Succulents are a type of plant that has become increasingly popular in recent years. There is a huge variety of interesting succulent plants on the market and many people now choose to grow them in their homes or in their gardens. A polytunnel can make it easier to grow a wide range of succulents in our climate here in the UK. So why not give it a go?
What is a Succulent?
Succulent plants are plants that have thickened or fleshy parts that allow them to retain water in arid climates or soil conditions. The word ‘succulent’ comes from the Latin term ‘sucus’, which means juice, or sap.
Are Cacti and Bromeliads Succulents?
Succulents are often confused with cacti. But while most cacti are also succulents – not all succulents are cacti.
Succulents may also include groups such as bromeliads, though some horticulturists choose to distinguish these,and cacti, as different categories. Often, the lines are blurred and the lines between what is, and is not considered a succulent are often blurred.
Whichever plants are included within the definition, resistance to low levels of water is key. This means that a wide range of succulent plants are excellent low-maintenance options for home gardeners. Most last a long time with minimal input in arid environments, and some are able to last up to two years without water depending on their surroundings and adaptations. Giving too much water is usually more of a problem than not giving enough when taking care of succulent plants in your polytunnel garden.
Why Grow Succulents?
Succulents are interesting and varied plants that can be ideal for low-maintenance gardens. They can also help to add diversity and visual interest to a polytunnel garden, and provide you with talking points for visitors, friends and family.
Succulents could be a great way to experiment with something very different in your polytunnel garden, and help you create a low-water garden perfect for water conservation.
What is more, there are also succulents that can provide a useful yield. For example, agava can provide agave syrup, a natural sweetener like honey that can be used as an alternative to processed sugar. Aloe vera is another example of a useful succulent. It can be used in a wide range of home-made beauty products and cleansers. Those are just two examples of succulents that could also be considered as polytunnel crops.
Choosing Succulents for a Polytunnel
Many of the succulents that are often grown as house plants will also be able to thrive in a polytunnel garden. But which succulents you are able to grow in your polytunnel will depend on the conditions that you are able to maintain there. Some succulents will require higher temperatures than others, or be fussier with regard to their growing conditions. Choosing the right succulents for the conditions that you can provide is key to success in this arena.
It is important to remember that succulents are not native to the UK. They are usually native to the Americas, Africa, Asia or Australia. Most are tender. Though there are succulents native to every continent excluding Antarctica, it is important, when choosing succulents, to understand the wide range of conditions in which they grow, and to research the native conditions of the plants you are considering to make sure that you can create an environment as suited as possible to their specific needs.
Examples of Succulents You Could Consider
There are so many succulent plants to choose from that it would be impossible to provide a complete list of options that could be grown in the UK. However, some popular options include:
- Agave americana
Of course there are also a wide range of cacti that you could also consider growing in your polytunnel. There are also a range of bromeliads that are sometimes also included within the succulents plant category. Each of the succulents mentioned above come in a range of different varieties, and it is important to make sure that you understand the needs and ideal conditions for the one or ones which you are considering.
Caring for Succulents
Since succulents have such a wide range of native habitats, they require a wide range of different conditions and care regimes. Broadly speaking,however, succulents will be relatively slow growing, and so many are suitable for growing in pots or containers. Most will require plenty of sunlight and reasonably warm growing conditions.
Growing Medium for Succulents
The potting medium required for most succulents is a free-draining mix with plenty of grit mixed in. This will prevent waterlogging, which is the cause of most problems in keeping succulents, and the downfall for many succulent novices.
If you are keeping tender varieties in your polytunnel year round, some heating may be required during the winter months for many species. The alternative could be to grow them in the polytunnel during the summer, but more them indoors when frost threatens.
Watering should be undertaken freely from April to around September, but it is important to make sure that the water can easily drain away and that the growing medium is free-draining. From September, it is usually a good idea to reduce watering, or stop watering almost entirely, to encourage a period of rest. However, some winter-flowering types will require regular watering during this time, followed by a rest period in summer.
Succulents will generally require good ventilation during the summer months. Established plants should generally be fed once a month during the growing season with a specialist organic plant feed.
Succulents are usually propagated by means of either cuttings or offsets. Many different succulents can be propagated by means of either leaf or stem cuttings. Which will be suitable will depend on the variety or varieties which you are growing. To take a suitable cutting, use a clean, sharp knife to cut off a few leaves that are fleshy with a bit of the stem still attached. Avoid taking too many pieces from one parent plant.
Some succulents are even easier to propagate. Rosette forming succulents such as aloe, echeveria and zebra plants can be grown from these small offsets that form naturally close to the parent plant. Use your fingers or a clean, sharp knife if required to cut these rosettes from the parent plant.
Wait For A Callus To Form
Once you have harvested your cuttings or offsets, you should leave these alone, in a dry location such as a sunny windowsill for around a week to allow a callus to form. A callus is basically a scab or hardened piece of plant tissue. It protects the cut section from disease or rot. Be careful not to allow the cuttings or offsets to get wet before the callus has formed.
Place on A Suitable Growing Medium and Allow Roots To Form
Once the callus has formed on your cuttings or offsets, you can place the pieces of plant on top of a potting mix that is specifically designed for succulents. Water them lightly about once a week and wait for small roots to form.
Pot Up the Pieces
After a while, cuttings will form new leaves at the stem end of the leaf, and the original leaf from the parent plant will begin to wither and once it has shrivelled, can be removed. As soon as this has occurred, or your cutting or rosette has formed small roots, you can pot up each of the new plants in a small pot filled with the same suitable growing medium. Place the pots in an area that receives indirect but bright light for at least six hours each day. Water consistently but lightly once a week.
Move Succulents To Their Final Growing Positions
After being left to settle into their pots for a few weeks, the new succulents should be well-rooted and can be moved to their final growing positions in containers, indoors or on a patio, or in your polytunnel or garden beds (depending on variety).
There is a lot to learn about growing these plants, but once you learn the basics, it is relatively easy for even the least green-fingered to do. Do you grow succulents in your polytunnel? Feel free to share any of your tips or suggestions in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.