Playful Containers

Make your own eye-catching “pizzas” with colorful echeverias

by THOMAS HOBBS photography by DAVID MCDONALD

Echeverias are tender, rosette-forming succulents native from Mexico south to Argentina. Compact and easy to grow, they come in a rainbow of leaf colors, from subtle blues and grays to shocking reds and near black. It’s all too easy to become addicted to them. A few years ago my partner, Brent Beattie, came up with a novel way to accommodate our ever-increasing collection. By cramming them into shallow containers in mixed groupings, we create individual landscapes we call “pizzas.” We deliberately mix as many colors and foliage types as possible in the same container, thus throwing the usual rules of garden design out the window—and yet the result has been a huge success, at least to our eyes.

1. SELECT A CONTAINER. To create your pizza, find a low, wide, round container, It could be a big terra-cotta saucer or even a ceramic item not originally intended to be used as a flowerpot. For this pizza, I’ve chosen a glazed, scallop-edged fruit bowl. Whatever you wind up using, it will need to have drainage holes, which you may have to drill yourself. Using an electric drill with a masonry bit, invert the container and drill three drainage holes (a single hole might clog). Excellent drainage is essential, as the plants will quickly rot if left in standing water.

2. ADD DRAINAGE MATERIAL AND POTTING MIXTURE. I recommend adding extra drainage by filling the bottom of each container with either broken day pot shards or plastic foam packing peanuts. Use enough to fill up to one-half the depth of the container. Echeverias are shallow rooted, and don’t need deep soil. Next, place a shallow layer of potting mix over the drainage material to create a level planting surface, ready to position your pizza toppings—the plants. I use a mix of one-third potting soil, one third extra coarse perlite, and one third coarse builder’s sand.

3. POSITION THE PLANTS. Remove all plants from their plastic pots. Start with your largest, most eye-catching plant, and place it just off center—centering your best plant creates a bull’s-eye effect, and is not artistic or random enough for my eye. Then add the smaller plants, butting their root balls right up against each other to create tight groupings. Leaving the root balls undisturbed makes it easy to position the plants, since they will support each other through the planting process. Once or twice in every pizza you should put three of the same plant into one cluster—this will give your creation a look of maturity. If you become a true echeveria fanatic, you’ll soon have so many baby plants (called offsets or “pups”) that you’ll be able to achieve a finished look instantly.

Recommended Varieties SOME OF THE MOST GORGEOUS echeverias are the frilly-leaved varieties, most of which are unnamed hybrids of E. crenulata. If you come across any, pounce on them. Among named selections, E. crenulata ‘Roseo-grandis Blue Giant” has gray-blue leaves tipped in red. Two of the more common-but still attractive-species are the blue-leaved E. peacockii and the chubby, celadon-green E. elegans. Both of these species produce many offsets each year. Echeveria albicans produces tight, blue rosettes that made it a favorite during the heyday of Victorian carpet bedding for spelling out words and elaborate designs. Finally, keep a sharp eye out for any of the stunning, dark-leaved cultivars such as ‘Black Prince.” They’re out there-you just have to look for them.

Choosing a group of attractive echeverias is seldom a problem; finding them, however, can be. I troll the aisles of our local Big Box store’s plant department, searching for stranded California imports on the dismal cactus tables. I’ve gotten lucky every time. you may be able to make similar finds at local garden centers or home-supply stores. Spring garden shows are another good source-the sales areas are echeveria heavent! Fortunately, there are also specialty nurseries that offer scores of species and hybrids (see Sources on page 84).

Of course, there’s no need to limit yourself solely to echeverias; succulents like kalanchoes (the stunning plant shown here is K. thyrsiflora) and aeoniums are every bit as welcome. If it looks good, use it.–T.H.

4. FILL IN THE GAPS and top-dress the potting mixture. Once you’ve added all the plants you can (remember, it’s supposed to look crammed!), fill in any voids between the root balls with potting mix. If the gaps between the plants are too large, you’ll end up with something resembling a moonscape. Top-dress your creation with a small, nicely colored gravel. I’ve found that gravel in natural beige tones looks best and creates a pleasing desertlike effect. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also add objects such as seashells or small bits of colored pottery. But go easy—additions of this sort should enhance the plants, not compete with them.

5. CARE. When deciding where to display your pizza, remember that the plants need full sun—otherwise, the leaf colors may fade and the plants may become leggy. Also, an echeveria pizza needs to be kept well watered, which is surprising, since echeverias look as though they ought to be able to withstand drought. But echeverias are not cacti, and should never be allowed to become bone dry. When assembled into a pizza, their need for moisture is compounded by the shallow container and sharp drainage. Fertilizer is also welcome. I use one sprinkle of 14-14-14 slow-release pelleted fertilizer after pot-up, and that is usually sufficient for the year. Fortunately, insect pests are not a problem with echeverias. Slogs, however, will munch the succulent leaves of some varieties.

For sources of echeverias, turn to page 84.

WINTER CARE

BECAUSE ECHEVERIAS can’t tolerate hard frost, you’ll need to store your treasured plants indoors for the winter. It’s best to do this earlier than later; although the plants won’t be harmed by a light frost, why risk it? Don’t try to store the whole pizza “as is”; the plants won’t do well in the reduced light levels inside. You’ll need to disassemble your creation. Lift each variety separately, and check for yellowed leaves, insects, and overall health. Pot up the plants individually, using a sandy, sterile mix. Any kind of pot will do, since it’s just for short-term storage. Place the plants on your brightest windowsill or under grow lights. Give them less water than in summer, but don’t allow them to become shriveled. Watering once a week should be sufficient. If there isn’t enough light, your echeverias will stretch and become leggy. If you can, move them to a brighter spot. But even if you can’t, don’t despair—once they’re outdoors again in spring, they’ll make a miraculous recovery, ready to add character to your pizza creations for another season.–T.H.

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