Anyone searching through Instagram, endlessly clicking through home and garden themed Pinterest boards or casually strolling through the local nursery can see how succulents have grown in popularity in the last few years. The colorfully matte palettes compliment particular aesthetics, but there's an additional element to succulents that elevate their intrigue. Succulent guru Robin Stockwell recognized this when he first began his foray into working with the plants back in 1972, making him and his book Succulents: The Ultimate Guide to Choosing, Designing, and Growing 200 Easy-Care Plants the shills of the succulent movement.
Stockwell’s reference to succulents as “easy-care” most definitely isn’t an understatement, as he claims their painless keeping and versatility make them such a popular choice for young adults and green gardeners. It’s also how he himself became engulfed in their beauty all those years ago.
“As I worked with them, I became more aware of their low maintenance, but not no maintenance, characteristics,” says Stockwell, a California surfer whose free time fluctuated around the waves. Since Stockwell understands having an inconsistent schedule, he recommends succulents as ideal plants for people with busier lifestyles.
“For me, growing succulents gave me that flexibility of if I’m going to be surfing for a while I can skip a couple waterings and they’re going to be fine,” says Stockwell. “I think that really translates to a student who doesn’t have a whole lot of time, since they tend to be pretty active people on all fronts and their time is limited.”
While succulents in general are versatile and simpler than the average plant, it may seem difficult to know where to start with their over 200 varieties. Adding on to the fact that Oregon’s climate is entirely different than that of Stockwell’s California locale, Pacific Northwest residents have a whole other set of issues to tackle.
The near year-round rainfall of this climate increases the chances for succulent drowning, meaning a heightened attention needs to be given to a runoff system.
“A typical potting mix is designed to hold moisture longer for the plants that tend to have thin leaves that dry out fast,” says Stockwell. “When you’re growing outdoors in Oregon, the key is drainage, flush and aeration. Your plants are more subject to drowning so you need to amend the potting mix or use a cactus mix that’s designed to provide that aeration and drainage.”
Even when rain isn’t pouring, oftentimes clouds block the sun from providing much needed light to foliage. Plants go through a process called etiolation, where they bend and stretch towards light to absorb as much as possible. When this happens with succulents, according to Stockwell, they grow into a whimsical form that is pretty in its own way but causes a misshapen lower stem area that won’t bounce back even after receiving the proper amount of sun exposure.
Stockwell suggests selecting the varieties for your particular outdoor environment to get most life out of them.
“If you’re in Portland it’s a different ballgame than if you’re in Salem because of the amount of sun, but at the same time you’re still dealing with freezing colds in the winter and a fair amount of rain,” says Stockwell. “People who grow succulents in Salem have a little more leeway in terms of how they grow their plants than in Portland or on the coast.”
There’s a succulent to fit almost any climate type or environment, given the varieties that can be grown are dependent on the level of sun exposure available. For low light settings like dorm rooms and small apartments, Stockwell recommends haworthias, miniature aloes and hanging succulents like string of pearls and string of hearts. If there’s access to a sunny windowsill inside the space, he says echeverias, crassulas, euphorbias and kalanchoes thrive well.
Deciduous sedums hold their own in the outdoor climate of the Pacific Northwest and can be planted alongside other plant materials as long as they’re not shaded by larger plants like yuccas and agaves, which tend to be bigger and more sculptural. Sempervivums are low growing and ground covering, making them ideal for outside conditions as well.
For beginning gardeners wanting to work with succulents, Stockwell suggests perusing nurseries in April or May when the best selection is available. One of the easiest ways for beginners to display them at home is with a succulent bouquet. Like a bouquet of roses or other flowers, the succulents can be placed according to the gardener’s liking.
“You don’t really need to think too much about what you’re trying to do, just pick some and they’ll go together,” says Stockwell. “Just know that they’re very forgiving, and don’t feel intimidated by them.”
He also recommends gaining more ideas from online boards like Pinterest and the National Gardening Association’s website forums, or looking at the sites of other garden designers like Seattleite Stacie Crooks for inspiration.
“One thing I noticed in the northwest is that there is a traditional way to garden. If you drive around Portland, Salem, Corvallis or even Seattle, there’s a lot of plant material we don’t get to use here in California,” says Stockwell, advising northwest gardeners make use of the materials around them.
For a fun DIY challenge for serious and experienced gardeners working outdoors or with container gardens in the region, he proposes throwing delosperma, sedums and sempervivums to the mix and experimenting with them.
“Incorporate these plants in gardens - see what they do, watch what they do, see what works and what doesn’t work,” says Stockwell. “People will find that there are some pretty amazing plants that will look beautiful in gardens throughout the northwest.”
“I try to teach people that these things aren’t from outer space. They’re just plants. If you work with plants, you already know a lot about plants, no matter what kind of plant that it is. Apply all that information to these and you’ll be surprised with how much they give back.”