Succulent plants — things like agaves, aloes and sempervivums, known as “semps” — are glamorous and unfussy, with a distinctly 21st-century plus: They can survive periods of drought by storing water and nutrients in their fleshy leaves and stems.
That quality alone makes them a darling on the rain-starved West Coast and increasingly popular with environmentally thoughtful gardeners elsewhere. But succulents, especially the perennial “semps,” are prized for another reason: They’re cool!
Designers may experiment with violets, orchids, ivy, heucheras, even cherry tomatoes, but “semps” are the favorite component in “living wreaths,” a refreshing riff on the traditional silk, plastic or dried floral wreath.
Small succulents are embedded inside a wreath frame covered in lightweight sphagnum moss. Once they root and begin to thrive, a process that can take two months or more, the wreath can safely be hung outside on a patio or serve as an elegant centerpiece — ringing a candle, maybe — on a dining room table or outdoor deck.
Debra Lee Baldwin, author of three books on designing with succulents, considers these diminutive beauties indispensable in her half-acre, water-wise garden in Escondido, Calif., whether they wind up in a topiary, bouquet or living wreath.
Especially a living wreath.
“It’s so appealing because it is alive, and it has a sense of change about it, slow change over time,” she says.
It also appeals to fans of all things miniature and “bringing the garden indoors or decorating outdoor living spaces, especially if people have small gardens and need to go vertical,” says Baldwin, whose latest book is called “Succulents Simplified: Growing, Designing, and Crafting with 100 Easy-Care Varieties” (Timber Press, $24.95).
At a recent succulent-wreath workshop, gardener Betty Calloway seemed mesmerized by the tiny plants.
“Look at that! It’s so beautiful,” the retired hospital technician said.
Aesthetically, it’s hard to miss with “semps,” also known as hens and chicks. They come in dreamy shades of green, blue, red and pink, yellow and silver, with curious features, such as chubby leaves with shark-tooth edges and dizzy rosettes with a fuzzy feel.
East Coast gardeners aren’t used to their look or feel, which may explain why Calloway and 20 other workshop participants seemed so intrigued.
What to make of these strange-looking plants? And what to make with them?
Linda Geiger, a retired second-grade teacher, surprised herself with her wreath. “I have no talent for design, and I really thought it was going to be kind of amateurish,” she said. “Instead, it’s amazing.”
Each student was given 14 plants — 12 tiny “semps” and two sedums, another type of succulent. The project also required a 14-inch mossy frame, plastic knives to make holes in the moss, and toothpicks to secure the plants inside the holes.
Horticulturist Cynthia Wright guided the group through the process, which sounds — and she insists it is — simple.
Soak the mossy frame in water until saturated. Pour off excess. Insert larger “anchor plants” into moss and fill in with smaller ones. Eventually, the “semps” will spread and the wreath will be full.
“Do it however you like. There is no wrong way here,” Wright said, although most folks plant symmetrically, or in groupings.
Lay the finished wreath on the ground in full sun until plants are growing well.
When the wreath is ready to use, place it flat on an outdoor table or hang it on a garden gate, wall, trellis, or other vertical surface. Wright sometimes puts hers on top of tree stumps. Do not hang on a door that sees a lot of traffic, and if you use your wreath as an indoor centerpiece for a dinner party, put it outside again the next day.
It’s not meant to live inside, and it won’t do well hanging on an indoor wall. Too heavy and, with watering, too messy.
Outside, the “semps” will bloom, send out babies — technically, “offsets” — and then die. Cut the babies off and plant them in new holes. They’ll continue the cycle, provided the wreath gets at least six hours a day of full sun and is kept moist. (You can water with hose or sprinkler, but rain is best.)
The sedums, added to the mix for their different textures, will need to be replaced every year, but the “semps,” with care, could last four years or so. Wright leaves her wreaths outside in winter, sheltered under a shrub or tree.
Workshop attendee Megan Taylor, who fell in love with succulents at a flower show, plans to put her new wreath on the banister of her front porch. “I’m a new gardener,” she said, “and this year, I’m all about that.”
Megan McEroy, a stay-at-home mom, will hang hers on a new privacy fence. Chris Yura’s wreath will probably live on a tabletop on her deck, but she might change her mind.
“I’m winging it,” she said.