Guest Rants, It's the Plants, Darling

Succulents are OUT? Oh, No They’re NOT

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Guest rant by Debra Lee Baldwin, a rebuttal to Ivette Soler’s rant in which she expressed ennui about succulents and proposed that the plants’ popularity is diminishing.

If anyone ought to be sick of succulents, it should be me, having spent a decade studying and photographing them, and twice that long growing them. Yet succulents are endlessly fascinating—true fashionistas, they’re forever reinventing themselves and doing things other plants wouldn’t dream of.

For example, when deprived of water and even soil, many succulents continue to look the same for weeks, even months. Consequently, floral designers—always keen on fresh material with lasting power—are wiring rootless rosettes onto faux stems and using them in fancy-pants bouquets. Succulents are hugely popular in wedding florals. A trend, yes, but consider: It’s very green to repurpose a bouquet by pulling it apart and planting it. And the sentimental value! Squeal!

Succulents also can be glued to stuff. “I’ll put them on anything that doesn’t move,” says San Diego designer Laura Eubanks, who doesn’t just glue succulents to the moss-topped pumpkins she sells by the hundreds every fall, she hot-glues them. “It’s so much faster, and the plants don’t mind.” A pumpkin she made for a photo shoot at my home lasted four months; when the squash finally rotted, the succulents slid into the garden. Below: For her brother, Eubanks made a succulent toupee.

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You know how aloe blooms are nearly always orange? Not any more. If you live in coastal California from the Bay Area south, where mild temperatures enable succulents to grow outdoors year-round, you’ll soon see cultivars that send up 2-to 3-foot-tall flower spikes in breathtaking blends of peach, cream, red and/or yellow. Here are two unnamed hybrids.

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debra5Because pots are fairly easy to shelter when the weather turns too cold, hot or wet, regardless of where you live, you can enjoy hundreds of varieties of smaller succulents, like dwarf aloes and agaves that don’t get much bigger than softballs. Echeverias, which resemble rubbery roses, come in green, silver, blue, pink and lavender. All that most succulents want is non-scorching sun, temps above 32 degrees F, fast-draining soil, an occasional splash of water and to be left the heck alone.

 

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As for succulent gardens lacking elegance and restraint, well, it’s not a plant’s fault if it’s used poorly. This minimalist landscape is in my book Designing with Succulents.

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I could go on and on…in fact, I do. I share my passion for “plants that drink responsibly” on Facebook (Succulents Simplified); in my quarterly News from the World of Designing with Succulents; on my blog and website, in articles for garden publications, at speaking engagements nationwide, and of course, in my books.
But don’t take MY word for it…

The annual Succulent Extravaganza near San Francisco is now in its fourth year; the Succulent Celebration near San Diego, in its second. Each is held at a large nursery over a two-day period and attracts upwards of 1,500 attendees.

A 2009 post on my blog, titled “Uh-oh, My Agave’s Blooming,” has had 14,500 views.

In June, 2013 the Succulent Fanatics Facebook group had 850 members. It now has 2,600. Shown here is the group’s founder, Laura Balaoro of San Jose.

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Six months ago there were 200 Pinterest boards named “Succulents.” Recently, I quit counting at 1,200.

Forty-five succulent-themed videos on my YouTube channel have received more than 400,000 views in three years.

“From a grower’s perspective, the demand for succulents is not slowing. Our business has grown 20% annually since 2005. We’re also engaged in research that will result in new, improved, disease-resistant and stunningly beautiful hybrids.” — Ken Altman, founder and president, Altman Plants, Vista, CA (the largest grower of cacti and succulents in the US)

“Succulents of all kinds are the highest growth category in gardening, higher even than vegetables. This makes sense as folks do more gardening on patios and balconies, home sizes shrink, and the apartment boom continues.” – Rick Brown, grower and wholesaler, Florida Friendly Plants (suppliers of Home Depot)

“The catastrophic drought underway in the West—and our routinely dry climate—make succulents carefree jewels of the garden, and more essential than ever for adding color and boldness to water-sparing palettes.” – Flora Grubb, designer and owner, Flora Grubb Gardens nursery, San Francisco

“In Japan and Germany, where drought is hardly an issue, succulents are rising in popularity. Demand from Korea and China for succulents from Australia is at a record high. Succulents are not out—they’re out there!” – Attila Kapitany, Australian author, horticulturist and nurseryman

“Lack of water and smaller living spaces are not fads. Whereas trendy aspects of the succulent phenomenon may decline, the functional appropriateness of the plants is just beginning to be understood and tapped.” – Robin Stockwell, owner, Succulent Gardens, the largest Northern CA succulent nursery and site of the Succulent Extravaganza

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Debra Lee Baldwin is an award-winning garden photojournalist who authored the Timber Press bestsellers Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens and Succulents Simplified.

