We created that category and our own definition of “hardy” exactly for this purpose,” Jopson says, “to let the large northern population of the U.S. (and thus most of the country’s population) know that they can grow a wide selection of beautiful succulents outside through the winter. Even people in colder Minneapolis should be fine keeping many of the Sempervivum heuffelii and hardy Sedum outdoors.”

Showy Succulents for Snowy Climates (Debra's WSJ Article)

Sempervivum heuffelii are “truly special plants,” Jopson says. They have…

  • More consistent year-round color than regular Hens and Chicks
  • “Glowing” edges
  • Foliage is probably the most durable of any hardy succulent
  • Many are more tolerant of indoor light than semps.

 

Showy Succulents for Snowy Climates (Debra's WSJ Article)

Several Sempervivum cultivars by Kevin Vaughn

Mountain Crest Gardens works with a hybridizer and creator of “many beloved semp cultivars,” Jopson says: Kevin Vaughn of Salem, OR. Vaughn holds a hybridizing clinic each year in April “organized by the avid semp community on the garden.org forums.” Jopson adds that the breeder’s current goal is to hybridize “a ‘football sized’ semp with the dark color tones of an Aeonium ‘Black Rose’.”

Hybridizer Kevin Vaughn’s book. Release date: May, 2018.

Vaughn’s book is a must-have for semp enthusiasts: Sempervivum: A Gardener’s Perspective of the Not-So-Humble Hens-and-Chicks.

Among professional breeders of cold-hardy succulents mentioned by Jopson and Kelaidis is Chris Hansen of Michigan-based Garden Solutions (chris@sunsparklersedums.com). Hansen says of one of his cultivars, Sempervivum ‘Gold Nugget’, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime plant, the world’s first bright yellow semp with red tips.” In northerly climates, ‘Gold Nugget’ turns shades of lime green and hot pink in summer, gold and red in spring and fall, and warm red in winter.

Chris Hansen shows Sempervivum ‘Gold Nugget’, part of his registered Chick Charms line of hens-and-chicks.

See more of Hansen’s patented plants, including his SunSparker Sedums, on my 50 Cold Hardy Succulents for Northern Climates page. His online mail-order plant business (with Mary Walters) is www.GreatGardenPlants.com.

Sempervivums are monocarpic, meaning that after a rosette blooms, it dies. But this seldom compromises a colony’s appearance. Chicks carry on, filling gaps with their own offsets in spring.

Ice plants 

Showy Succulents for Snowy Climates (Debra's WSJ Article)

Delosperma ‘Fire Spinner’ is a Kelaidis introduction

Naturally Kelaidis mentions ice plants, of which he says tongue-in-cheek, “I invented 35 years ago.” He trekked through Siberia, Mongolia, and similarly remote, high-elevation regions seeking mat-forming succulents with shimmering, daisylike blooms. Kelaidis went on to introduce many—including his own hybrids—to gardens in the Rockies and beyond.

Showy Succulents for Snowy Climates (Debra's WSJ Article)

Asked to name an ice plant that’s especially floriferous, Kelaidis praises purple Delosperma cooperi: “It blooms all summer.” The plant, which Kelaidis has helped popularize over his 35-year career, is readily available nationwide. He says proudly, “Hundreds of millions sold.”

How to Grow the Hardies

There’s more to growing hardy succulents than plunking them in the ground. They need to be acclimated to the cold. Jopson advises: “It’s never a good idea to leave them outside in a hard freeze immediately after delivery. Established root systems are required for most hardy succulents to survive the coldest winter temps, and it is recommend to plant in the ground, beds, or large containers for additional insulation for the roots. Snow is actually welcomed by hardy varieties as it can insulate them from frigid air temperatures.”

“Wetness is the enemy,” cautions Kelaidis. “Plant them in walls, rock gardens and shallow containers.” Give in-ground plants maximum sun exposure and “a microclimate similar to a Russian steppe:” a south-facing slope amended with coarse, gritty soil.

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Designing with Cold-Climate Succulents

How to select, grow and design with cold climate succulents—sedums, sempervivums and more. 

