I love the look of succulents: their drama, their modernism. And maybe, just maybe, I covet them because I can’t really grow many of them all that successfully here, even though I’m in practically-balmy Zone 8. So I was really excited to receive a copy of Hardy Succulents: Tough Plants for Every Climate by Gwen Moore Kelaidis, with photography by Saxon Holt.
When I opened the cover, I was confronted by a gorgeous photo of an agave. And then a cactus. Confused, I flipped back to the cover, to make sure I had a book called Hardy Succulents. “Surely agave and cactus don’t count as hardy,” I thought. “I mean, they certainly wouldn’t survive the winter here.” Or would they?
This book certainly challenged my assumptions, describing truly cold-hardy succulents (with the majority being hardy to Zone 5, and even some to Zone 3) – including those covet-worthy agaves and cacti.
Problem is, it’s not just tolerance for lower temperatures that contributes to hardiness. While technically hardiness is defined as an ability to withstand the average annual minimum temperatures of the zone, cold-tolerance doesn’t paint the full picture, especially when it comes to succulents.
In her introductory notes, Kelaidis recognizes that (besides temperature) “other factors contribute to hardiness,” notably wet winters or soils, a need for winter freezing, or an aversion to very hot summers.
Wet winters, eh? Could that be the reason many of the plants in this book wouldn’t survive here in rainy Vancouver, despite being tolerant of our winter temperatures? As I read on, I began to believe so: “Succulence can be an adaptation to climates where rainfall is low, seasonal, or highly unpredictable…” Kelaidis writes. “All succulents suffer if they must sit in puddles of cold water, with their roots in water-logged soil…”
The book does offer general methods of coping with rain and other succulent-destroying weather systems. Kelaidis suggests, for example, that, “in climates with more than 35 inches of rainfall, especially where this rain comes in spring and autumn, succulents will often grow well in 6 to 12 inches of pure sand layered above normal soil.”
My one criticism of the book is that these kinds of important details about hardiness aren’t always conveniently listed in descriptions about specific species. I found I often had to flip back and forth to determine whether a plant listed would do well in my climate. And in the case of the coveted agave, I’m still confused. The section on agaves lists several gorgeous cultivars that are hardy to well below Zone 8, but doesn’t go into site preferences or moisture tolerance. Obviously, I’m assuming they don’t like wet feet, but maybe they need more heat or sun than I can provide, and this book ain’t telling.
That said, it does provide a lot of great information, inspiration and, well, hope. The photography is excellent and really doesn’t help with my case of agave envy. Above all, I learned that there are succulent options beyond basic hens-and-chicks, and you can be sure some of them will be making it into my garden this summer!