Pot up some succulents now

  • Article by: GAIL HUDSON BROWN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 19, 2014 - 4:37 PM

Hens and chicks are a succulent rock garden perennial.

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“A nice end-of-summer project.” That’s what Brian Winter calls planting a container full of otherworldly looking succulents.

Winter, who heads W & S Designs in Minneapolis, said these striking plants, with their fleshy stems and thick, sometimes barbed leaves, couldn’t be easier to grow. And because they retain moisture, succulents thrive in the heat of August.

“There are few containers that forgive you for that leave of absence,” said Scott Endres, co-owner of Tangletown Gardens in Minneapolis, “but succulents will probably look as good as when you left them.”

Even better? Once the cold sets in, you can bring them inside to overwinter in front of a sunny window.

Just don’t be intimidated by their exotic appearance.

Endres has fallen for agaves, a succulent with a rosette form, in part because of their toughness. “I love my agaves because they are durable, and they look as good in the summer as in the spring” after overwintering them inside, he said.

Soon after Tangletown Gardens opened, about 12 years ago, Endres started selling succulents because he had a “little bit of ‘zone envy.’ ” He thought, “How come I can’t grow an agave in Minnesota? It would be nice, wouldn’t it? We have hot summers just like Arizona.”

These days, he plants containers filled with succulents on his porch and throughout his yard. Because of its stand-alone beauty, he plants Queen Victoria agave, with its sculptured, geometric leaves, in its own pot. Then he pairs a dramatic Octopus agave, with its tentacle-like foliage, with rosette-shaped Topsy Turvy echeveria, another popular succulent, along with an heirloom geranium and several drought-tolerant woody plants.

Container combinations

“It’s fun to mix plants in a container,” he said. “They don’t all have to be succulents. I choose things that coexist or have similar light conditions that they like.”

Endres also looks for complementary textures (e.g. fine and coarse) and foliage forms.

“Besides the right scale and proportion, when you’re pairing things, the easiest and best word to remember is ‘contrast,’ ” he said. “That’s the fun of succulents. There’s thousands and thousands of varieties, and they run the whole gamut from tiny, tiny little things to big giant things and everywhere in between.”

When designing a container, Winter advises that you “find one really interesting one that has a little bit more character to it. Then set it off-center.” As you add plants, alter the sizes and textures.

Endres describes it as “casting a play. There are one or two stars, a supporting cast and understudies — in case the star doesn’t do its thing.”

Be sure to plant your cast of succulents in well-draining cactus soil mix in a low bowl or pot, especially if you’re creating a centerpiece. If your container is going on the table, Winter says he’ll put a glass over his creations to “class it up a little bit,” or add some beautiful stones or shells.

Low maintenance

Once your pot is put together, “the rain will do all the work,” Winter said. “You don’t have to water at all.”

When it comes to light, full sun is ideal, but Endres says his containers do fine in the morning sun on his porch. To maintain the look, he cuts back stems in the spring or divides entire plants, which can be long lived.

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