Review: Hardy Succulents


by SusanHardysucculentscover400_3
Just when we need them the most, gardenwriters and publishers are hard at work showing us the plants we’ll
be relying on increasingly in the age of global weirding known as climate change.  You know, with not just longer droughts but rain, when it comes at all, being dumped on us in worsening downpours. Gardening is getting trickier and we need help!

So along come writer Gwen Kelaidis to educate us and photographer Saxon Holt to inspire us with droolable photos of Hardy Succulents, which will help spread these super-drought-tolerant plants to zones that experience freezing winters.  Kelaidis has grown these babies in New York, Wisconsin and Colorado, so I believe her when she says they’ll survive the half-hearted winters of Maryland.

Sedums are the soil-and-exposure-tolerant species that’s already become commonplace, at least the taller ‘Autumn Joy’ and its cousins ‘Matrona’ and ‘Neon’.  Yep, got ’em, and recommend them all the time as among the most sustainable perennials in the world for almost any situation.  I even have a big ole’ collection in pots on my deck, and they take total neglect quite happily.  But here’s what I just learned from Kelaidis – there are sedums that prefer shade.  Gotta check into that.Hardysuccpg53450

This book also explained for me why I don’t often see see ice plants grown here in the Mid-Atlantic – they balk at clay and need a rock garden-type medium to grow in, like sand and gravel.  And I found this interesting – that although they come from tropical South Africa, ice plants have retained their residual hardiness from back in the era before the continents drifted apart, when Africa was farther north.  See, I didn’t even know that South Africa is tropical, and continent-shifting always gets my attention.

True desert plants look ridiculous here in the East  – to my eyes.  Same goes for yuccas, which are grown around here.  But hey, to each their own and if you like them, you’ll have Kelaidis to thank for expanding your options.

I LOVE this gorgeous, inspiring, info-packed book for
gardening in the Age of Climate Change and highly recommend it.  The
practical advice even includes which plants are affordable in which
situations and design ideas that take cost into consideration (thank
you!).  It’s clear that the author actually grows these plants herself,
including 200+ varieties of what she lovingly calls "semps". (The nickname alone makes me want some Sempervivums.)

About the photographs, we’ve praised Saxon Holt before and this new collection will only enhance his reputation as an outstanding garden photographer.  He e-mailed to say they were taken at "Ed Snodgrass’s green roofs in Maryland, Stonecrop in New
York, Peckerwood in Texas, and at Tony Avent’s Plant Delights, among many other private gardens." 

Now comes the part where the review lives up to the blog name.

  • Kelaidis says that succulent ground covers do well on steep slopes, but how does that square with the warning in Covering Ground (also published by Storey and reviewed here) that creeping sedums don’t have long enough roots to prevent erosion on hillsides?  I care because I’m trying to replace lawn with creeping sedum on a hillside myself.
  • On the subject of staking sedums, why not just follow the sound advice of Tracy DiSabato-Aust and hack ’em back?  Kelaidis does suggest buying nondrooping varieties instead, which is also a good idea.
  • Language.  Are hens and chicks really "beguiling"?  And do sedums "enchant the eye"?  Maybe so.  And the language I prefer – describing my favorites as "awesome" or "cool" – admittedly isn’t exactly literary and may explain why I’m writing online and not in glossy books. (Ironically, the author does use the bizarre word "coolth".)
  • The dog-lover in me wanted to insert this important point about agaves – they’re dangerous!  Seriously, dogs have been known to lose an eye to those spikes, and they can certainly hurt toddlers, too.  Cats I don’t worry about; they’re much too smart to crash into spiky-looking plants at full speed.

The important point is that some succulents are hardy as far north as Zone 3, for crissakes, so with increasing pressures on our dwindling water supplies, now’s the time to give them a try.  I bet the Washington Post’s Adrian Higgins would agree, because this week he wrote this piece about the effects of last year’s drought on our plants.  It’s part of a twofer, with his companion piece "A Word to the Water-Wise: Start Tilling" explaining how to prepare our "soil" for these super-drought-tolerant plants, listing local demonstration gardens, and more.  Time to get ready for the Great Drought of 2008.

Photos (c) Saxon Holt, from
Hardy Succulents by Gwen Moore Kelaidis.


  1. I presume you don’t know that Yucca filamentosa and Opuntia humifusa (eastern prickly-pear cactus) are native to Maryland.

  2. Oh, I do know that some yuccas are native here, but I still wouldn’t put one in my garden. And about prickly pear cactus, ever seen one in winter?

  3. “The Great Drought of 2008”? I can barely stand the thought after Texas finally pulled out of its long drought last year. But I fear you’re right, Susan.

    Thanks for the review of the book. Saxon’s pics look gorgeous as always. And I do love yuccas, agaves, and other prickly plants, and they fit the Texas vernacular just fine, so I’m sure I’d find some good info there.

  4. Yes, I’ve seen prickly-pears in winter. In my garden. Not a pretty sight I admit, but lots of other garden plants can look pretty sad in winter too: mountain laurel, evergreen viburnums and rhododendrons, for example. I’ll grant you this. Prickly-pears would not look right next to any of those, winter or summer.

  5. Some things shouldn’t have to be pointed out to Garden Ranters, but I guess I will anyway. To eliminate the danger from your agaves, simply clip off the spine tips. They’re beautiful plants that deserve a spot in any succulent garden.

  6. I love sedums! Not only are they are good bed partners that are easy to grow, but they are a cinch to propagate; perfect for someone who is propagation-challenged (that would be me).

    Sedums may do well on a steep slope but, as you pointed out, they are not good at erosion control. Their roots are too shallow. Even if their roots went deeper, monocultures aren’t the solution to erosion control on steep slopes. You need to plant a combination of plants because then you’ll have a combination of root systems and root depths working in your favor. Maybe island beds dotted about in the “lawn” is a solution to try. It would certainly be visually interesting.

  7. Loved the review. Being in the UK I do find the US books hard as I’m not used to the zones. I would say that I grow sedums in the W. Midlands (middle of UK)on clay soil and they grow great. I also grow them under trees and the only problem is that they can be abit leggy but I follow Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s advice and lop them back and it works fine.

    Last year they told us we were going to have a drought and so I dutifully bought succulents for my hanging baskets etc. What did we get rain and rain and rain……

  8. —- Are hens and chicks really “beguiling”? And do sedums “enchant the eye”?—–
    THANK YOU!!! I always want to gag when I read things like that. So glad I’m not alone.

  9. Many, many, succulents are hardy to zone 3. Sempervivems,jovibarbas, certain yuccas,many cactus species, etc..
    As well the southwest thing has happened with ‘snowbirds’ and their northern homes contain many pots wit Echiverias, agaves, and cactii that remind them of the wintering grounds they migrate to.
    Don’t back into them. Youdon’t need the pointers.

  10. I still haven’t seen this book but I am looking forward to it and appreciate the beguiling review. South Africa isn’t tropical.

  11. To your challenge about succulents making good ground covers on slopes, of course not all succulent ground covers are sedums. Semps will spread and can stabilize the soil nicely as will several species of ice plant (Delosperma — not Carpobrotus which has such a bad reputation as an invasive in California).

    I met Kelaidis at a garden center in the Denver area in May 2009. She’s a real professional!

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