Unum de multis: Multiplying Succulents

Newly planted jade plant cutting, removed from an older plant after it rooted into the air.

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Succulent plants serve as living sculpture with their emphatic forms, slow growth, and unusual colors.  Most gardeners either adore them or avoid them.  They feel a little alien to most of us Virginia gardeners, as there are very few native succulents in our landscapes.

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Some gardeners find succulents a bit too prickly and spiny for comfort.  And the majority of succulents aren’t hardy through our winters.  We have to treat them as annuals or bring them indoors for months of the year.

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These succulents are hardy, and are beginning their spring growth outside in the Table Bed at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden

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Succulents want loose, sandy and rocky soil and bright light.  Some need full sun, others bright but indirect light and warmth.  Their needs are simple, and I’ve killed more succulents with too much water than by any stretch of neglect.

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This succulent planting grew happily on our front porch in the summer of 2013.  A gravel mulch helps keep these moisture-sensitive plants happy.

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That said, I absolutely pour over photos of succulent planting schemes in sunny California gardens.  Many gardeners in dry regions use succulents in every size from tiny to epic in their landscapes as focal points, ground covers, thrillers, fillers and spillers.  Their compositions are bright and colorful, and they absolutely intrigue me.  Once succulent plants mature, they produce oddly beautiful flowers.

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Plants that may be inexpensive and readily available in the western states are harder to find and pricier here in Virginia garden centers.  You can mail order wonderful succulents from suppliers like Plant Delights near Raleigh, NC; but please have that credit card handy.

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I just bought this little collection of succulents on the houseplant sale last weekend at the Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond, specifically to break them apart for propagation.

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I have a project in mind for this coming summer to create a hanging basket covered in succulents.  Planting up the interior of the basket with succulents won’t be difficult.  I plan to use an assortment of hardy Sedums already on hand, with some red ‘hens and chicks’ and a single spiky Agave or Aloe for the ‘thriller.’

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Use hardy succulents as ground cover around spring bulbs. Enjoy this display at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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I want to cover the outside of the coco liner in succulents, too.  That will take a lot of individual plants.  To effectively plant the outside of the basket, it will be easier to slip each plant in through a slit in the liner if each plant has a very small root system: in other words, if I use rooted cuttings.

Some designers will suggest using succulent stem cuttings and allowing them to root in place.  This would work, but I want to give the plants a little head start and I don’t have enough stem cuttings for the project.

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Potted plants have too much root mass to slip through a slit in a coco basket liner, without damaging the roots.

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I’ve been playing around with potted arrangements of succulents for years- with mixed success.  They all look pretty good for a while.  We often get so much rain at once that it saturates the soil, even with specially mixed soil that contains lots of sand and gravel.  I try to remember to set succulent pots back under the eaves when a lot of rain is forecast.  Succulents sometimes struggle in our humidity and rainy summer weather.

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Collection of succulents, August 2014

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Without a heated greenhouse, I doubt I’ll ever achieve the horticultural succulent splendor possible for Southern California and Arizona gardeners.  Our climate will never allow for me to let our succulent arrangements live and grow outside year round long enough to really fill in and mature.  That takes years….

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Succulents with thick, waxy leaves release very little water into the air. They are built for hot, dry conditions and may rot if their soil remains saturated for too long.  This Echeveria has produced chicks that I want to grow on to mature, independent plants.

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Lately, I’ve been inspired to study succulent propagation again.  A good, practical resource is Debra Lee Baldwin’s book, Succulent Container Gardens. 

This is an ‘eye candy’ book that surveys the major genera of succulents appropriate to grow in various containers.  I like this book because it covers all of the important topics like soils and pot selection, design, plant care, and also succulent plant propagation.

The most common error in trying to root succulent cuttings is trying to rush the process.  Leaf cuttings and stem cuttings need a few days to air dry and ‘scab’ over, before any attempt to root them.  Many succulents will strike roots directly into humid air, even generating tiny new plants, without the cut end of the stem in either soil or water.

