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Gardening : Succulents Stand Out When Water Is Scarce

<i> Anderson, a former Times reporter, now is a free-lance writer based in the Westside</i>

In times of drought the perfect plant requires no water, is easy to grow and looks handsome with other flowers in the garden.

Succulents, the sculptured plants with thick leaves, are indispensable in my garden after five years of drought.

“It is pretty hard to under-water succulents,” said another gardener, Bruce Cameron, who grows 700 kinds of succulents in his Marina del Rey back yard. “These plants will tell you when they are thirsty.”

Even in the hottest months of summer, Cameron and Suzanne Richards water their collection of succulents only at 10-day intervals. Cameron explains that the plants show when they need water because the leaves will start to shrivel.

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Succulents are hardy because they store water in their thick leaves. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes and tend to turn green in shady locations and red or silver in the sun. When plants cut from the same mother are put in different sections of a garden with varied amounts of water and sunlight they may hardly appear related.

My succulents grow in sun or shade, in pots or in flower beds. When I have to prune away part of an overgrown plant I put the cutting into a nearby area and typically it grows into another plant, holding its own among the daffodils and pansies of my garden.

The plants are easy to divide and simple to pull from their hair-like roots in the ground, so transplanting is no trouble.

Although neglected succulents continue to survive, those plants which receive care from their owner are better looking. I periodically pull off the dead leaves, clip back the scraggly branches to encourage bushier outlines and cut out misshapen or sunburned leaves.

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My echeverias are the prettiest succulents. Some of these soft rosette-shaped plants have scarlet edges like neon and are the most versatile plants in my garden.

Most people call the echeverias “hens and chickens,” and Richards has several varieties including one she got from her grandmother who grew them in the snow of Maine.

The hens and chickens are also known as sempervivums--living forever--because they are such easy plants to grow, Richards said.

Echeverias also have the endearing habit of sprouting miniatures of themselves half hidden along the supporting stem as the mother plant matures.

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The thrifty gardener cuts off these babies, lets the cut stem dry in the air for a few days, then plants them and, in a short time, has a lot of new plants to enjoy.

Two other popular succulent varieties are the big round plants known as aloes and agaves which both have long, graceful stems radiating from the center of the plant.

One of Cameron’s favorite varieties is the Agave Americana, a California native with yellow leaves trimmed with a green border. Various plants, he said, are named after people, places or distinguishing characteristics.

“These two easy-growing kinds of succulents--aloes and agaves--look similar and the difference between them is their flowers,” Cameron said. “The aloe flowers are the red-hot poker spikes in red, yellow or white. The agaves only flower when the plant is about to die and then it grows a stalk with many insignificant white flowerlets.”

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Cameron and Richards, who have expanded their 12-year-old collection by trading with fellow members of a succulent club, have planted both aloes and agaves in the garden.

He said that after aloes and agaves are established in the ground they need no water except rain. They are tough plants because they originally survived in poor soils with no fertilizing and only rainwater, and because the water they need is stored in their leaves.

Succulents are made for the absent-minded gardener who does not want to work hard and who may be away from his garden for days. Succulents are not particular. They grow in any well-drained soil and they have been known to survive for months without water although the leaves, like people, get thin and wrinkled with neglect.

While aloes and agaves can grow taller than a person, other kinds of easy-to-grow succulents stay close to the ground. Most echeverias, for example, are short and tight clusters with compact growth habits. It takes a year to grow a four-inch echeveria plant from a cutting.

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Although succulents can be propagated from seed it is a long-term process and the seeds do not always sprout. One of the largest succulent nurseries in Southern California grows most of its plants by cuttings.

The owner, Tom Loehman, a retired teacher, stocks his mail-order succulent nursery in Paramount by cutting off pieces of his plants. He plants the cuttings to raise thousands of new succulents for his part-time business.

Loehman said nobody understands why most succulents multiply with ease from cuttings while other cuttings and many seeds do not seem to grow. He suspects it is because some plants just grow so slowly their progress is not obvious.

On the other hand Loehman said that succulents are popular partly because they are so trouble-free--little water or fertilizer, no pests and easy to multiply.

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He agrees with Cameron that the gardener’s main problem is over-watering plants, which eventually rots the parts standing in water.

Gardeners who want to raise succulents can start new collections with ease. One can purchase pots of succulents at the nursery--or, realizing that a few inches of stem cut or torn from a friend’s plant will soon get roots, a beginning collector can “borrow” his stock.

In some older neighborhoods everybody’s gardens have the same succulents because friends pass around pieces of their plants.

Succulent growers have a moral decision when they realize they can add to their collection by surreptitiously breaking off a small part from a plant growing wild or in a park or a stranger’s garden. On the plus side is the fact that most gardeners know the slip will probably grow and the original owner will not miss it. The disadvantages of this system, however, can be obvious, and many of the wild succulents are endangered and therefore protected by law, Cameron said.

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Cameron and Richards are both officers of the Sunset Succulent Society of Culver City, a group people join, they said, to exchange plants and to learn how to grow the more exotic and difficult varieties of succulents.

Some of the exotic plants, such as the South African “living stones” or lithops, look like green or brown rocks.

Cactus, incidentally, is a succulent. But gardeners who like to touch their plants or collectors with children or pets prefer the succulents that do not sprout the painful stickers of cactus.

Part of the pleasure of growing succulents is in touching the soft plants. Cameron often touches the succulents as he repots his plants for garden shows.

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The Sunset Succulent Society meetings, open to the public, are scheduled at 8 p.m. on the second Monday of each month at the Felicia Mahood Center, 11338 Santa Monica Blvd., Cameron said.

Loehman mails catalogues to people writing him at P.O. Box 871, Paramount, Calif. 90723.


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