Posted by Debra Lee Baldwin on February 11, 2014 at 7:39 am, in the category Guest Rants, It's the Plants, Darling.
25 Comments

25 Responses to “Succulents are OUT? Oh, No They’re NOT”

  1. Frank Hyman says:

    Great work, I love a good reality-based rant. When I was a community organizer we used the shorthand OBU for folks who talked a lot but were in fact Opinionated But Uninformed. Nice job doing your homework Debra, hope to see more rants like yours in the future. Now excuse me while I pot up some more succulents for our spring plant sale.

  2. CindyP says:

    I can’t bring myself to care what is “out” and what is “in” according to others opinions, except in how it can influence what is available for me to purchase. I buy and plant according to what I like, and what thrives in my garden. I will always love succulents-and hostas which I think were also bashed recently. It’s like woman’s fashion, buy what works for you, not what the designers say is in style. Hey, are succulents the new black?

    • kermit says:

      Succulents are the old black. Which, I note, has never gone out of style, no matter what the runway designers might say.

  3. Chris says:

    “If you live in coastal California from the Bay Area south, where mild temperatures enable succulents to grow outdoors year-round,”

    There are varieties that grow at least as far north as Vancouver, BC.

    When I started to plant the garden around the house we built twenty years ago I would try to find has many kinds of succulents to place in the rockery. They have a great variety of colors, and some very cool flower stalks.

    Plus they prevented grass from growing between the rocks. It is very difficult to weed grass out of a rockery!

    I will admit one quirk in my plant preference. Sedum Autumn Joy is a favorite in Seattle. I even heard it praised in a talk at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. Though you will not see it in my garden, since I think it is ugly.

  4. Succulents ! Definitely in for a very long time. Color even without flower, Shapes, Texture, low water, low care, go on vacation for a long time and not worry about them dead plants. What more can we ask for? Many of us Succulent lovers see beauty in these plants while others may think they are the ugliest plants on the planet. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

  5. Loved reading both points of view. That said, I’ve loved succulents since my mother grew them in large shallow terra cotta bowls (she made them too) fifty years ago in CA and I’ll continue whether they are in or out of style. I do prefer them growing rather than used as decoration. They are a victim of their own versatility!

  6. Craig Florer says:

    Succulents will never be “out” as long as there are new and ever-changing ways to display, present and share them. Yes, the popular and overdone will give way to the new and innovative, but as a species, succulents will outlive and out survive humankind.

  7. Kim Smith says:

    Succulents seem to have been here forever ( aren’t they sometimes called “live forever”, at least the sempervivums), and they will continue to be here long after we’re gone. They are the strange little plants I remember my Mother growing, and handing to newlyweds and new neighbors to start a garden. These plants can touch your soul, because no matter what, they will live. Drought, cold, vacation, a forgotten cutting lying on a bench for weeks, its little spark will continue to send out roots and live on. You can’t believe the variety and color until you really explore the succulents available. They are not OUT. Don’t you believe that!

  8. Susan says:

    Succulents rock and roll always be in my garden!!!

  9. Laura Bell says:

    Wait – they’re in? There goes my theory I’m either way behind or way ahead of the latest fashions & trends. Although in my neighborhood, I’m still the crazy lady with something other than grass & carve-able shrubbery in the front yard. Guess I can keep my rebel creds.

  10. gemma says:

    At a hort meeting in December, the centerpieces were mini pumpkins filled with hot-glued succulents, arranged around battery-powered candles.. There were enough so that everyone who wanted a succulent-filled mini pumpkin could take one home. Mine is still in good shape, and I’ll pot up the little succulents as soon as frost danger passes.

  11. sally says:

    I. love. Succulents. I have only started collecting a year ago, I live in a tiny apartment in pa where we get such drastic weather changes..another snowstorm coming our way..but that doesn’t deter me. I fashioned shelves and brought them all inside..where the only thing I really have to worry about is a curious kitty. I have never been able to keep plants alive until I stumbled upon these fantastic specimens..and since then my green thumb has revealed itself. I love how low maintenance they are, that they will tolerant almost anything you throw at them, they come in every shape and color imaginable, and they are, quite simply, pretty. I cannot wait for the day I have more space because that means more plants. :)

  12. Diana Clark says:

    Debra Lee Baldwin hits the nail right, smack on the head. Succulents have never been, and will never be, out. Tending my succulent garden, started when I was 10, was one of my greatest childhood pleasures. When I lived in northwest Germany for three years in my early 20s, my succulents — all grown indoors — kept me sane. Today, having retired once, I am happily running a new venture that sells … wait for it … succulents.