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This Jade plant spontaneously grew roots, indicating to me that this stem wants a fresh start in its own pot.

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This is counter-intuitive for many of us.  We want to stick that cut end into something moist so the plant can suck up water and survive.

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Do you see the roots that have started to grow from the stem?

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I won’t admit how many times I’ve found a dropped succulent leaf and dropped it, cut side down, into a pot hoping it would root.  Before roots can grow, a damp succulent stem will more likely rot.  Even with the pups off of an Echeveria, the stems want a few days to scab over before you secure them in some sandy soil to root and grow on.

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I took this stem cutting from the jade plant three days ago, and you can see that the stem has dried and calloused over.

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After researching several different rooting methods for succulent leaf cuttings, I have prepared a large clear plastic storage box by first cleaning it with disinfectant, and then lining the bottom of the box with a single layer of paper towel to wick any moisture evenly through the medium.  I covered that with a 1″ layer of clean horticultural sand.  That’s it…

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I bought a selection of small succulent plants on a special sale last weekend for this project, and have twisted most of the leaves off of each plant.  Twist, don’t cut, because each leaf needs a tiny bit of stem tissue still attached.  If the petiole breaks ahead of the stem, the leaf may not strike roots.

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See how the leaf cutting on the right already have begun to root and grow new plants? This had happened while the leaves were still attached to the mother plant.

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I’ve cut the top off of each plant, leaving 1/4″-1/2″ of stem attached.  I’ve kept the rooted plants in their original pots, watered them, and have set them aside in a bright place to regenerate themselves.  I expect small ‘pups’ to begin to grow along the stems where leaves were removed.  This will likely take 6 weeks to two months before the pups may be large enough to remove and grow on.

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I expect these rooted stems to also generate new plants at the leaf nodes. All of the nodes are stimulated when I removed the top of the stem.  One of the plants didn’t have enough stem to take a cutting, but it will continue to grow.

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At the moment, all of the new stem cuttings are just sitting on top of the sand, in bright but indirect light, while they callous over.  I’ll probably wait until Friday before adding just enough water to the edges of the box to slightly moisten the paper towels and the sand.  No wet sand!  Just a little moisture in the mix before I cover the box with clear plastic.  A dry cleaner bag or clear leaf bag will work for this, and I’ll leave a little vent for air exchange to discourage mold.  I expect the leaves to remain hydrated from the moisture in the air, and tiny roots to grow into the air to absorb that moisture.

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If all goes well, I should have a good selection of tiny succulent plants with sufficient root growth to construct that succulent basket in late April.  If all the leaf cuttings root and produce new plants, I’ll have plenty left for additional succulent projects this spring.

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There is a layer of fine gravel in this pot, topped by special succulent potting mix. I added additional sand to the mix, dampened it, and then planted the rooted jade plant.  The cutting will probably grow in this pot for a year or more before it needs repotting.

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The succulent pots I’ve overwintered in past years have all grown ‘leggy’ growing inside with insufficient light over winter.  Now, I understand better how to work with those leggy  plants to cut them back and stimulate growth, using the cuttings to generate fresh plants.

When our local garden centers begin to fill with plants next month I will look at the succulents on offer with a different eye.  Rather than choosing a plant to use immediately in some planting scheme, I think I’ll be more likely to look at some less desirable plants for their ‘parts.’

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Out of one, many….. 

Once you understand how plants grow and regenerate, it becomes easier to work with their natural proclivities to generate as many individuals as you need.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

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Seven Little Pumpkins All In a Row, and Pumpkin Bread Sandwiches Ready to Go…

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Do you remember the story of Cinderella?  It is a story about transformation, and kindness, and about seeing magical possibilities in our everyday surroundings.  Cinderella’s fairy godmother offers her the opportunity to fulfill her dreams of attending the ball and meeting the prince.  To take her there, a pumpkin is transformed into a gilded coach, mice into horses, and a rat into a coachmen.  Everyone gets a fresh chance at life.November 17 pumpkins 003

I love sharing this story with children because it encourages us to take a fresh look at our circumstances to see the possibilities we might otherwise overlook.  It invites us to step out of whatever limitations we perceive for ourselves, and find the path which will lead us to a more fulfilling and enriching future.

