With the first day of summer starting this week, it’s the season of succulents.
Nan Reinert’s background in operating Chubby Pickle Farm in Robeson Township, Berks County, means she is plenty versed in succulents. Through the farm, which is her backyard, she raises 85% of the food she eats, growing everything within a small space, and using a variety of plants and planting methods.
“A succulent is a plant with thicker, fleshy leaves and stems mostly adapted to a more arid climate,” Reinert explains. “I call these plants the vacationers’ friend. If you want to spend your summer at the shore every weekend, succulents are the perfect plant for you. They can go long periods of time with out being watered and still look great. Their fleshy leaves and stems hold water well and they flourish without much fuss.”
This holds true for succulents which are houseplants, not just seasonal outdoor plants.
“Succulents not only hold water, but they also absorb water from the atmosphere,” she adds. “They have adapted to not transpire like other plants.”
Hens and Chicks, Aloe, Yucca, Portulaca and Sedum are some succulents Reinert mentioned.
With Prickly Pear Cactus, which has certain varieties able to survive in Zone 6 in Pennsylvania, Reinert even has a recipe for jam. But more on that later.
As the name of the Prickly Pear Cactus implies, it’s easy to grow and doesn’t need much care. Yet it does need your attention because if you get too close to it with bare fingers, toes or any other part of your body, you may be sorry.
A Wolff’s Apple House customer named Julie Russell has her own cautionary tale about the cactus.
A home Russell’s family purchased in the past had Prickly Pear Cactus planted near the pool, added to the landscape by the previous owners.
“They had delicate peach-colored flowers in late spring, and in summer, they bore a sweet little fruit,” Russell said. “The leaves looked like flat pillows.”
Her family soon learned about the plant’s spikes.
“The first time I touched one of those ‘pillows,’ I wished I hadn’t,” she says. “My hand was like a magnet that drew out these spikes and drove them into my fingers. The spikes were next to impossible to see, let alone pull out. One session of picking them out of my hand was enough to make me keep my distance.”
And her daughters learned about the spikes the hard way while taking breaks from swimming.
“Children’s bare feet seemed to be attracted to these plants,” Russell says about the cacti. “I cannot even count the times my children and others sat cross-legged on the cement, grasping one foot, their bodies bent in half as they tried frantically to find the tiny barbs and pull them out. We kept the tweezers handy in the kitchen drawer.”
An easy lesson for an outsider: plant Prickly Pear Cactus anywhere but near a pool or places where kids play.
“They like a well-draining rocky or sandy soil,” Reinert says of Prickly Pear Cactus. “You can grow them on a rock garden wall or in pea gravel. You may need to weed in between them every now and then, so make sure you have some thick gloves.”
One kind of succulent with seemingly countless varieties and thankfully no spikes is Sedum.
“Some are larger and get bushy, while others are low and creep across the ground,” Reinert says about Sedum. “These [the creeping kind] are great for rock gardens. They like the heat of the rocks and will fill in the cracks quickly. Sedum is used for green roofs in Zone 6. They help keep roofs cool in the summer by absorbing the heat, and when it rains, there is less water runoff.”
One kind of succulent, sold as annuals in market packs at Wolff’s Apple House, often tends to re-seed and springs up soft petals of poignant little blooms: Portulaca. It also has green flesh like little lizard legs, which is a fun texture to touch, since you get the feel without having to touch an actual lizard, in case that makes you a tad bit squirmy.
“Portulaca is so pretty, and the flowers come all summer,” Reinert says. “The flowers look like roses. They also grow wild in Zone 6. For a treat, I will usually plant a few in pots and bring them in the house so I can enjoy the flowers into December.”
And where the succulents want their roots is an important thought.
“Most succulents like a sandy soil,” Reinert adds. “I mix compost with sand so the soil is loose, provides some nutrients and also retains moisture.”
But can you kill a succulent? That’s a good question.
“Even though their watering needs are lower, they do need water,” Reinert notes. “It is a myth that they all like to be in the beating heat. Some like a semi-sunny spot. Make sure you research any plant’s particular needs before you decide where it will just look good in your garden or home. Like people, they are all different, and some just don’t fare well in that special spot where you thought it would be good.”
Succulents are also a win-win for fairy gardens.
“Typically these gardens are planted in a shallow container and require a slower-growing, shallow-rooted plant,” Reinert says. “Ground-creeping Sedum, Hens and Chicks, small cactus or a small Jade plant are well-suited for this type of garden. Just remember to bring the garden in the house once it starts to get cold. The fairies will thank you, too!”
And here, as promised, is Reinert’s jam recipe from Prickly Pear Cactus.
- 5 cups of prickly pear fruit and juice (from about 50 fruit)
- ½ cup of lemon
- 2 boxes (1.75 oz.) of powdered pectin
- 7 cups of sugar
- To skin the fruit, place them on a sheet in the oven at about 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 to 20 minutes; you will see the skins split and blacken a little. Remove from the oven, quench in cold water and peel.
- Prepare canning equipment and sterilize jars.
- Heat Prickly Pear fruit and juice, lemon juice and sugar in a large heavy-bottomed pot. Bring to a rolling boil.
- Cook for 10 minutes, stirring constantly.
- Sprinkle pectin over the fruit mixture, continuing to stir until dissolved.
- Bring to a rapid boil and cook for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. The jam thickens as it cools.
- Ladle into sterilized jars, leaving ¼" head space.
- Wipe rims thoroughly with a sterile cloth, place the sterile tops on and tighten caps to finger tightness.
- Place jars in boiling water bath. Bring to a boil and start your timer. Boil for 15 minutes.
- Remove jars from canner, and place on a clean dry towel.
- Cool overnight, undisturbed.