I have started paying attention to succulents.

Before this year, I had planted some, among them the ubiquitous ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum, which adds a vibrant color to our gardens in fall and winter interest from the spent blossoms that remain above the snow. But for the most part, I considered succulents houseplants and didn’t realize how many will grow in Maine.

Succulents are distinct from many other plants for their thick leaves, and sometimes thick stems and roots as well. These fleshy leaves are designed to hold more water, and thus they better fight drought.

They are mostly desert plants, and Maine – especially this year – bears little resemblance to a desert. Many could not survive a Maine winter outside so are kept as houseplants here. Quite a few though, are hardy to Zone 3, which includes the coldest parts of Maine.

It helps to know where they grew naturally when picking your planting site. Succulents can stand a bit of shade but prefer as much sun as you can give them. Well-drained soil, maybe even nothing but rocks and pebbles, is also key.

My new interest in succulents came after we visited a friend who was growing succulents in her birdbath. We’ve had a birdbath for decades; it came from my wife Nancy’s grandmother. But in all the years we’ve owned it, the birdbath has been strictly ornamental because no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get it to hold water.


Long ago, the Atwells inherited this (very heavy) bird bath from Nancy Atwell’s late grandmother. But it always leaked. Now they’ve found a clever new use for it – as a planter for Maine-hardy succulents. Photo by Tom Atwell

Well, leaky is, by definition, well-drained, so after we chastised ourselves for not coming up with such a clever repurposing idea years ago, we decided to move our birdbath to the sunniest part of our yard and copy our friend. Because the birdbath is concrete, large and heavy, the move required two men and a boy.

The succulent many Mainers think of first is Sempervivum, or hens and chicks, which is the standard for rock gardens both indoors and out. There are two basic varieties: Sempervivum tectorum arvernense, with leaves that are covered with velvet-like hairs; and Sempervivum tectorum tectorum, with smooth leaves edged with hairs. The plant comes in many colors, including copper, gold, blue-green, purple and red. It grows 3 to 6 inches tall, spreads by producing offsets, and though it will flower, the flower is not a major feature.

Sedums are more varied than hens and chicks, even discounting the Autumn Joy family. Not only do they have interesting foliage, they have the added attraction of flowers in an assortment of colors and shapes.

Probably the most popular variety is ‘Angelina,’ which in mid-summer produces a fast-spreading mat of needle-like chartreuse foliage with yellow star-like flowers. The foliage turns golden orange in the fall.

Sedums are such a wide-ranging family, I suggest you treat yourself to a tour of your local nursery and pick the ones you like best.

Nancy chose the plant for the center of the birdbath: Aeonium arboreum, with the cultivar ‘Black Rose.’ Taller than the other plants in the bird bath and almost black, it draws the eye. She added a little Pro Mix – we still have the remnants of a huge bag – mixed with coir as the planting medium.


Everything in the birdbath is supposed to be hardy to at least Zone 4, but I am not going to guarantee that the plants will live. The birdbath already looks great so far, though. The real test will be how it looks in the future.

I was surprised to learn that one common native plant is a succulent, even though it thrives in moist, rich soils. I’m talking about jewelweed, Impatiens capensis, which I treat as a weed in our ornamental gardens because we don’t want it impinging on what we’ve planted. In the wilderness, though, it is an unusual but wonderful succulent.

A yucca blooms outside a home in Portland in July. The plants are abundant in Mexico and the Southwest, but some varieties do grow in Maine. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

Another surprise – to me at least – is yucca. I’ve seen just two in my life and had no idea it shows up regularly in Maine. It is a striking, but also somewhat messy plant, so it sometimes outlives its welcome. In addition to fleshy, spiny leaves, it has fleshy, brittle roots. A friend asked me to remove hers five years ago. I thought I had. But it is still producing sprouts during the growing season, which she has to remove about once a month.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: tomatwell@me.com.

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