Pumpkins are a symbol of abundance.  Full of plump, tasty seeds, they remind us to plant the seeds of possibility  in our own lives, which will bear fruit for us over time.  Whether we make new friends, read useful books, join an organization, continue our education, learn a new skill, or volunteer in our community; we can all take small actions now which will bring us happiness and greater opportunities to live our dreams.November 17 pumpkins 026

These little pumpkin arrangements are also about seeing fresh possibilities in everyday materials.  They are constructed from locally grown pumpkins we have been enjoying on our mantle since September.  I clipped Nandina leaves and berries, sprigs of Kalanchoe, some Echeveria rosettes, garlic chive seed heads, and Hibiscus seed pods from the garden.  The Hibiscus have a lovely shape, but aren’t a very festive color at the moment.  A quick spray of metallic gold paint allows them to bring a little sparkle to the arrangement.  The only purchased materials are the reindeer moss, and the hot glue, which holds the arrangements together.

The pumpkin stems are left in place.  I began by gluing the heaviest living materials, the Kalanchoe and Echeveria, to the pumpkin and pumpkin stem with hot glue.  I don’t expect these to take root in this much lighter moss, but will take the arrangements apart after Thanksgiving and plant these pieces in potting soil.  The Nandina berry sprigs and leaves were the next items glued, then the garlic chives and Hibiscus.  Moss is used to cover the stems and visually anchor the arrangement onto the pumpkin.  It can be pushed into place on the still hot glue on the stems, or glued directly onto the pumpkins.  I haven’t put any water on these arrangements.

These little pumpkins will complete the decorations for our community event on Tuesday.  Afterwards I’ll most likely give a few of them to friends, and bring the others home to enjoy through the end of November.  They will complement the large pumpkin and succulent arrangements I made a few days ago.

Pumpkin bread has been baking this morning as I type, and the whole house smells sweet and spicy.

If you would like to bake some for yourself, here is the recipe for two loaves.  I’ll slice this bread fairly thinly, spread on the cheese filling, and make tiny sandwiches for the refreshment table on Tuesday.  It is a healthy and delicious late autumn treat, and I hope you will enjoy making it.

Pumpkin Bread  350FNovember 17 2013 pumpkin bread 002

(Roast 1 c. of walnut meats at 350F while gathering the other ingredients)

Prepare two loaf pans with non-stick cooking spray and a narrow sheet of waxed paper on the bottom of each pan.

Mix together the dry ingredients in a large bowl:

6 c. self-rising flour, 2 tsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. salt, 2 tsp. cinnamon, 1 tsp. grated nutmeg, 1/2 tsp. ground cloves,  1/2 tsp. ground cardamon, 1 c. dried cranberries and 1 c. roasted, chopped walnuts.

Mix together in a large stand mixer at low speed:

2 eggs, 3/4 c. sour cream, 3/4 c. melted butter, 1 1/2 c. light brown sugar, 1 tsp. vanilla, 1 tsp. orange extract.

Add 1 can of pumpkin puree.  (read the label and make sure you are buying pure pumpkin with no added sugar)

Mix at low speed until smooth.

Stop the mixer and add 3 cups of the mixed dry ingredients and 1/2 c. apple cider.  Mix at low speed until nearly combined.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl, and repeat with another 3 cups of dry ingredients and another 1/2  cider.  Mix at the lowest speed until just combined.  Scrape down the bowl again, and pour in the remaining dry ingredients.  Stream in apple cider slowly as you mix the ingredients at the lowest speed until the batter is moist and all of the flour is combined (about another 1/2 c. of cider).

