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Succulent pumpkins make a great Thanksgiving centerpiece. Here’s how to DIY

A humane guide to making the best succulent pumpkins
The tender-hearted method to making the best succulent pumpkin requires a flat-topped pumpkin, a little tacky glue, florist wire, sheet moss and an assortment of 2-inch and 4-inch succulents.
(Allison Zaucha / For the Times)

Attaching colorful succulents to an uncarved pumpkin sounds like a crazy pants idea but, boy, is it popular. Lots of SoCal nurseries offer fall plant workshops, and the succulent pumpkin classes are usually the first to sell out as we head fully into the final weeks of fall and need a little something for the Thanksgiving table.

So if you missed the workshop, here’s a step-by-step primer by Brianne Bird, manager of the Rolling Greens on Beverly location in L.A.'s Fairfax neighborhood.

One of the first things you might notice about Bird’s technique is that it differs from many on social media, which use hot glue to secure the succulents to the pumpkins. Bird uses florist wire shaped into hairpins. Hot-glue users say the heat won’t hurt the succulents, but Bird isn’t so sure.

“I just hate to put that much heat on their roots,” she said. “They’re delicate living things. We should have respect for the living plants.”

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Here’s the best news: These succulent pumpkins are easy — even for the craft-challenged — they make great hostess gifts, and they’re a fun activity to do with friends, with or without a bottle of wine.

A step-by-step guide to making a gift-worthy succulent pumpkin
(Allison Zaucha / For the Times)

Step 1: Assemble your materials

▶ A flat-topped pumpkin or gourd. A white pumpkin works well for yuletide decor, but here’s where you can be creative. If you can’t find a pumpkin, use a colorful turban squash with the flat side up, so the knobby part is on the bottom (make sure it isn’t wobbly). The size of the pumpkin is up to you and your decorating needs. (Bird recently created 25 mini succulent pumpkins as guest gifts for a baby shower.)

▶ A variety of short or cascading succulents, no more than 3 to 4 inches tall. Bird recommends using 10 to 12 succulents for a 12-inch diameter pumpkin. For her demo pumpkin, Bird chose a variety of senecio succulents, including the aptly named string of pearls, curly caterpillar-like sedums and the squat but endlessly colorful and bizarre echeverias. Aim for a range of colors and at least one largish, showy succulent that will be your anchor. Succulents can be rooted or trimmed from leggy plants in your yard (or maybe from the yards of generous neighbors; invite them to the party!) Remove planted succulents from their pots and shake excess soil off their roots. If you’re going the party route, you might want to do this outside before guests arrive.

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▶ Tacky glue (fast-drying works well).

▶ Sheet moss. You’ll need enough to cover the top of your pumpkin twice (you’ll need the extra moss for filling in gaps.) Sheet moss, a preserved dead moss, is available at most craft stores and some nurseries and florist shops.

▶ Wire cutters

At least one package of 22-gauge florist wire, cut into 3-inch pieces. Unlike other techniques that call for hot-gluing succulents to the moss, you will be bending the wire into the shape of hair pins and using it to attach the succulents to your moss, so figure you’ll need at least 20 to 24 “pins” per succulent.

At least one bouquet of faux berries, leaves or other accents to add a bit of seasonal color.

Glue sheet moss onto  your pumpkin
(Allison Zaucha / For the Times)

Step 1: Glue the moss to your pumpkin

If your pumpkin has a stem, carefully pare it a bit without piercing the flesh. Pruning shears or a serrated knife work. Take enough sheet moss to cover the top of your pumpkin (you might have to do this in pieces) and spread glue thickly on the brown backside, like mayonnaise on a piece of bread. Press the moss on top of the pumpkin, glue side down, green side up. You’re looking for a lopsided fit, so it covers the top of the pumpkin like a bad toupee. Don’t worry though. This will help make it look rustic and natural. Take a few minutes to let the glue set (this would be a good time to bring out the snacks and open the wine).

Step 2: Pin succulents into place

Now comes the fun part — arranging the succulents on the moss. If you’re working with a group, put all the succulents, minus their soil, in the middle of the table so people can choose the ones they want. Bird suggests starting in the middle with your tallest or most dominant succulent and then building out from there. Take a bit of extra moss and pin it over the root, the way you would put in a hairpin to hold a French twist bun.

Add succulents to the top of the pumpkin
Cover succulent roots with additional moss before pinning them into place.
(Allison Zaucha / For the Times)
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As you add succulents, cover their roots with additional moss before pinning them into place. Pin into the moss, not the pumpkin flesh. Pumpkins will last for weeks or even months if their shells are intact; once they are pierced, they immediately start to mold and disintegrate.

Step 3: Add seasonal embellishments

Bird recommends buying a few inexpensive sprays of faux berries, leaves and/or grasses to tuck in among the succulents to add extra color. She breaks apart the bouquets to tuck in small accents around her display. Choose accents that won’t dissolve or run if they get wet, because you will be watering the succulents from time to time.

A step-by-step guide to making a gift-worthy succulent pumpkin
Brianne Bird, manager and arrangement-bar manager of Rolling Greens Beverly nursery, prepares a succulent pumpkin.
(Allison Zaucha / For the Times)

Step 4: How to keep your masterpiece healthy

Take a minute to bask in the glory of what you’ve created, admire the work of your friends and then tattoo Bird’s last bits of advice on your forehead:

DON’T MIST AND DON’T OVERWATER!

First, succulents prefer life on the dry side. If they get too wet, their little roots will rot, Bird said, so water sparingly only when the moss is dry, using an eyedropper or turkey baster to get the water close to the roots. Misting is a close cousin to overwatering, and worse, soggy moss tends to get buggy, even indoors.

“You don’t want bugs crawling out of your centerpiece during Thanksgiving dinner,” Bird said.

The succulent roots will grow into the moss, and the whole centerpiece should last well into the new year if you keep it out of direct sunlight, which can hasten any pumpkin’s demise. When the pumpkin gets soft, simply unpin the plants, gently pry them from the moss and plant them in a pot with well-draining soil.

And for the craft-challenged, we salute you! At last a handmade gift you can be proud to give.

A step-by-step guide to making a gift-worthy succulent pumpkin
Brianne Bird, manager and arrangement-bar manager of Rolling Greens’ Beverly nursery, prepares a succulent pumpkin.
(Allison Zaucha / For the Times)
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