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!
I’ll have to keep an eye out for this book. Thanks for the great review! Last spring I bough a mixed six pack of succulents that weren’t labelled. I’ve since found out that most of them were meant for a much warmer zone than 3b/4a. The amazing thing is that they all survived our very cold winter and have even spread. I’m guessing I have a microclimate on my large rock wall, and perhaps the very deep snow protected them from the temperature extremes
Thanks for this review. I’m just crazy about succulents and have found many varieties that are quite hardy here in our long, wet, zone 6 winters.
Teacher A says
I love succulents. They’re one of the few non-edible things that I like to grow. It’s good to know that I won’t have to go totally without when I move from sunny San Diego up to Washington.
I have zone envy. My zone 3″ish”( I can get to a 5, if I try hard) with minimal rain does not support my love of English garden flora. I am trying hard to like plants more tolerant of my dry, sandy soil-maybe I can learn to love the succulent. The grass is always greener…sigh.
Try browsing this catalog for your hardier agaves – they have loads of information, and I suspect they would be available for questions as well…
High Country Gardens
Good luck with your search!
Hey, Mamma! How’s the girl?
I’m sure you’ve already done this, but have you checked out the agave section at Plant Delights? He has several hardy agaves listed, and they are some of my favorites.
When I was in the French Alps a couple of years ago, I saw agaves thriving in freezing weather. All of them were growing in what seemed to be very dry, gravely soil – some were in troughs filled with pebbles and all were in full sun.
I think compensation is the key. If you live in a cold, dry climate – sun is the answer. If you live in a cold, wet climate – extra sharp soil (maybe in raised beds, berms, or pots) could mean success. Shady, wet, and cold? Hmmmm….
I encourage you in your agave lust! I’m going to buy this book right away…
Thanks for the warning–I mean review. I SO cannot get this book. I already have a huge problem with succulents, which is only mitigated by my limited sunny window space! lol.
Btw, I just reread your mushroom post and realized that you also pushed a car around the day before you gave birth. You were a very fit pregnant woman, but… I am just giggling at the thought of someone seeing a pregnant woman pushing a car, and having to do a double take. :)
Hello, Andrea. I owe you so many comments because each of your posts have given me something: e.g., information, inspiration, new ideas to try, a few minutes of pleasure and virtual gardening during the workday. So a blanket “thank you” to cover everything.
But in particular, thanks for this very helpful book review. I’m slowing adding succulents to my south-facing balcony garden. I too live in Vancouver so need to make adjustments for all the rainfall.
You probably noticed how good the cover of the book looks with your website design. Very pretty.
And congratulations (belated) on the little sprout that you’ve welcomed into your and your partner’s lives.
I promise to write my comments more regularly instead of just keeping them in my head.
Andrea Bellamy says
Amy – fascinating. Who would have thunk it? That’s what I think I learned most from this book, too – that microclimates can make all the difference.
Melanie – I’m curious as to which are your favourites for zone 6. Perhaps a post is in order!
TeacherA – you’re moving to Washington? We’ll be neighbours!
Paula – so true. I know Germi, for example, would tell me she wishes she could grow Japanese maples like I can up here in the rain. And I’m jealous of her agaves!
Jenn – thanks for the link – looks like a great resource.
Germi – speak of the devil ;) I think you’re right – compensation is key. And in my case, that means sharp, gravelly soil. I’ll give it a try!
Kim – re: pushing the car – I know, my husband was mortified. Not because I might go into labour, but because “what would people think?”!
Elaine – thank you so much! Please do leave more lovely comments :) Glad to “meet” a fellow Vancouver gardener. I’m going to go check out your blog right now.
Ah, my weakness, which is probably why I grow so many sempervivums and haul the succulent/cactus collection outdoors every spring.
I hope you are having a great time with Lila – and that she is letting you get enough sleep!!
melissa ureksoy says
First of all your daughter is absolutely beautiful! Congratulations. Secondly thanks for the info on botaniwipes. I’m always looking for healthy organic ways to keep my plants happy and healthy.