Despite this cold, acrid day in Niwot, a clump of alien-like plants in a little corner of backyard patio thrives. Clustered closely together on a raised, satellite garden bed is a group of cold hardy species. Prickly pear. Yucca. Even the red soil their shallow roots are potted in—all of it transplanted from a patch of Moab, Utah, desert. “My wife and I got engaged actually less than ten feet from where these cold hardies came from,” says chiropractor Jeremy Rodgers. “So this is our engagement succulent bed.”
In Colorado, a state lashed with drought, designing a garden can be extremely tricky and expensive. But succulent gardens, which take advantage of horizontal space rather than traditionally wide flowerbeds and require seldom watering, are a great compromise to xeriscaping (i.e. total elimination of water). Yes, part of that motivation is your water bill—Rodgers’ retrofitted succulent landscape will pay itself off in 15 years—but you also balance cosmetic appearance and function.
Rodgers’ backyard is an example in this steady rising trend. An avid fan of succulents—his wife Heather had a wedding bouquet comprised of cold hardies—Rodgers wanted a landscape that was an “extension of [his] environmental attitudes.” The gist of that? Grow something endemic enough to the region. Succulents are well adapted to our climate and are especially ideal for those lacking a green thumb. And with the help of Green A Landscape Company’s Brian Carlson, he was able to overhaul his backyard and prime it for less maintenance.
“Succulents are really a natural fit,” says Carlson. “And they add much more of a sculptural element in the garden.” That’s part of the appeal. Their exotic, oft-geometric structures have attracted botanists for millennia—ancient Egyptian stone carving depict aloe vera as the “plant of immortality.” Although Rodgers grew up with succulents as a kid in Louisville, his interest escalated when he joined the Colorado Cactus and Succulent Society, a group of enthusiasts that since 1972 has cultivated local plants and educated others.
A major proponent of succulents in Colorado, as well as Society member, is Kelly Grummons of Arvada’s Timberline Gardens. As a horticulturist back in 1989, Grummons travelled the Midwest with two other companions one summer, cultivating succulents … “We were just young pups,” he says, smiling. His nursery sees more than 24,000 species of plants a year, many of them desert plants—one of them (not for sale) is a tequila-producing American agave weighing over 1,000 pounds. He jokes about its Little Shop of Horrors quality.
And much like Jeremy Rodgers, Grummons has a plant that echoes that priceless sentimentality succulents can bring mostly because it’s hard to kill. Cut a piece off of one, let that piece scar for a week or so, replant it, and that same genetic line of plant will continue to grow. “I’m 50 years old,” says Grummons, “and I got this plant when I was six.”
He points over to a rattail cactus suspended in a round hanging planter, the tips of its 6-foot spiny stems nearly grazing the floor. As a child, he’d visit an old woman who lived over the hill from his South Dakota farm. He was fascinated with the succulents she kept in small pots along the windowsill. One day, she cut a piece of stem from a rattail cactus no bigger than a finger, and gave it to him. He held onto it for decades, and replanted it 10 years ago.
“We call those pieces ‘slips,’ ” he explains. “When you live in small, rural communities, you’ll see that a lot of people have the same plants because they share with each other … They’re pass-along plants.” And they are the roots of any succulent sanctuary.