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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