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Succulent garden collections go chic

Container gardening and online marketing are increasing the popularity of succulents, transforming the likes of hens and chicks to collectible chic.

It wasn't long ago that the eye-catching perennials grew primarily in sun-seared settings. Now they're the playthings of people living in temperate zones.

"There are so many succulents available now (that) we weren't even aware of 10 or 20 years ago. The Internet makes it possible to purchase these plants," said Debra Lee Baldwin, author of "Succulent Container Gardens" (Timber Press, 2010).

Many of the most attractive succulents are native to Madagascar, South Africa and the Caribbean, meaning they're frost tender and do well outdoors only in USDA Zones 9 and 10, Baldwin said.

"Container culture offers an ideal solution; anyone, anywhere can grow succulents in pots, which can be sheltered indoors," she said.

More than 10,000 plant species are classified as succulents, including those of the sizable cacti family. Some are tall and irregularly shaped, resembling living sculptures. Others are small and develop laterally, making an effective ground cover. Many bloom. Most are survivors, durable once established.

"They'll store water in their fleshy leaves in times of drought, which can be interpreted as owners forgetting to water them," Baldwin said. "They can so easily be loved to death — by that I mean by over-watering, making the roots rot. Succulents really prefer neglect."

Planting succulents in containers not only makes over-wintering them easier but also makes growing them more rewarding.

"It's gardening in miniature, ideal for space-constrained, time-challenged gardeners who like mating plants with pots," Baldwin said. "It's a lifestyle enhancement kind of thing. You want to display them in sitting areas or entryways where they can be enjoyed close up."

Succulents need good drainage, particularly when planted in containers.

"They're a 'special needs' plant," said David Salman, founder and chief horticulturist at High Country Gardens, in Santa Fe, N.M. "Succulents appreciate fast-draining soil. A rich loam won't work. It gets too wet and stays too fertile. It's better to blend coarse sand and gravel with a soil-less potting mix."

As for containers:

Use terra cotta or ceramic rather than plastic, Salman said. "Succulents can live for a great many years, often outlasting containers. Repotting is difficult for plants, particularly for some of the larger succulents."

Layer an attractive stone or gravel top-dressing around containerized succulents. Coarse aquarium gravel is good. "It keeps the plants looking cleaner so they don't get any dirt splashed up into the foliage," he said. "If you like to hike, gather some rocks or gnarled wood during the course of your adventures. They will provide a little interior decoration with your potted plants, making them rock gardens in miniature."

Many succulents are small enough to make great windowsill plants. "They'll bloom (indoors) in winter and early spring, giving you some great offseason color," Salman said.

Bring along your plant when choosing a pot, or your pot when choosing a plant. "That makes a better design statement," Baldwin said.

Arrange succulent-filled containers into groups. Elevate several. Choose themes or colors to add cohesiveness to your garden. "A pot never detracts from the plant; it showcases the plant," Baldwin said.

Planting succulents in containers opens the way for a hobby within a hobby. You can use potted succulents for creating bonsai, shaping topiary or carving out miniature landscapes. "There are so many different ways they can be interpreted," Baldwin said.

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You can contact Dean Fosdick at