Joining the succulent parade.

Succulents and cacti are a new world-to me. The word “succulent” comes from the Latin word sucus, meaning juice, or sap and we are unlikely to be saps for liking these plants. Succulents have the ability to thrive on mist and dew, which makes them equipped to survive with scarce water sources. In our drought plagued California, gardeners are always looking for ways to conserve water and yet still enjoy gardening. So one way to do this is to get into the succulent and cacti craze. I have to admit that I have not joined in very well though I am interested in saving water. I have had Jade plants and Hens and Chicks (Echeveria) in my plant repertoire for about fifty years, but not too many other succulents.

So, I am writing this article as a novice in this area. Recently the University of California Master Gardener’s put on a Smart Gardening Conference at the Ag Center which was well attended and I

A collection of succulent starts in a beautiful cedar box---all compliments of the efforts of Master Gardeners at the Smart Gardening Conference in March.

particularly enjoyed the workshop on planting succulents. It was a power point presentation by several of our outstanding Master Gardeners who grow succulents followed by a hands-on planting of various succulent cuttings that were furnished by these gardeners and others. I took home my varieties of succulents in a cute little cedar planter box that was also put together for class attendees by a Master Gardener and her husband. I must say that the volunteer effort these Master Gardeners give to the community is amazing.

Here are some learning points I took away with me. All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Succulents are plants that store water in their leaves, stems or roots. Succulents have evolved in a variety of environments and plant groups. Over 25 plant families have multiple succulents found within them. There are hundreds if not thousands of species of succulents in the world; a pretty large number to attempt to grow in a lifetime of gardening. Succulents grow well in California because of the similarity of climates to those where succulents have evolved.

A Sempervivum succulent of unknown species that I have had for many years.

Some succulents can be grown in soil outdoors and some in containers either indoors or outdoors. If grown in containers some things to consider are: the ultimate size and shape. Hence, small plant should go in small pots and shallow pots are good for most succulents. Good drainage is essential and be prepared to repot when they outgrow the container. A variety of containers can be artfully employed so use your imagination. Succulents can be killed with poor drainage and overwatering. If you have clay soils which don’t drain well then change the soil. Good soil for succulents contains almost equal parts of gravel, coarse sand and topsoil, with a healthy dose of good compost worked into a depth of 5-6 inches.

Water succulents only when soil is dry and they need less water when they are dormant. Some go dormant in winter and some in summer so you need to know that. Generally, growth is in the spring and fall and then they need more water. Ceramic pots retain moisture longer than unglazed clay pots and don’t leave standing water in saucers under the container. Overwatering is easy to do, so if in doubt don’t water. Remember they are succulents and have water in reserve for drought.

Most succulents don’t like direct Valley sun all day, so partial shade or afternoon shade is good for some and others like shade. Most don’t like freezing weather and some should be sheltered if it gets below 40 degrees. Most problems with succulents occur because of overwatering or under watering, or too much sun exposure or too little or because of temperature that are too cold or too hot. Succulents can be grown as houseplants or taken indoors for the winter if not frost hardy. Succulent indoors need 6 hours of sunlight, but avoid sunburn by placing in an east facing window.

For more information on common succulents that are popular and that do well under varying conditions see: A good book on succulents is Succulents Simplified: Growing, Designing, and Crafting with 100 Easy-Care Varieties by Debra Lee Baldwin. She knows a lot about succulents. One of the joys of gardening is to keep on learning!

Speaking of learning, the San Joaquin County Master Gardeners are holding an Open Garden Day on Saturday April 14, from 9 AM until noon at the Robert J Cabral Ag Center at 2101 East Earhart Ave off of Arch Road. It will showcase the UCCE Learning Landscape, a demonstration garden created and maintained by the Master Gardeners. Come to learn more about pruning, composting, planting and seasonal garden chores and there will be summer vegetables for sale as well as UC publications (cash or check only). You can bring up to 2 tools for a free tune-up at the tool sharpening table. In case of rain, the event will be cancelled.

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website:

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