Sun Loving Succulents

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With summer’s heat upon us, I am once again amazed at the resilience and beauty of succulents in our North State gardens. I was inspired to revisit this piece on Claude Geffray’s Gardens in Chico.

Look up the word “succulent” in the dictionary and as an adjective you will find something like: juicy, thick and fleshy; from the Latin succus, meaning “juice.” The designation “succulent” describes any plant that “stores water against times of drought in specialized tissues,” according to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens’ Crazy About Cacti and Succulents. Succulents such as jade (Crassula ovata) or Aloes, store extra water in their leaves, others, including most cacti, store water in their stems, and still others store water in their roots or bulbs. While all cacti are succulents, not all succulents are cacti, but almost all succulents are low-maintenance, drought tolerant, relatively pest and disease free and darn good looking – in or out of bloom, year-round. Photo: A view down a covered shade area to one of Claude Geffray’s demonstration succulent and cacti gardens in Chico.

Claude Geffray, a Frenchman by birth, now longtime resident of the North State is founder/owner of Creative Cacti and Succulents, a landscape design business specializing in inspiring succulent and cacti designs, and Geffray’s Gardens, a specialty grower of a head-spinning array of succulents and cacti and based in Chico. Photo: The sculptural leaves of an Agave attenuata .

I have been aware of succulent plants and their specific beauty since I was a girl growing up at 8,000 feet in Colorado and my best friend’s mother – Janet Findling, a woman of the American West born and raised – had a large collection of potted cacti and succulents. My mother was a world-class professional gardener, but she had a decidedly East coast aesthetic and succulents were not for her – Yuccas were yucky and pokey and hostile, in her mind. But my best friend’s mother adored them. She saw in them the sculptural beauty and built-in strength that draws gardeners to them today – from the very small, candy-colored Sedums to the immense and architectural Yuccas and Agaves. To Mrs. Findling – and thousands of gardeners like her today, succulents and cacti were iconic plants of the American West. Thanks to many good books and many good growers, the array of succulents (from around the world) that are available at nurseries and which we can grow in our gardens today is breathtaking. Succulents from Africa, Australia and South America as well many, many good North American natives are now easily available in the trade. Photo: A typical ruffled Echeveria, which needs some protection from winter frosts – simply placing them in pots beneath the eaves of your house or garage should do the trick.

Claude Geffray’s interest in succulents began in his early twenties when, as an art student in San Francisco, he bought a succulent plant at a flea market. Coming from France, Claude had not seen many plants like this before and its shape and texture caught his artist’s eye. As a group, succulents and cacti have held his fascination ever since. Wanting to settle down from the pace of the city, Claude moved to Chico in 1985. By 1988 he had started his small specialty nursery, Geffray’s Gardens, which is now a premier retail and wholesale provider of cacti and succulents for “interiorscapes, landscapes, and specialized xeriscapes gardens for the Northern California region.” Photo:French-born Claude Geffray at one of his Open Garden days this past summer.

I have heard Claude speak to groups of gardeners about growing, caring for and arranging succulents and cacti – his soft french accent roundly describing the plants of which he is so fond. I have visited his nursery and gardens on open days and each time I have come away with treasures more numerous than I care to admit. The wonderful thing is, the plants I bring home from Geffray’s Gardens don’t die. Which, if you happened to have been seduced by the loveliness and drama of wonderful cacti and succulents from – perhaps – slightly more glamorous environs and vendors in the Bay area or in Southern California, you will know that plants from these locales often don’t take well to the North State – it’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too dry, it’s too shady, it’s too windy. It’s not the Bay area or Southern California. When you visit Claude’s displays, it will be clear to you if you live in the Valley or foothill portions of our region that if he has it covered, you should probably have it covered, if it is growing outside for all the heat and cold to bear down on in his garden, then you are pretty safe to plant it outside as well. Photo: A selection of the many colors and shapes of succulent treasures in just one of Claude Geffray’s hoop houses at Geffray’s Gardens in Chico.

Succulents and cacti are available for almost all elevations and gardening zones. Hens-and-chicks (Sempervivums) happily flourished, put off pups (as it is called when a rosette-forming succulent plant has a little baby-version of itself appear and grow along its side), and even bloomed at close to 6,000 feet with plenty of winter snow in my last garden, and there are a handful of Agaves and many Opuntias, Yuccas and Hesperaloes that will thrive in the high country as well. But watch for the gardening zone marked on your plant and if you garden in zone 4 and you’re smitten with a zone 8 succulent – put it in a pot and move it into a protected position or indoors for the winter. For some good succulent how-to books, see this week’s Book Recommendations below. Photo: A pathway through one of the succulent and cacti demonstration plantings at Geffray’s Gardens.

