Succulents--Propagation & Care
I’d like to write to you a little about succulents, their care, planting, and propagation. More and more home owners are turning to succulents for low maintenance, water conserving gardens. Succulents come in beautiful colors, shapes and sizes. Leaf succulents are almost entirely composed of water storage cells covered by a thin layer of tissue (ex. Aloe). Stem succulents are fleshy stems and contain water storage cells overlaid by tissue, and leaves are almost entirely absent (ex. Haworthia). Succulents are easy to propagate . . . I enjoy propagating them for my container garden and to give to friends.
Propagation Basics: All that is needed for succulent propagation is a sharp, sterile garden knife or pruners, planting medium and pots. You can sterilize by diluting bleach with water—1 part bleach to 4 parts water is what I use. Sterilize your tool in this solution after every cut. Succulent cuttings should also be potted in either pure sharp sand, vermiculite, fine grit or a soil that drains well. Find a clean comfortable and easy to use work area.
Many varieties of succulents can be propagated from pieces of the stem. Using a sharp knife or pruners cut just below the stem joint, or where a leaf or bud joins the stem, making sure to leave the mother plant looking good. Remove any leaves from the bottom of the stem joint. You can pot the cutting immediately by dipping the cut end in rooting hormone/fungicide powder and planting in appropriate media, or you can allow the cutting to ‘cure’, a process in which cuttings are allowed it to dry for a few days so that the tissues seal and callus over at the wound. Leaves can also be cut off a mother plant and planted or allowed to cure. After removing the leaf, place it against the edge of the pot with the stem end touching the soil. They will soon begin to root and leaves will begin to form. The other way is to dip the base in root hormone and pot in soil, although I find that more leaves rot this way than root. You will have to research your particular plant to find out what propagation method can be used.
Many succulents also produce small plants (offsets) at the base of the mother plant. These offsets can usually be pulled or cut off the main plant, allowed to dry and potted up. I’ve had success not waiting for them to dry out by using root hormone. Try both ways to see which works better for you. After cuttings are potted, they should be kept in a well ventilated bright place and should be watered sparingly to avoid rotting.
Watering & Fertilization: While succulents are native to dry areas and usually grow in poor soils, they still need to be watered and fertilized. How often should you water? There is not one correct answer as it all depends on the climatic condition your plants are grown in. Most succulents are photosynthetically active, growing, about 1/3 of the year. A good watering once a week in hot weather and once a month in the dormant season is a good place to start as you learn your plant’s needs. You can also let the soil completely dry out and then water . . . if in doubt, don’t water. Overwatering is the biggest problem gardeners run into when beginning to grow succulents. Use a low nitrogen fertilizer at about ½ to ¼ the recommended rate or better yet an organic fertilizer. Succulents grown in containers require regular feeding. Soil in containers will eventually become leached of nutrients. Regular feedings in small amounts or even applying compost is a good way to keep your plants looking healthy. What is the best soil for your succulents after they are past the initial rooting? Most retail potting soil is too rich in organic matter for these plants. Most gardeners and growers mix their own soil using a 50/50 mix of potting soil with either pumice, washed sand, small pebbles and vermiculite. This mix allows for the soil to drain well and keep the plant from rotting.
There you have it, the basics of propagation and caring of succulents. Just remember its all about having fun and trying different methods until you find what works for you.
Ron Mosqueda, Laboratory Teaching Assistant, Environmental Horticulture Dept, SBCC
Our Fall Compost Pile
Last month our Landscape Maintenance class did some composting. For many it was their very first compost pile, others were veteran composters. Here's what we did, and what we learned along the way:
We set up the pile using a very generalized method with a bit of a twist . . . layered brown material (dried leaves, small woody branches, dried grasses, wood chips) and green material (any fresh leaves, stems, roots, vegetables, plant-based kitchen waste) with 2 parts brown to 1 part green. This translates to a C:N ration of around 25:1 (most organic matter in green material is carbon, so 2 parts brown to 1 part green ends up making the pile have 25 times as much carbon as nitrogen).
Layers (starting 3' x 3' square) were built from the ground up, in this order.
- 8 inches brown
- 4 inches green
- 1 inch compost or local soil
- soak those three layers til just drenched but little runoff
- Repeat 1-4 until 3 feet high
You can add a composter starter (purchased) but we've found that's not usually necessary. Your plant material and local soil or compost layer have enough microbes to kick-start populations of these critters in your compost pile.
Now the twist we used, was done after the pile was built . . . we mixed all layers like tossing a salad. The layers are just a way to keep track of how much brown, green, and soil you put in a pile, to make sure the ratios stay about right. But the layers themselves aren't necessary for actual composting to occur. A fully mixed pile actually will work a bit faster, since the microbes in the soil or compost you added are in closer proximity to organic (green and brown) material to munch on. This 'tosssing' and then turning every other day can actually make finished compost in as little as 2-3 weeks.
After we finished our compost pile we took its temperature . . . 110 degrees, that was already up 40 degrees from the air temperature which was 70 degrees. Everything looked good, right?
