A windowsill Eden that's easy

If you have a hankering for a home on the range, but your home range is a 10 -by-10-foot balcony; or if you'd like to turn your home into a miniature Eden, but you already lead a 25-hour day, succulents may be the answer to your horticultural dilemma.

Even in container gardens, these versatile plants can survive the ministrations of the brownest thumb and the neglect of the absent, or merely absent-minded, gardener.

After all, they are hardly used to posh living in their native habitat.

Most succulents are indigenous to one of earth's least hospitable environments, the desert, where they survive with erratic rainfall and without tender, loving care. These plants do not want to be misted daily or fed weekly, and most will love the arid atmosphere of a heated home.

While succulents can withstand a good deal of neglect, however, they cannot be abandoned entirely.

Depending on their native habitat, they require varying amounts of light and water. Because a formidable enemy is root rot, they need more drainage than a general-purpose plant mix provides. Their soil should be laced with a third part sand, and many professional growers include pumice and fir bark as well.

Bone meal added to the soil once a year will meet feeding needs, while a little potash will inspire blossoms.

Nor is the old pot controversy a problem. Either plastic or terra cotta will do nicely if it drains properly. A generous layer of crushed pottery or gravel in the container bottom will help to ensure drainage.

Because temperature and humidity vary a good deal from place to place, there is no single watering formula; but succulents can be more easily damaged by too much water than by too little. Their soil must dry out between waterings. Naturally, during the growing season they require more water than when they are dormant. Their goal is a plump foliage; a limp, bedraggled plant in a dry pot is hinting that its waterer is overly frugal.

Although these plants will not thrive without good light, some live in the shade of other plants in their native habitat, so it is important to check with a nurseryman or a good gardening book before blasting them with full sunlight.

Most thrive in a southern exposure, but some appreciate a cooler morning sun.

Good news for those enamored of container gardening is the adaptability of these plants to such confinement. And because they grow well in groups, their owner can exercise his creative genius arranging them into mini landscapes.

On the other hand, since they grow slowly in containers, they will be happy undisturbed in the same pot for years.

Nor does one have to give up beauty, variety, or color to reap the benefit of these cooperative plants. There are hundreds of varieties of easy-care succulents from which to choose. Too, they come in fascinating sizes, shapes, textures, and colors - from the prickly coat of Opuntia bigelovii (teddy-bear cactus) to the knobby cascades of Sedum morganianum (donkey's tail).

A cornucopia of choices is available to add interest to a mini landscape or to a star solo in a container.

Succulent foliage is often as varied and colorful as the flowers of other blossoming plants. The wonderful lithops family contains plants that have adapted to their harsh desert homes by mimicking stones; in fact, the root litho is borrowed from a Greek word meaning stone.

For those who want their herbivorous friends to look like plants and not rocks, there are numerous colorful choices. The leaves of Echevaria agavoides (molded wax) are red-bordered, pointed green rosettes. Other foliage colors run the gamut from the opalescent gray-blue ruffles of Echeveria shavianna to the vibrant white-striped, green blades of Haworthia fasciata (fairy washboard) and the purple-tipped verdant knobs of Sedum globsum.

Nor do the aesthetic advantages of these ''we try harder'' plants end with their appealing foliage. Many produce exquisite flowers. Crassula sociales bursts forth in the depths of winter with a delightful show of delicate white flowers above its green triangular leaf stacks, while Hoya bella's deliciously fragrant waxy white blossoms with their rosy star centers are beautiful indeed.

For those with a practical bent who do not favor Emerson's dictum - ''a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world'' - there are useful succulents as well. In the outdoor gardens of temperate climates the prickly-pear cactus produces a sweet, juicy fruit. Even when green, this fruit is delectable when sliced, lightly breaded, and fried.

Versatile, colorful, useful, and beautiful plants that forgive a negligent owner for his inattentive care, a succulent collection can in fact be an easy Garden of Eden.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.