Spring arrives early at the ranch and succulents and cacti lead the festivities

The spring solstice won’t arrive until Tuesday at 10:15 a.m. but at the ranch we’ve been enjoying a spring greening since late February, thanks to the succulents, cacti and other xeric plants already blooming even though not a drop of rain is expected for several months.

Longer days and warmer temperatures spur this spring hubbub. Shallow-rooted succulents and cacti tap the water stored in their fleshy leaves, while drought-hardy trees and bushes, such as huizaches and mesquites, their leaves tiny to stem loss of precious moisture, rely on long roots that search for water meters deep beneath the surface. 

Breaking news: The first magnolia flower.

Curiously, most of our earliest flowers, on trees as well as succulents, are bright yellow, the better to pop against the fifty shades of brown of the rest of the landscape. Waves of pinks, white, reds and oranges will come later, when the rainy season begins toward the end of June.

One exception I noticed yesterday is the magnolia tree at the foot of our back terrace, which already has a bloom that when completely open will be white, floppy and extravagant like an Easter hat.

Ever since we moved here over eight years ago I’ve been collecting succulents and cacti (cacti are a subgroup of the succulent family), but not according to any botanical or even aesthetic scheme.

Part of this disorderly, late-life passion was the search for something to do—an early concern of retirees quickly replaced by too much to do. I also became fascinated by how utterly weird succulents are, coming in every imaginable size, shape and texture.

Whatever succulent caught my eye—usually sitting forlornly in some dark corner of a local nursery behind the flashy-trashy geraniums and gazanias—would come home with us and be ceremonially transplanted to a proper clay or ceramic pot and placed here and there on any ledge or space available.

The selection criterion was as simple as, Do we have this one already?

The result—no surprise— was not a finely tuned choir of succulents but a shrill mob of all shapes and colors. Not even the pots matched, some being talavera knock-offs, others sleek modern designs and many, many clay pots.

This massive pachypodium looks like
Star Wars’ Jabba the Hutt

Amid this cacophony you’d find a tall and ghostly white euphorbia lactea snootily peering down on a misshapen pachypodium succulentum that looks like a blob with a bad haircut, and surrounded by dozens of small, barrel cactus-like companions, each whistling their own tune, their thorns growing in all directions. 

The weirdest, or most interesting, would have to be a cephalocereus senilis, or “old man cactus” with a wild mop of white hairs reminiscent of Bernie Sanders in the middle of a stump speech.

[N.B. To any readers who might really know their succulents: Stop giggling at my attempts at proper botanical nomenclature. If I messed up some names, just make the corrections in the comments section at the end of this post. Be nice. I’ll be grateful rather than offended.]

Last fall I developed a half-baked plan to alleviate the succulent crush in the house by transplanting some of them to the outside, to mingle with their native and much larger cousins. I didn’t plan on a colder than usual winter, nor foresee what cold, drought and wind would do to some of the more sensitive succulents. A quick glance a few weeks ago allayed my worst fears; a few of these exiles perished but most, miraculously, are coming back.

Then a few weeks ago, I set out to try and establish some order in the rest of our collection. Shuffling the pots around didn’t seem to do it, though it’s always good to prune back scraggly plants and repot others.

Is it you, Bernie?

My friend Lydia, the tireless leading light of Succulent Lovers of San Miguel de Allende, suggested that I try to do combinations of different succulents using wide and shallow pots. That reminded me of three books I had in my gardening collection about that very topic by Debra Lee Baldwin, and also led to about a day’s worth of surfing the internet for ideas.

It’s a good idea to try to match the color of the pot
with the succulent that lives in it. Plant name
 unknown (to me).

Lee Baldwin, at least according to pictures on the dust jacket, looks like a Martha Stewart-like doyenne, in her case of succulent plants.  She lives amid a jungle of perfectly designed and displayed succulents and at least one neatly groomed Yorkie-type dog.

One of her ideas I found useful was to choose carefully the color of the pot so that it coordinates with the succulent on top. Duh.

There are dozens of sites, ranging from artful to junky. I particularly dislike stupid add-ons or constructions like using old sewing machines or antique chairs. Yecch.

So for three days last week Félix and I upended pots with old or overgrown tenants, and other lone specimens that we decided should join and play with the rest of the succulents. A few fancier succulents we took out and relocated into fancier pots, as Lydia had suggested.

One thing you notice when repotting succulents is that they generally have very shallow roots, so there’s no point, and it might actually be counterproductive, to put them in deep pots.

Better off using shallower containers with a layer of gravel at the bottom. For soil we used a mixture of black soil; tezontle (a porous red volcanic rock in lieu of vermiculite or gravel to keep the soil light and well draining); and some compost. This mixture isn’t much look at but succulents like their growing medium light and airy, almost desert-like. Muddy soil or too much water are killers. 

It’s amazing how well Félix caught on to selecting compatible plants—and giving me thumbs down to many of my ideas. We still have another day to finish up with a couple of other pots waiting for customers.

Then we’ll have to stand back and enjoy our work. I labeled as many of the succulents as I could identify in books or in the World of Succulents site. But I am afraid most of them will have to remain, for the time being, in that vast family of “Succulentus mysteriosums” or “Agave idunnos.”

Below, other shots of my succulent collection:

Out on the yard.

The Pachypodium Corner

One arrangement. The one on back is a
Kalanchoe; the others I don’t know.

Side table with succulents

Head of Medusa look a little bedraggled because
they’ve been just transplanted. 

Seating area with various succulents (and a dead tree on back).

Group of succulents on the front yard, under a trellis.

Good place to have coffee in the morning.

The recently erected Temple of Succulents.

Cuttings go into a small greenhouse for rooting.

Green is the theme here.

A blue grouping.

On the upper left is a kalanchoe,
the rest I don’t know.

Entrance to the front patio.


6 thoughts on “Spring arrives early at the ranch and succulents and cacti lead the festivities

  1. Me too! Succulents do quite well in our PNW climate. We've enjoyed them in our garden for many years. Living in a new house now we'll be planting some pots using your pictures for inspiration.


  2. Looks great! I have succulents that were here when I moved in eighteen years ago that you don't have. If you ever want to come over and peruse what I have and take a LOT home, you are welcome. I think your groupings and temple look snazzy.


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