Next day we found it was up to 160 degrees and quickly went beyond that to 180 degrees. Ouch! That is way too hot for a compost pile, so hot that all the microbes will get fried and no composting will occur. You want about 130-140 ideally. So what went wrong? It appeared that we added to much green material. Too much nitrogen can overheat a pile quickly. So we added lots more brown material, retossed it, rewetted it and let it be for another day.
Two days later, still 160 . . . this was not a compost pile, but a bacteria incinerator! I almost felt guilty. So, we quickly added more brown and kept it wet to bring the temp down. Two days later no change.
Finally, I decided to check the accuracy of the thermometer (always good to check your instrumentation that you base decisions upon . . .duh) and found that it had been twisted and stuck with the needle in the max temperature position. I removed the composting thermometer, let it cool, then recalibrated it to the air temperature, then stuck it back in the pile. Aaaahhhhh . . . a nice 140 degrees.
The morals of this story are:
- Check your technology
- Add brown material to reduce temp
- Add green material to increase temp
- Check your pile daily at first
- Composting is as much an art as it is a science
8 September 2009 - First entry!
Welcome to the web log of the Environmental Horticulture (EH) Department at Santa Barbara City College. This is a new site, and my first posting of a blog ever. Even though I’m a novice at blogging, I hope to make this an informal, entertaining forum for telling you about current activities in our department, and how to creatively learn and grow as a plant-lover and plant-professional. Like any profession or hobby, the real learning comes when you get down to the nitty-gritty, wade through the slough of opinions, advice and facts and figure out, on your own, how to proceed.
Horticulture is no different . . . we are dealing with living things, folks, and there is much grey area regarding their care. Instead of being a blog outlining the exact steps for gardening or landscaping, I want to share our successes and mistakes and insodoing help you know how to approach and solve problems yourself. Plant care is complex and to some degree a mystery, and in that mystery lies the fun, inspiration and excitement of it, at least I think. If I knew everything about horticulture I’d be bored stiff, or at least highly inflexible. And the good new is, that we are dealing with plants (not people or animal care) so if you make a big mistake, its ok, you can start over, buy new plants and compost the ones that didn’t make it.
So, read on for an idea of what the blog will be like, with different topics each time. And remember to check out the EH website that outlines our many courses in sustainable landscaping and horticulture, and our degree options. There are some good things happening around our department and new sustainable landscape displays in our gardens. I hope you can learn from them and get hooked on plants, like all of us!
Let’s delve right in. I started this job two years ago, and the most frequent question I get is this: How do you get rid of gophers? Like I said, there are a cornucopia of methods, approaches, philosophies and rates of success regarding gopher control (although if I really only wanted to ‘control’ gophers, I’d tell them to clean up their tunnels, brush their grimy, green little teeth, and try to make them feel guilty for killing plants). We’re really talking gopher eradication. Here are some of our experiences in gopher eradication in our on-campus garden, the Lifescape Garden.
One of my students brought in a contraption that consisted of a flexible black rubber tube, about 2” in diameter that tapered down to a garden hose-size tube with a male-end that could attach to a garden hose. He explained that you put the large end over the tail-pipe of your car, attach the garden hose to the other end and stick the garden hose into the gopher tunnel. Then turn on the ignition . . . and let the carbon monoxide do its number on the gophers. Did we try this at home, or on-campus . . . no. He swore it was effective but it’s pretty toxic for the soil organisms, not to mention decreasing my chances for any kind of carbon neutral day. And then there’s always filling tunnels with propane gas and igniting it to cause small explosions that annihilate all life in the tunnels. Sounds kind of fun in a twisted, Caddy-Shack sort of way, but too intrusive for our campus garden and our eco-sensibilities, and definitely inappropriate for most residential yards (A local retreat center uses this method and has had the sheriff come by, thinking that guns were being fired!).
We have focused on non-toxic methods by setting traps. The McAbee trap, the classic gopher trap that’s been around for a long time, works well. Yet, you have to know the tricks to really have this method be effective in gopher eradication. For example, baiting the trap with something like fennel, or mallow, using gloves so your human scent isn’t on the trap or in the tunnel, and setting them in one of the main tunnels, not the side tunnels. When we’ve done all these things, about 1 out of every 4 traps catches (kills) a gopher. We also have experimented with chewed and un-chewed juicy fruit gum with little success. The idea is that the gophers ingest the gum and then choke.
Our best successes are coming from a new type of trap called the ‘Gophinator’ that is similar in operation to the McAbee but works about 2-3x as well (available locally at All Around Landscape Supply). They are faster, stronger and also more humane because they kill the gopher much more efficiently. The McAbee tends to leave a good portion of the gophers just injured, and struggling for a long time. No fun for them or us when we have to do the dirty deed of finishing off what the trap should have done.
Of course we also use chicken wire cages around really special plants and planters, and this works fairly well too. Although a friend just told me that his gophers went above ground to get inside the cages and eat away the plant roots . . . so nothing’s fool-proof.
A good female, hunting cat might be worth your time too!
Good luck and if you’ve any questions on anything related to plants or anecdotal stories to share regarding gopher control, send them on to me (
). Until next time . . . Mike