Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts

Starter Gardens

Succulent plants are ideal for first-time gardeners and suited to growing outdoors in mild, low-rainfall, frost-free climates, or in cold, damp regions, in conservatories or just a sunny window.

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A succulent and cacti garden in Los Angeles is a private wonderland filled with found art and sculptural plants. Photo Frank Page

Succulents are those fleshy-leaved plants that thrive in well-drained soil in hot, dry, steppe to desert-like climates. They are not frost-hardy, like plenty of sun, and come in a colorful array of shapes and sizes. Some look like little green beads dangling long threads, others have spiky leaves covered in lumps and bumps.

Give them sharply drained soil, water sparingly only when dry –- because of the “juiciness” of their foliage and or root stems, think of them as the camels of the plantworld, some will even survive with only a light misting of water – and as they’re shallow rooting, don’t require deep pots. So, grow them in an old garden boot, a teacup, or as many are doing now, landscape a fairy garden. World of Succulents is a website filled with good info: start here for info on soil mixes.

One of my tasks as a casual worker at a local nursery was to plant up these miniature garden worlds using the intriguing array of succulents from the nursery’s benches, and the tiny metal and pottery furnishings sold in the shop. Unpacking the latest shipment of these decorative goods was unnerving: gazeboes, bridges, Buddhas, Japanese lanterns, patio umbrellas, wheelbarrows (complete with teeny-tiny garden tools) benches of all sorts, and fingernail-size six-packs of CocaCola. Who knew fairies like soda pop? You name, they make it.

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Fairy gardenesque at a south California café, where succulents are the decorative theme. Photo Anna Rowland

I’ve never gardened with tweezers before and always despised plates of food that have been “artfully” arranged with them. Too precious by half…but I digress. It was a learning curve, however, given the good nature of the plants – they’re pretty forgiving of clunky manipulating – I managed to pull off some not terrible tiny gardens constructed in a variety of containers, including a piece of driftwood, a rock pocked with shallow divots, and a couple of broken pots.

It brought to mind the fairy gardens I had seen in Sussex in rural southeast England. At the end of the gardening year it was an old custom to construct a tiny shed from twigs and to line it with moss and small plants. A flat pebble for a table and some soft fern fronds for bedding was the décor needed to make the fairyfolk comfortable, the idea being that they would overwinter here and in the spring bring your garden to life and ensure the gardener and her family a year of health and prosperity. But only if, on the first day of spring, you knocked the little cabin down and spread it around the garden.

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A Sussex fairy house, tucked into a quiet garden corner. Photo Ethne Clarke

So, gather up a broken pot, some sandy compost (cacti blends are ideal) and go succulent shopping. Such is the craze for these plants, not just for fairytale planting, but general garden use, that even the big box stores are selling a diverse range in their garden departments. Online, too, there’s lots to choose from. Who knows? Succulents could take over your garden, indoors or out – and entice a colony of fairies and good fortune to take up residence as well.


© Ethne Clarke, 2017