Tired of Daily Watering for
Providing adequate water to container gardens is both a joy and a pain.
Visiting each container on a regular basis and providing it with the appropriate amount of water is what feeds our need to relate to the natural world, a primary urge that makes us gardeners in the first place. On the other hand, as our success with those containers increases we often find that they grow so well, that their demands for attention exceed our need for horticultural therapy and we wish they would just go and water themselves. There are a couple of solutions to this temporary dilemma.
Here's a Solution
We can build elaborate irrigation systems that do let the containers water themselves and we will look at those systems elsewhere. The other solution is to create containers using plants whose water requirements are more in keeping with our ability/desire to provide that water. As with most gardening, we tend to most successful when we work with nature rather then trying to fight her. She almost always wins in the end!
There are a whole range of plants that are naturally adapted to a limited water regimen. Think the desert and its natural flora. Cactus make very interesting and successful container gardens. Let’s get technical for a moment. Cactus is a distinct family of plants that are, with one weird and notable exception, all native to N & S America. There are over 1000 species, almost none of which we are going to discuss here, and they almost all have fleshy stems, rarely leaves and are armed with a variety of spines. There are other families of plants, notably the Euphorbia, that have similar fleshy, spiny growth habits.
All of which is quite irrelevant to planting a successful succulent based container garden, except that we need to choose all of the plants for our container from Nature’s great list of plants that are adapted to similar conditions. To be silly about it and I do try to be as often as possible, we cannot grow a water lily in the middle of our succulent based container garden. We could plant our container just with Cactus as there are a range of shapes and sizes and they do have, in my humble opinion, the best flowers of all the succulents. Getting them to flower is another whole story and they only do it once a year for a short period of time.
To get some more diversity of size and shape into our succulent container garden, we should branch out to the Euphorbia or some of the succulent members of the Lily family. Yes there are succulent plants with tiny lily-like flowers, such as the Aloes and Haworthia. The reality is that the first time we try this, we are going to go to the garden centre or plant shop and buy what is available. As long as you have figured out, that you should be choosing only those plants that are similarly succulent, then all of the above horticultural bafflegab has served its purpose.
Let’s just get on with the job. First we need a container. Plastic would be my last choice as it tends to keep the soil wetter longer and an airy well drained soil is what our spiny little friends are looking for. There are some amazing terra cotta planters available as well as concrete or hollowed out rocks or, in reality, anything that appeals to you and has enough holes in the bottom to ensure excellent drainage. A soggy succulent is a dead succulent! Most succulent container gardens tend to be in rather shallow planters. They don’t need the great depth of soil and it makes them lighter.
Added Indoor Benefit
We care about the weight because one of the great advantages of container gardening with succulents is that they can be brought
inside during the colder months
and continue to brighten our lives during the winter. I digress; lets get back to planting. We have chosen our container and a selection of succulents to put into it. Don’t jam it full of plants. They cost money and they will actually grow and need some additional space and they just look better with some space around them.
The garden centre will happily sell you special bags of soil just for succulents and if you need soil for this container by all means purchase it. The reality is that our succulents are actually rather adaptable and will grow in almost any well drained potting mix. As always, DO NOT use a bucket of soil scooped out of your garden. Fill the container almost to the top and apply a little pressure to compact the soil slightly and decide where your plants are going. VERY CAREFULLY, wearing gloves, pick up the individual plants, gently remove their pots and place them into the holes you have opened in the soil. They should have the soil line, from their growing pots, at or just below the soil line in their new container.
Now comes the tricky part. Firm the soil in and around each plant so that it becomes stable in the new container. I find a variety of round and pointy sticks are a great asset for this job, to make sure I can press on the soil close to each plant without getting a variety of spines and barbs ensconced in my fingers.
Once all the plants are in place I like to cover the soil with a layer of coarse sand or coloured crushed rock. Not only does it add extra interest to the planting but it also helps to conserve the moisture in the soil. Making a planter that didn’t need to be watered as often was, after all, the original object of this exercise. You may keep this succulent container garden outside in full sun or even some light shade and then enjoy it even more as an indoor garden during the colder months. It will require water even less frequently when it is inside, depending on its location maybe no more than once a month.
Many cactus will flower once a year, often in the summer, some only at night, but the mechanism that kicks in their flowering schedule varies from species to species and in a mixed planter it is difficult to provide the various conditions each species needs. In the space we have here all I can say is, “ let Nature do her thing” and count any flowers that show up as a blessing. Be warned - you may get hooked on these delightful plants and discover that your collection is outgrowing the space available, a common gardening problem.
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