A sucker for succulents: See them through the frost, and you'll have Californian sunshine all year round

By Emma Townshend
Sunday 07 November 2010 01:00
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My grandma sounded very pleased on the phone earlier; she'd just persuaded my uncle to come round and collect her plants. Not all of them. Just the precious collection of succulent plants that sit in pots on her balcony – they are off to spend the cold spell in his greenhouse. Succulents are desert plants that survive in the wild by filling their leaves with stored water – a reservoir that makes them prone to frost damage when the temperature goes down. Which it does, every so often, in the non-deserts of mid-Oxfordshire.

We have less of a frost problem in mid-west London, but the principle is still the same. My uncle takes away my grandma's plants and bubble-wraps them for the winter; I run out and cover mine with newspaper when zero centigrade threatens. But if you can get your succulents through the really icy days, they have a delicious habit of looking spiky and elegant on all the others.

This is beautifully demonstrated in a new book, Succulent Container Gardens, by Debra Lee Baldwin (Timber, £20). Baldwin is a total succulenthead, if I may be so bold. She runs a website devoted to them at succulentchic.net, and she's clear on their advantages. She grows them for a lot of the same reasons I do: they require little fuss, hardly any watering, and they look great all year round. Which you can't say for many striking members of the plant kingdom.

In particular, as long as they are not covered with mouldy newspaper, succulents give a properly year-round Californian feel to containers. Three years ago I officially gave up on the idea of window boxes full of big flowers, which always seemed to die on me the one week of the summer I managed to leave London. Instead, I planted three boxes of succulents, pretty much invisible from the road, but delightful up close when viewed from inside the house.

The results have been pretty cool, with a changing array of spikes developing circles like ripples in a David Hockney LA pool. Every week there has been something lovely to look at. But I made my patterns mainly with the very hardiest of the group, sempervivums (houseleeks) and agaves. Baldwin's book covers these, but also acts as a reminder of all the more tender members of the family, such as aeoniums, echeverias and aloes.

Baldwin is keen to have her readers thinking about the geometry of leaves, but equally keen that we ponder the geometry of our pots. And while the text is great, and copiously helpful, the photos are pure succulent porn, and I mean that in a good way. Sedums trail over the heads of cherubs, aeoniums pour from the head of collectable 1950s pottery. The whole thing is a delight. So I highly recommend the book. Now I just need to ascertain whether my uncle has any more room in the greenhouse.

Get the look

Where to plant

Choose an unusual container. Have a whip through your local junk shops or car-boot sale. Don't rule anything out: one of Baldwin's prettiest displays is in the shelves of an old fishing-tackle box.

How to plant

Fill with a good mix of grit and potting medium, avoiding peat, which holds too much water. Commercial mixes are expensive and often too peaty: add horticultural sand, perlite or grit to a coir mix for best results. And very little watering, and no frost over the winter, please.

Where to buy

Sometimes succulents can be picked up cheap in B&Q or Ikea, other times you see the plant of your dreams and pay through the nose. Neville and Shirley Bell at Glenhirst Cactus Nursery have Echeveria glauca, Agave Americana variegata, and Aeonium arboreum, making a good first collection. From £2.95 to£3.75, glenhirstcactiandpalms.co.uk

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