Surprisingly stunning succulents

By Rebecca Jepsen
for the Mercury News
May 1, 2009

If you thought growing succulents meant dealing with spiny cactus that could literally be a pain, think again. Succulents are a great choice for creating an outdoor water-wise garden.

Although all cactuses are succulents, not all succulents are cactuses. The word succulent means juicy and fleshy; succulents have the ability to store water in their flesh. Many varieties have branches and leaves.

Cactuses are succulents with spiny cushions called areoles that can bear spines and/or flowers but don't have branches or leaves.

There are hundreds of varieties of cactuses, all belonging to the Cactaceae family. They come in a wide range of interesting shapes and sizes, and for the most part, work well as indoor plants. There are thousands of varieties of succulents, which fall into 12 different plant families.

Aeoniums, some of the most ornamental varieties of succulents, have leaves that range in color from green, yellow and deep burgundy to tri-colored options. Aeoniums are not as heat- or drought-tolerant as other varieties.

Aeonium tabuliforme, also know as the "plate plant," grows to nearly 12 inches across. Its flat, smooth, stemless shape resembles — well, a plate.

Echeverias, favored by many succulent growers, are moderately fast growers. Some of the hundreds of varieties are very small (one to two inches across) with hard, thick leaves. Others can grow to up to two feet across and feature stunning, wavy leaves in shades of red, blue, pink, even black.

Another favorite are the Euphorbias, over 400 of which are succulents. They vary in size from small plants suitable for pots, to large shrubs and even massive trees; many are perennial.

Euphorbia amygdaloides "Purpurea" (purple wood spurge) makes radical color changes throughout the year. It grows to about 3 to 4 feet tall, has long-lasting lime-green to acid-yellow flowers, and is an excellent choice for difficult shady sites.

Succulents can be planted in almost anything: in the ground, in pots, bird baths, even terra-cotta pipes. Although they can take full sun, as is most often recommended, they actually do better with partial shade, with as little as two to three hours of direct sunlight daily. Soil should be aerated and fast-draining; coarse bark or crushed lava works well, but sand does not.

Succulents grow well from cuttings, so "borrowing" from friends and neighbors may be a good place to start. Most nurseries offer many common varieties.

If you are looking for unique species, you might want to check out the Succulent Gardens in Castroville.

Even though succulent are drought-tolerant, they do need to be watered for the first few weeks after planting.

Inspecting irrigation system

Speaking of water, May is the time to do a thorough inspection of your irrigation system.

1. Drip irrigation: Emitters may have gotten clogged, animals may have chewed through the drip tubing, or lines may have gotten broken by foot traffic through the garden. Visually inspect your system. Flush lines by unscrewing the end caps and turning on the water, checking the flow from each emitter; replace broken or damage emitters. Look for leaks or breaks in the drip lines. You may need to reposition emitters to accommodate plant growth.

2. Overhead sprinkler system: Do a visual inspection. If a sprinkler head is not flowing, or has low flow, use a screwdriver to unscrew it, clean the filter and check for cracks. If you do need to replace a part, take it with you to your local hardware store so that you can be sure to get the correct part. You may need to use your screwdriver to readjust the spray pattern to avoid watering your sidewalks, driveways or patio furniture.

3. Pop-up sprinkler heads: Make sure they rise up far enough to reach all plants; trim hedges or shrubs that are blocking the water spray. To ensure that your sprinklers are adjusted correctly and providing complete coverage, use the "can test." Set out cans of similar size across the lawn, turn on your sprinkler system and let it run for approximately 15 minutes. Check to make sure all the cans have the same amount of water; if not, make adjustments.

If you are using an automatic timer, check all zones to make sure it is working properly. Be sure to check the time setting.

Rose Garden honored

Our very own San Jose Heritage Rose Garden will be the first inductee into the Great Rose Garden Hall of Fame (GROW). There will be an awards ceremony at the garden May 18. The garden is located in the Guadalupe River Park and Gardens, at the intersection of Spring and Taylor streets. The garden is in full bloom now.