Remove and clean the beater.  Fill each loaf pan 1/2 full.  Scrape down the mixing bowl again to incorporate any ingredients at the bottom, dividing the remaining batter between the pans so they  are equally full.  Bake at 350F for an hour, and then begin checking on the loaves.  They will probably need about 75 – 80 minutes total cooking time to be done all the way through.

Allow the loaves to cool completely on racks.  Turn out of the loaf pans after the first 10 minutes.  Wrap each loaf in plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours before trying to slice it thinly.

Cheese Spread

Combine in the bowl of  a food processor fitted with the blade:

1 large container whipped cream cheese, softened; 1 tsp. onion powder; 1/2 tsp. garlic powder; 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper; 1/2 tsp. sea salt; 1/2 tsp. dried rosemary; 1 c. grated sharp cheddar cheese; 1/4 c. grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.  For a little more heat, add a teaspoon of chopped hot peppers.

Process until smooth.  Scrape into a lidded plastic container and use immediately to fill the sandwiches.  If making ahead, store in the refrigerator, but allow to soften before spreading.

Make the sandwiches ahead and chill before serving.  Each loaf should make 2-3 dozen small sandwiches, depending on how thickly the bread is sliced, when every slice is cut into 4 small squares.

Recycling A Broken Mug

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A moment of clumsiness this morning with the tea kettle, and one of my favorite mugs lay broken in the sink.  November 7 2013 001We purchased two matching mugs from the potter in Manteo, NC, quite a few years ago.  This deep burgundy glaze is a bit unusual and hard to find, and we always enjoyed using these lovely mugs.  Too beautiful to throw away, I salvaged all but one of the pieces of the broken mug and took them back to my work table.

If it is no longer good for drinking, at least it will serve as a lovely planter.

The Echeveria I trimmed for cuttings.

The Echeveria I trimmed for cuttings.

Succulents are very forgiving plants, easy to grow, undemanding, and will survive in this little mug.  I took cuttings of a rangy blue chalk sticks plant, Kleinia mandraliscae,  and of some Echeveria growing in pots on the front porch.  I had a few sprigs of jade plant, Crassula ovata, already lying around, waiting for a new home.  Succulents appreciate bright, indirect light, but don’t need or want very much water.  They root easily from bits and pieces, and grow fairly slowly.  This makes them excellent candidates for tiny arrangements in unusual containers.

The blue chalk stick plant, gift a few years ago from a friend, needs a trim.

The blue chalk stick plant, gift a few years ago from a friend, needs a trim.

After gluing the mug back together and allowing it to dry, I laid a foundation of several small stones in the bottom of the cup and covered them with a mixture of sand and gravel.  Since the mug has no drainage holes, the rocks and sand will provide a small reservoir, below the roots, where water can drain.  It will also allow the soil to soak in water as needed between waterings.

Next came potting soil. I could have mixed in a bit of sand, but I have better luck with using the same potting mix I use for pots and baskets.  I filled the mug to within 1/4 or so of the rim, and topped off the soil with more clean sand and gravel.  This will prevent the succulent leaves from resting directly on damp soil.

Once the mug was prepared, I simply stuck the stems of my cuttings into the soil in a pleasing arrangement, gave a light spritz of water from the sink sprayer to settle everything in, and set the mug where it will get bright light.

The cuttings will take a few weeks to root, but will grow happily in the mug all winter.  When they appear to be outgrowing the mug, in a year or so, they can be potted up to another container and more cuttings can take their place in the mug.  It has a new purpose in life, and will continue to be a treasured part of ours.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome

Thoughts on recycling:

We are not to throw away those things which can benefit our neighbor. Goods are called good because they can be used for good: they are instruments for good, in the hands of those who use them properly.November 7 2013 017

Clement of Alexandria

Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.

R. Buckminster Fuller

The paradox of life lies exactly in this: its resources are finite, but it itself is endless. Such a contradictory state of affairs is feasible only because the resources accessible to life can be used over and over again.” November 7 2013 018

I.I. Gitelson, Manmade Closed Ecological Systems

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