Maxed out on marigolds? Put out with petunias? Have zinnias lost their zing? If you’re bored with planting the same summer annuals year after year and tired of fussing over them to keep them alive as summer heats up, here’s a "set-it and forget-it" alternative: Plant tender cacti and succulents instead.
You’ve no doubt seen them in the garden sections of the box stores, at your local nurseries and even among the houseplants in the floral sections of some groceries. Echeverrias, aloes, agaves or any cactus or succulent that interests you. All can be planted in full sun. For shadier areas, any of the many types of Sansevierieas — the standard mother-in-law’s tongue so-called because of the shape and sharp margins of their leaves — will work just fine. You can even pot up Sansevierieas in the fall and bring them indoors. Because they have low light requirements and thrive on neglect they make great house plants!
Switching to cacti and succulents from standard summer annuals is a growing trend, said Nick Daniel, horticulture specialist for the Cactus and Succulent Collection at the Denver Botanic Gardens. "Across the United States, but especially in the arid and semi-arid West, using succulents as annuals has been borne out of necessity to some degree," he said. "As water becomes more scarce and expensive, and as many municipalities enact outdoor water restrictions, gardeners need to cut water use where they can. Using succulents as annuals in containers or even in the ground will save on water costs while not sacrificing aesthetics."
Daniel believes that millennials, who he sees as more environmentally minded than the population at large, have been driving much of the trend to cacti and succulents in landscapes. But, he quickly added, it’s not just millennials. "People in general tend to be very fascinated by cacti and succulents, but think the plants are hard to grow. Once they learn that, like most plants, there are easy-to-grow and hard-to-grow succulents, they pick the easier-to-grow stuff, and that blossoms into a new plant love. Many succulents truly are very easy to grow if given the proper conditions, and I think this plays into their increasing popularity."
That popularity has not been lost on the wholesale nursery industry. "Propagators at major wholesale nurseries have refined their propagation protocols and are pumping out succulents at high rates to meet market demand," observed Daniel. "Big box stores and local nurseries alike are seizing on this opportunity and are stocking a wider variety of succulents. The plants essentially sell themselves with their unique forms, colors, growth habits and their reputation for a 'lack of thirst.'"
Benefits of succulents in landscapes
In addition to reducing watering costs, there are many benefits to planting succulents as garden annuals. Perhaps the most obvious is that succulents require far less maintenance than traditional annuals such as geraniums, calibrachoas, dusty miller and so many others that gardeners are accustomed to seeing on nursery benches.
"I’m thinking along the lines of succulents not needing to be deadheaded, pruned, fertilized regularly or generally fussed over," said Daniel. Traditional annuals tend to be a time suck with all the pampering they need to stay looking good. Just remember, he advised, that in adding succulents to the landscape it is important to do basic research on cultural conditions to site them correctly. Sun-loving succulents, for example, should not be planted in shade or in a heavily watered area.
There are also environmental benefits to switching to succulents. Because succulents don’t need regular feeding, gardeners can reduce the amount of synthetic fertilizers they put into the soil. Succulents also don’t need the moisture-retaining soil amendments traditional annuals require because their roots prefer to stay dry rather than moist. That makes them ideal candidates for planting in places that might pose challenges for many other types of annuals – hot, bright areas, on slopes because slopes naturally drain well and near rocks and buildings where heat tends to sink and dry the soil quickly. Succulents are also ideal for containers as long as you use a quickly draining potting mix.
Another benefit of succulents versus traditional annuals, whether in beds or in containers, is their aesthetics, which Daniel considers second to none. "When grouped with other plants that have the same or similar water requirements, your display can go over the top … in a good way," he said. "The unique forms of many of these plants are wonderful contrasts and complements to standard herbaceous annuals." A main consideration, added Daniel, is to be sure to group plants that have similar light and water requirements so that they all place nicely together.
Eight succulents for home gardens
Here are eight succulents that Daniel recommends for home gardens.
Echeveria species and cultivars
With an almost limitless palate of texture and color, the echeverias are widely available, easy to grow, and are great conversation starters.
Portulacaria afra (elephant food)
With a rambling, sometimes spilling array of compact green leaves (similar to a jade plant) on red petioles and stems, elephant food makes a stunning textural complement in containers and does well in the ground, too. This plant isn’t grown for flowers, but for texture and interest.
Senecio rowleyanus (string of pearls)
Another excellent container plant that does wonders for a hanging basket. Stay away from this one in the ground. It is best suited as a container plant.
Aloe species and cultivars
The aloes do a wonderful job in the ground or in containers. There are more varieties than ever available to the home gardener, and the range of colors and textures is nearly infinite. A bonus: Before frost, dig out your aloe plant, replant it into a different pot, and keep it inside to use again outdoors next summer. Not only do you get a nice houseplant for the winter, but you double your savings on plant costs!
Opuntia species and cultivars (the prickly pears)
These are typically very hardy and can stay outside year-round to Zone 4 or 5, some even down to Zone 3. There are more spineless varieties than ever on the market, and the same goes for flower colors. Once established, these require little-to-no supplemental water. Pro tip: Elevate them in a container placed in your garden bed where they will be easier to garden around and they will add an eye-catching dimension.
Agave species and cultivars
Agaves make amazingly cool container plants, but also love to be in the ground. If your climate allows it, they may be kept in containers outside year-round. Color, form, texture and interest are just a few of the advantages of using agaves in your garden.
There are many hardy and non-hardy sedums, and all of them are great in the ground. The non-hardy species are best grown in containers, but also make very nice ground covers that may be used as annuals.
These are among Daniel’s favorites and can be grown in shadier parts of the garden. These may also be potted and brought inside in the winter where they will perform extremely well in lower-light areas of the house.
If your choices aren’t listed to these plant types, let your imagination run wild, advises Daniel. "Any cactus or succulent that interests you can be grown as an annual, or kept and brought back into the house to use again the next season...there are no hard or fast rules on your choices. I’d like to see succulents used more and more in the same way standard annuals are used.It makes sense on so many levels, and the effect is simply stunning when executed properly."