If you’re one of those people who worry about whether the younger generation is getting into gardening, Lauren Spencer will give you hope.
Spencer, in her sophomore year at Newman University, was among the people — many of them young — who swamped Dutch’s Greenhouse in the spring when it had seminars on succulents. Spencer bought a string of pearls and a donkey’s tail and variety of little sedums. When she traveled to San Francisco a few weeks ago, she swooned at succulents spilling alongside the highways, bought a rubber tree plant at Succulence and then fretted over it until she got it safely home.
The 19-year-old now dotes on the plants and propagates them in the walk-out basement of her parents’ house in west Wichita.
She’d get more but she’s run out of room.
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“When I was younger, I had a lot of pets, a crazy amount of pets — guinea pigs, rabbits, birds, chickens, two or three dogs, cats — a ridiculous amount of pets. A hamster. I had a chameleon. A month later I would get overwhelmed, and my parents would have to take care of them,” Spencer said.
She feels like the thick-leafed succulents somehow take their place.
“I see these as pets that are much easier and lower stakes.”
Succulents’ compact size, variety of textures, colors and forms, and their ease of care make them downright collectible.
Succulents cover a broad range of plants, including aloe, sedum, kalanchoe, agave, echeveria, euphorbia, sempervivum, aeonium and cotyledon.
“In the last three years they’ve exploded,” Jim Denning of Denning’s Greenhouse said right before the greenhouse closed for the growing season. “We were into succulents for the last six or seven years personally, trying to push them, but the public has really starting picking up on it in the last two to three years. Their enthusiasm really gets us excited, too. I just get a kick out of them still.”
Succulents store water in their fleshy leaves and can survive for weeks out of the ground, as if existing in their own spacesuits, Adrian Higgins wrote in a spring garden column in the Washington Post. (He also got in on the pet theme by saying that succulents “look cute as kittens in their tiny pots.”)
Because of their self-sufficiency, tiny succulents are the darling of wedding favors and can be hot-glued to any number of surfaces. They can be tucked into a bit of soil in seashells, rocks or logs. You don’t have to have any training in floral design to make a killer bouquet of succulents in a pot.
Indeed, you can be given the gift of four little succulent plugs, thoughtlessly leave them in a paper bag unplanted on the floor for six days (two past the recommended upper limit of neglect), and then, in a fit of regret, scoop them up and stick them in a broken pink bowl, drench them with water, perch the bowl on the edge of the bathroom sink, and the next morning witness a gorgeous bouquet unfurled before you in muted gold, mint green, silvery gray and burgundy wine.
While Spencer lives at her parents’ house, she thinks that succulents are good plants for students living in dorms.
“As long as they can be on a windowsill, it’s great, and the leading cause of a succulent dying is being overwatered,” she said.
“I think they bring so much life to a living space.”
VARIETY IS THE SPICE
In one sense, it’s no wonder Spencer thinks of her succulents as pets. Look at their names.
The panda plant begs to be rubbed like a lamb’s ear, but, while its leaves are fuzzy, they’re not as soft as the lamb’s ear.
“I was so excited to get this plant,” Spencer said of the trailing donkey’s tail. “It’s crazy sensitive. I just think it’s really interesting-looking.”
She soaks up interesting facts about the plants — such as the phenomenon that you can seemingly rub off the “chalk” on the outside of Blue Chalk Sticks; the coating is a protection from the sun.
But string of pearls is her favorite.
“I think it’s so pretty. It’s so romantic looking. It’s very drapy. My dream is to have a kitchen of my own and put it in a hanging basket.”
CARE OF SUCCULENTS
Spencer has learned about succulents mainly by watching YouTube videos about them. She waters them weekly in the summer, less often in winter, using a turkey baster, because the heavy leaves of the succulents can make it hard to reach the soil.
To determine if a succulent needs to be watered, succulents-book author Debra Lee Baldwin recommends plunging a wooden chopstick into the soil. If any soil clings to the stick, it probably doesn’t need water.
Spencer uses Liquid Cactus Plant Food that she bought at Johnson’s Garden Center on the plants twice a month in summer. “It’s made these things take off like crazy.”
Her plants are arrayed on a small round table in the light of the family room window in the walk-out basement. She turns the plants when she notices that they start to reach one direction for the sun. When you’re growing succulents outdoors, be careful of placing them in full sun. Many varieties sunburn.
If you have succulents in your outdoor pots, consider cleaning them up and bringing them indoors before it gets cold this fall. They’ll do great near a window, requiring very little water over the winter.
There is a reason Spencer is running out of room for new plants. She’s always taking leaves off her jade and donkey’s tale and sedums and rooting them to make more plants. It’s as easy as the rest of a succulent’s care.
She takes leaves of succulents, lays them in a disposable foil pan filled with cactus and succulent soil, and stands back and does nothing while they root on their own. When they’re big enough, she pots them up in little ceramic dishes that have holes drilled in the bottom and gives them as presents.
“I haven’t spent money on a gift in a really long time,” Spencer said.
When taking leaves for propagating, Spencer recommends grabbing the heart of a leaf firmly and then gently twisting the leaf from side to side and up and down. It will take a little while to come loose, and you want a clean break with no ragged edges.
“These are so cool when they’re babies because the base is red,” Spencer said of the rooting jade leaves. “I think they’re so cute.”
She shares her love of plants on the Newman campus through a new garden club that was started at the university last school year. Spencer has returned this semester as its treasurer and secretary.
“Even now I’m starting to branch out,” she said of her love for horticulture. “I want to get a fiddleleaf fig tree,” which is not exactly easy care. “They have these big juicy leaves that look nutritious.”