It’s ironic that succulents should look so much like coral. Far from living underwater in the cool and wet, these plants are at home in the hot and dry, places where for much of the year water is a memory. Crassula are from the eastern cape of South Africa; cotyledons from the drier parts of the African continent; kalanchoe are mostly from Madagascar; and the echeverias hail from the semi-desert regions of central America. But pile them all together and the sense of a coral reef is unmistakable, as was cleverly exploited by Phil Withers in his garden at Australian Garden Show in Sydney last year, a feature that won him the People’s Choice Award. Here it is:
Given the reef illusion, entering the shade houses at the Succulent Garden nursery, in Glenorie in Sydney’s north-west, is a visual leap into the ocean. There are silver rosettes sprouting improbably violet flowers, clumps of blue-green paddles edged in carmine, plants with twisted forms and scalloped edges, all in mad colours from lime to deep purple via blue and grey. All that is missing are the clown fish.
Surveying the scene is Grace Calvi, who, with her daughter-in-law Sue Hunt, has been growing and selling succulents for 14 years. Grace is responsible for the propagating and growing, Sue for the online sales and the procurement of new oddities for a collection that now numbers close on a thousand.
Here’s Grace at work under the camphor laurels, potting up clumps of plants into old ricotta seives for clients who want to populate a large container instantly.
Grace grows tricky and rare plants, as well the many succulents that are easy to propagate. Her preferred propagation method is to use leaves from an established plant. The leaf simply has to be laid on free-draining potting mix and covered at its stem-end with the merest scattering of mix. The leaf will root and the roots will send up new plants, which can then be removed from the old leaf and potted up. The secret, explains Grace, is that the mix should be dry and the leaf should stay dry until the new plants have formed. Watering too early will cause the leaf to rot.
Plants can also be propagated from stem cuttings taken to reduce the overall size of the plant, to keep it tidy, or to harvest the incredible heads for floral arrangements (heads stuck into soaked florist oasis will last for ages.) Plants will also reproduce with no intervention from the gardener, creating pups that gradually build the size of the clump. The ease of propagation makes succulents great for sharing with friends, for landscaping in the garden, and for mixing in containers as varied as ceramic pots, woven baskets or carved-out slabs of wood as I wrote about last week. Once you have them in a pot, or in the garden, don’t forget to water occasionally. While water-averse at birth, and highly resistant to drought and neglect, succulents do grow best when watered during their growing season. Take care though, they might look like underwater treasures, but they are easily drowned.
Grace and Sue open the gates of The Succulent Garden nursery on the fourth weekend of each month. Next open day is next weekend [Jan 31-Feb 1]. Bring a box and cash. Prices range from $5-$35. 20 Pinus Ave, Glenorie. www.thesucculentgarden.com.au. To visit at other times call Grace on 02 9652 1693. And when you’re there take a close look at this agave with a mad violet trim. Unfortunately it’s not for sale. Grace has had it for years, patiently waiting for it to produce some pups, but so far not a sausage. She doesn’t know what it is, does anyone out there?