  13. Hurrah! Beautiful rebuttal and such fun to read as I am smack in the middle of “Succulent Container Gardens” – a book which should bear the label “Warning: Horticultural Pornography.” Talk about visually sumptuous.

    Beyond tired of the designation “in” or “out” in the landscape. I’m in the garden to get away from all that nonsense, not perpetuate it.

  14. Previous posters are right about succulents NOT being “out” and about planting what you love and what works in your garden. I think succulents are very much going to remain in our gardens, especially in water-stressed areas. What we will be seeing is more use of appropriate companion plants for a richer plant palette that doesn’t have only succulents. As gardeners become more adventurous in their use of succulents we’ll see them appearing in starring roles and not relegated to a succulent-only section or in pots. They’ll be planted below trees and in shady spots, at the edges of buildings where the stucco meets the soil line, in large swaths of a single type to make a strong statement, and combined with spring-blooming bulbs to replace annuals or low-growing perennials.

  15. I collect plants, all plants, but have been collecting succulents for almost 20 years. I still am not tired of looking at them, either as solo subjects or in ensembles or cut arrangements. They are architectural as well as textural, and are found in an array of beautiful colors that work well together.
    I’m with you Debra Lee Baldwin….how can anyone snub plants that are so beautiful, forgiving, and suited for landscapes with water restrictions. They are classics, immune to the whims of garden fashionistas.

  16. Nell says:

    Hi Debra – I concur! Succulents are low maintenance, practically propagate themselves & are fun to play with. My front garden is packed full of them in every size, shape & color. When my water bill arrives every month I just smile. They’re “in” my garden & staying there. I always look forward to finding one I don’t have. It was a pleasure meeting you at Waterwise Botancials in October by the way.

  17. Deborah B says:

    Love the toupee! (and the rest of your rant.)

  18. Ivette Soler says:

    GO DEBRA!!!!
    I will make certain my clients read your rant and see if it changes their minds – I hope you are right … as you know, I love a succulent (or three or five, or A HUNDRED)
    There is no doubt that succulents are currently popular, and have been for some time- you are awesome to point out exactly how popular they are – and are a very smart choice for gardens in our climate. BUT fashions exist, and we also have to examine the hints wafting in the air that tell us that there is a new big dog on the horizon. I think that big dog is natives, from all I’m hearing. Luckily, for many of us, that can include some succulents.

    It was that whiff in the air that I was exploring in my recent rant. This is a business built on design, and design is given to the whims of fashion. I was shocked to hear the things I’ve recently heard about succulents being Old Lady Plants! And my younger friends were also shocked! But there it is…
    in the air…

  19. Ivette Soler says:

    I have to giggle at how seriously people are taking the idea of what is “IN” and what is “OUT”
    Style remains, while fashion suffers from ups and downs and ins and outs. If succulents are your “STYLE” – well then, nobody has to worry! You are then a classic, like Jackie Kennedy! Or Agave attenuata, which I will NEVER GIVE UP!!!
    Funny, I wonder how many people actually READ my post … some seem to think I said that I believe that succulents are OUT. It was about a few conversations I’d had with younger clients and the thoughts that came after.
    I am VERY excited about all the hubub, however!
    It’s fantastic to be a conversation starter!
    And the fact that the QUEEN OF SUCCULENTS took time out of her busy schedule to write such an impassioned response was too exciting for words!
    I LOVE IT!!!!
    Keep it going, people – FIGHT for your RIGHT to SUCCULENTS!!!!!!

    • I’m stunned that you’re giggling. Garden Rant is the most widely read gardening blog. It’s one thing to be entertaining, and another to diss an entire industry. What gets posted on Garden Rant MATTERS (you have ME writing in CAPS now). I wrote my rebuttal because friends who are succulent growers, designers and nursery owners are important to me, and I didn’t want them hurt by misinformation. And yes, also because I wrote three books that I hope will continue to thrive. (And our mutual publisher, too.) While creating a hubub doubtless is delicious, please, Ivette, be aware of the power you wield.

  20. Debra, your comment on Yvette’s post and blog commentary -I am embarrassed for you. She did not in any way suggest that gardeners should not grow succulents. Your statement that she has dissed an entire industry is not only wrong headed, it suggests that you will not rest and will quote endless statistics until every gardener comes around to thinks how you do. Every gardener is free to choose plants and design as they see fit. Lots of gardeners left comments about their love for succulents. I see you did not choose to focus on that. I feel bad for you, that one light hearted article about garden plants as fashion makes you feel so threatened. The gardening community is a big community. Gardeners are a very intelligent and passionate lot. I believe they are more than able to decide on their own what they like. Comments like yours discourage healthy discussion-I regret that.

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