Gardening with Evelyn: Strategies to help your succulent garden survive El Niño

It’s not fair. We have all been saving water by tearing out our lawns and planting succulents. Low water, almost no water. Now El Niño with torrential rains is coming. Will your succulents survive or die? What can you do now before the rains come?

It’s all about good drainage. Succulents can take the water. What they cannot take is water that stays around their roots and fills up the tiny air spaces. Succulent roots need to breathe. Clay or poor-draining soil, and slow-draining pots spell potential trouble. In the winter when the temperature is also lower, standing moisture plus chilly roots will be a double whammy. The stems and roots of your succulents will get mushy

and rot off, and then your plant is dead.

If you are not sure how good your drainage is, now is the time to do an easy drainage test. Two methods. Take your choice:

• The Squeeze Test. Make sure your soil is moist or even wet. Grab some soil and make a golf ball-size ball. Put it in the palm of your hand. Hit it with your knuckle.

If the soil falls apart before you can even make a ball, you have very sandy soil and your succulents will get along just fine. If you can hit your soil ball with your knuckle and it breaks apart easily, you still have well-drained soil. A soil ball that holds its shape but is still breakable is usually good loamy soil.

If your ball holds its shape so well you can play ball with it or make a clay pot, then you indeed do have poor drainage and your succulents will probably have a difficult time with the rains.

• More scientific (and providing free exercise) is the Drainage Hole. Dig a drainage test hole. Make it 12 inches deep and 12 inches wide with straight sides. Fill with water. Measure the water level and mark it. Any old stick or measuring stick will do. Watch to see how quickly or slowly the water drains. The ideal soil drains about 2 inches in an hour. Anything between 1 and 3 inches is probably OK. Truthfully, you already know if you have poor drainage, but this will tell you how bad it is.

If your drainage is bad, these are the things you can do.

The best thing is to add more humus, mulch, leaves, white crunchy Perlite or if you can find it, real ground pumice. Add as much as you can, up to 50 percent. You can also put in a French drain at the lowest point of your plantings.

Look for low spots where you need to raise the soil level. Lift out your plants and add fast-draining succulent soil. Dig it in and blend with your current soil, and then replant with your plants above the current soil level.

Take a look at your potted plants. Most of your potted succulents will be fine as long as they are not placed where roof water will hit them. Many pots have only one little drain hole in the bottom and a saucer that is already attached. Make sure these pots are really draining the way they should. Do make sure that all your pots have little shims or pottery feet under them so they are not flat on a dirt or cement surface. Small succulents planted in too-large pots can easily get too much water.

Dig up your plants, add any of the above, make raised areas and then replant your succulents. Fortunately, it is really hard to damage your plants when you dig them. If a piece breaks off, let it dry in the open air for a few days and then replant it, and the roots will come along later.

Make cuttings now so that you will have plants ready when the rains are over. The rules are easy. Make your cuttings any size you like, but short (3 to 5 inches) is best. Put them in the shade outside and let them callus (air dry) for several days. Plant them in dry succulent soil, place in a semi-shady spot and just ignore them. The roots will start to grow and then you have a nice new plant.

Other rain-sensitive plants include any plant in the Mandevilla family. Do not plant or place where eaves might drain onto them. Also, any plants that are dormant or semidormant, like tuberous begonias. This is the year to dig up your tubers and store in a dry place. Turn your pots or baskets over on their sides for the winter.

One more handy hint! Snails love wet weather and come out of hiding very hungry. Snails love juicy succulents. Start using the non-toxic Snail and Slug bait now. Small amounts frequently is the best way.

For more help on anything about succulents or making succulent pumpkin tops, come to the Fall Succulent Weekend at Weidner’s Gardens on Oct. 17 and 18. Visit www.weidners.com/events or call 760-436-2194.

For any gardening question, go to your favorite independent garden center or www.mastergardenerssandiego.org. This is your County Agricultural department home gardening help department. It’s free, and the master gardeners are always happy to answer your questions.

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