Many things endear succulents to a gardener, not the least of which is that they are almost foolproof – perhaps the greatest cause for failure is OVER WATERING or not providing them with enough drainage, which amounts to the same thing. In general, most cacti and succulents – once established – only want water when they have dried out, once a week, or maybe twice in summer sun. They dislike too much water pooling around their crowns and so, especially in areas of heavy winter rain or wet snows, a mulch of fast draining gravel or sand will be appreciated. Originating from areas where water conservation is necessary for survival, succulents tend to like lean soil, very little if any supplemental food (if you have your plants in containers, Claude recommends half concentration fertilizer every other month during the bloom season), they are not susceptible to most pests or diseases, and they are easy to propagate – they practically root themselves from almost any cutting (or inadvertently broken-off-segment). Try it. Cut off of piece of your succulent, let it sit for a day or so allowing the cut to “heal” over, then stick it in the ground. Water it in a few days. Voila! New succulent. Literally. Photo: Left: Agave victoriae-reginae, Right: Echeveria imbricata in bloom.

An important thing to ask as you search for the perfect succulent or cacti for your garden is this: Where did this plant come from? Sadly, many cacti and succulent are collected illegally from the wild, which does not improve our gardens but rather diminishes the beauty and integrity of our wild lands. Make sure that the plants you are choosing have been grown responsibly and legally. Photo: Cascading Echeveria in a pot on a covered patio.

Claude sells his plants, his specially formulated cacti and succulent planting mix and his bold and interesting container designs year-round at Chico’s Saturday Market. He also holds Open Days at the nursery a few times a year. Not only do you get to peruse the wonderful hoop houses full of succulent treasure, but you also get to walk Claude’s succulent and cacti display gardens – well worth a wander. They give you a good idea of the outdoor drama that these plants provide as well as which ones are hardy. Photo: A row of potted Flapjacks (Kalanchoe thrysiflora) in a Chico garden.

More Info: Geffray’s Gardens also has Black Bamboos, Sago Palms, Hardy Palms, and miscellaneous plants on sale. Hardy Cacti and Succulents can be bought bare root from the growing beds, or in different size containers. They also offer an assortment of clay and ceramic pots as well as our own cactus mix. Geffray’s Gardens is located on Carper’s Court, in Chico. From Esplanade take East Avenue toward Hwy 32. Turn right on Alamo, cross Henshaw, go another 150 yards, and find Carper’s on your right. There will be signs in the adjacent streets. Photo: A tray of small succulent plugs at Geffray’s Gardens.

For further information and dates for upcoming open garden days, please call Claude at 530 345 2849.

Here are a few good books on selecting and growing cacti and succulents. All of my reading recommendations are available in stock (or by special order for the more expensive ones) at Lyon Books in Chico. You can order on-line and Lyon Books is happy to ship. You can also try our wonderful public libraries for these books: Photo: A display garden at Geffray’s Gardens.

A few years ago I read Debra Lee Baldwin’s book entitled Designing with Succulents, and became completely inspired. The book took my schoolgirl-crush on succulents and showed me that it could survive the step-up to a long-term adult relationship. Designing with Succulents convinced me that succulents are not only wonderful as showcase elements in ones or twos, but that you can in fact landscape an entire garden with lush, colorful succulents as the very backbone of your design. The trouble was that a lot of the plants featured in the book were not hardy for me. Photo: Calandrinia grandiflora in a Bay area garden. This wonderfully flowering plant is hardy in the north valley, but will need some protection from very hard frosts.

Then alpine plant expert Gwen Kelaidis, based in Denver, published Hardy Succulents, Tough Plants for Every Climate (Storey Publishing, 2007). It covers a wide range of cacti and succulents good for colder or more extreme climates and gives good advice on how to make the most of microclimates. My favorite photos in the book are those with snow capped cacti. Photo: Mature Agaves punctuate and frame a classical threshold between one garden space and another at the famous Lotusland gardens in Santa Barbara.

Debra Lee Baldwin has recently published Succulent Container Gardens (2009, Timber Press), which is also excellent.

Another good book is The Garden Succulents Primer (Gideon Smith, Ben-Erik van Wyk; Timber Press, 2008), an extensive listing of succulent plant genera and families, with identification and cultivation information.

Many good succulents and cacti are native to our region, are available from accredited growers and are worth trying in your garden. To learn more about these, try looking through: Cacti, Agaves and Yuccas of California and Nevada (Cachuma Press, 2008). Photo: Northern California native canyon Dudleya (Dudleya cymosa).

And finally for the academic and devout, the truly awe-inspiring tome to own would be The Cactus Family (Edward Anderson; Timber Press, 2001). Almost everything you would ever want to know about Cacti is here. And, as a bonus, you could use it as a booster seat for the smallest of your family.’s new line of lovely little note cards are bite sized and ready to enjoy on-line or at local fine shops near you. As spring turns to summer and summer to fall, look for Edibles in the Garden blank journals, note cards featuring seeds and fruits as well as 2011 calendars and blank journals. A portion of all sales of the Edibles in the Garden note cards goes to Slow Food Shasta Cascade and the many projects it supports. All of’s cards are printed in Chico by Quadco printing using 100% recycled paper and vegetable-based ink. Yum.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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1 Response

  1. Avatar Sherry says:

    Thanks for the article. I am new to Shasta County and noticed there are not many colorful flowers there. Are succulents the way to go? Trying to find resources on what I can plant to add some color to the boring landscaping.