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Succulents are rock stars of container gardening

This container of colorful succulents demonstrates the beauty that can be achieved growing this rugged persevering plant.
This container of colorful succulents demonstrates the beauty that can be achieved growing this rugged persevering plant. MSU Extension Service

The succulent frenzy looks to continue, and if you are not on the bandwagon yet, you have been missing one of the hottest trends of the last five years. This trend has turned designing mixed containers on its head as it partners rare beauty with low maintenance.

I first witnessed this in 2009 when the Mississippi Nursery and Landscape Association’s Hot to Trot Pot Competition was won by a colorful array of succulents in an Old World style container. The container contest was judged by consumers who selected this particular design by overwhelming numbers, stunning everyone.

Just as with today’s mixed-succulent containers, members of the crassula family stole the show. The container held about 11 different succulents, from large-leafed kalanchoe, or paddle plant, to a fine-textured, lime-colored sedum spiller plant. There were blue-green crassula and orange sedums that complemented the other foliage colors as well as the container.

It’s funny that I still find gardeners timid about creating these living artistic works for fear that they don’t know what to do. Probably a close examination of their patio or landscape would show all the key ingredients for a winning recipe. For example, every day I hear people commenting that they have been growing hens-and-chicks for years. Hens-and-Chicks, known botanically as Sempervivum, are what give many children their start at gardening.

Many of those same gardeners have a patch of lemon-colored sedum commonly called stonecrop growing in the flowerbed nearby, yet they fail to realize what a wonderful marriage they would make as partners in one mixed container. It seemed forever that these hen-and-chicks, and sedums, too, were-hand-me down or pass-along plants.

Today’s garden centers and many florists, however, offer incredible choices to let you be the Monet of your easy-to-grow container.

To get started this growing season, pick a container that suits your style. It can be old world clay, a wooden trough, a handmade hypertufa or even a large shallow bowl. The mandatory criteria will be drainage holes and a good desert-like soil mix.

Succulents are tough-as-nails performers because they store moisture in their roots, leaves and stems. Drought-like conditions can wreak havoc on most container-grown plants, but not succulents. In fact the arch enemy will be too much water or inferior drainage, which is one reason many designers go with a soil mix geared toward cactus. They are low maintenance in that they require very little fertilizer, no constant deadheading.

I like them best when they are given a little protection from the scorching afternoon summer sun. Adequate light, watering only when needed and a just little light fertilizing will make this one of the most enjoyable of your gardening endeavors.

I mentioned the Crassula family, which will indeed be where most of your choices originate. Your choices will number in the hundreds. Sedums, hens-and-chicks, paddle plants, kalanchoe, and jade plants are some you already know. But unknown to-many gardeners are some wonderfully blue-colored succulents in the aster family called senecio with finger-like foliage.

When buying your succulents, don’t be afraid to be bold by varying your leaf sizes, textures and colors. Choose a large one as your center plant, then add some that cascade, and fill in with several pocket or filler plants. You are the art director in your garden and I promise it will be fun.

Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations Color and Style in the Garden.”