Becky Sell of Sedum Chicks plants cold-hardy succulents in repurposed wood-and-metal containers, hypertufa pots, wreaths and more. She grows the plants, too, where she lives in Turner, Oregon, near the Washington border.

Becky’s compositions can overwinter outdoors in northerly climates (Zones 4 to 8), providing the potting medium drains well. Cold-hardy succulents such as stonecrops and hens-and-chicks will also grow in Zones 8 and 9 if protected from heat in excess of 85 degrees and scorching sun. Some varieties, notably shrub sedums, die to the ground in any locale and come back the following spring.

In her designs, Becky often combines sedums (stonecrops), sempervivums (hens-and-chicks), and Delosperma ice plants. Of a little-known Rosularia species with soft, light green leaves, she says, “When people ask which plant is my favorite, this is definitely on the list.”

Designing with Cold-Climate Succulents

There are about 35 species in the genus Rosularia. The sempervivum-like succulents come from Europe, the Himalayas, and northern Africa.

Find more photos of succulents for Northern climates—including many of Becky’s favorites—on my website’s new Cold-Hardy Succulents page. I photographed the designs shown here during the Northwest Flower & Garden Show at the Sedum Chicks booth, which won an award for outstanding visual appeal.

Below: This bright red vertical container was a hit. At right, I darkened the photo to make plant IDs, in white letters, stand out.

Designing with Cold-Climate Succulents

Below: Sempervivum ‘Jade Rose’ repeats the teal blue of a Sedum spathulifolium cultivar.

Designing with Cold-Climate Succulents

Below: In a cold-hardy wreath, Becky surrounded a large sempervivum rosette with smaller sedums, Delosperma cooperi (at lower left), and Sedum confusum (lower right).

Designing with Cold-Climate Succulents

Below: I’ve ID’d the three sedums in this wreath at right. Becky gives her plants “hair cuts” to keep them compact.

Designing with Cold-Climate Succulents

“I like its dark edges,” Becky says of Sempervivum ‘Black’, shown below in dramatic contrast with chartreuse Sedum ‘Lemon Coral’. At lower right is a succulent native to Oregon: Sedum oreganum.

Designing with Cold-Climate Succulents

Becky and husband Paul create planters from repurposed wood and metal. The bronzy succulents below are Sedum confusum, which blushes red-orange in a sunny location. When less confused, it’s bright apple green.

Designing with Cold-Climate Succulents

For wreaths and vertical gardens, Becky uses sphagnum moss to help hold plants in place. She emphasizes the importance of good drainage, which is true for all succulents, but especially those in rainy climates. Succulents from cold climates tend to have thin or small leaves and want a richer potting soil than thicker-leaved varieties from desert regions. Becky recommends Black Gold’s organic mix.

Designing with Cold-Climate Succulents

In my YouTube video, “Sedum Chicks at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show,” Becky explains how to select, cultivate and beautifully combine cold-hardy succulents.

Designing with Cold-Climate Succulents

 

Learn more about succulents for northerly climates:

How to Grow Tender Succulents in Northerly Climates: Resources and info for growing tender succulents in cold, northern climates.

In print:

Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.) See the section on Cold-Climate Succulent Gardens.

All my books show design ideas and give care and cultivation for Sedum and Sempervivum.

The Plant Lover’s Guide to Sedums, by Brent Horvath (Timber Press)
Cacti & Succulents for Cold Climates, by Leo Chance (Timber Press)
Hardy Succulents: Tough Plants for Every Climate, by Gwen Kelaidis, Photos by Saxon Holt (Storey Publishing)

On my YouTube channel:

Growing Succulents in Northerly Climates, Sempervivums  Gorgeous new cultivars and design ideas from my presentation at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show.

Growing Succulents in Northerly Climates: Sedums and More More cool succulents for cold climates plus how to select, grow and design using them. From my second presentation at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show.

Sedum Chicks at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show. Designer/grower Becky Sell of Turner, Oregon explains how to beautifully combine sedums, sempervivums and other cold-hardy succulents.

Make a Frost-Hardy Succulent Wreath with Hens-and-Chicks. Simple steps to a stunning wreath!