In simple terms, a succulent is a plant that can store water in specialised tissue for later use if water becomes scarce. reason to include them in your garden plan here on the Algarve.
For most people this immediately conjures up thoughts of a dry desert environment. While this is not untrue, it is not always the case. Succulent plants can be found in just about every environment on the planet, including cold regions, wet environs, and high altitudes. However, succulents are much more common in hot, arid regions.
What is true is that all cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti. Confused? Don’t worry, you are not alone. Generally speaking, cacti can be thought of as the spiny and spiky members of the much larger and fascinating succulent plant kingdom.
As with so many plants suitable for dry gardens in mediterranean climates, give your succulents a situation with good drainage. Plants that happily survive for months on little or no water can be extremely intolerant of a short period with wet feet. Any extended time in waterlogged soil, such as badly managed irrigation systems, or at the foot of slopes in classic sticky clay soils, will provide ideal conditions for disease and rotting.
It is worthwhile to take time to prepare the planting site for your succulents, a gently sloping site with gravel or grit incorporated into the top layer of soil is ideal. Fortunately, here we can make succulent gardens on slopes with practically any aspect, southern slopes for the real desert plants or kinder east/west aspects for those not so happy with the full blast of the summer sun. One great asset of many gardens in the Algarve is the number of rocks and boulders lying around – free building materials for your succulent beds. Larger rocks can be used to provide support for planting pockets, or mini terraces, along the contours of your slope. Gravel used as a top dressing or mulch prevents muddy splashing of delicate plants as well as providing drainage around stems and trunks. The added bonus is that rocks associate really well with this type of plant.
Be aware, however, that succulents can suffer from sunburn! Acclimatise new plants by giving them full sun for a short time each day and increase it over a couple weeks. Keep in mind that some species, such as gasterias, will never tolerate full sun but they do make good container plants for light shade.
There are definite advantages to having a dedicated succulent bed near to buildings as they can be very efficient fire barriers. Added to their drought tolerance, they are also an excellent choice for low maintenance ground cover.
Unfortunately, the agave plant family worldwide is being attacked by the Agave Snout Weevil (Scyphophorus acupunctatus) with reports since 2019 from all parts of the Algarve of damage to cherished collections and long-established gardens. There is not much to be done, but there are good alternative succulent families – such as euphorbias, graptopetalums, echeverias, crassulas, kalanchoes and aeoniums.
If you wish to find out more about your plants, there are resources available online with photo galleries which can be very helpful. Most of us acquire our first succulents as offshoots from our gardening friends, and these do not always come with a name. On the other hand, it does demonstrate how easy it can be to propagate succulents once you have them in your garden. Have fun experimenting with the different colours and textures.
The Algarve gives the opportunity to plant succulents and cacti outside and make a whole garden or a special area devoted to these plants. The dusty cacti or jade plant which sat on your windowsill for years takes on an amazing new aspect when planted out to grow into its true shrub or even tree-like potential.
The MGAP Autumn Mediterranean Garden fair will have many specialist succulent plant nurseries with a good selection available, for containers or garden planting. This year it will be held in Estoi on Saturday 29 and Sunday 30 October – www.mgaportugal.org for more info.
Words: Rosie Peddle