If you spend any time online, you’ve likely come across at least one gorgeous display of succulents in recent years. From wedding bouquets to centerpieces and from vertical gardens to walkway borders, succulents are everywhere. The popularity of these hip plants lies in their minimalist look and drought resistance low-maintenance—not to mention the variety. Hundreds of succulent types exist within hundreds of plant families, making for a virtually endless variety of shape, size, hue, and bloom. Pensacola Magazine spoke with Caitlyn Vogel, a local succulent connoisseur and the owner of East Hill Succulents, about the beauty, charm, and ease of growing and collecting this fascinating plant.
What are succulents?
Succulents are a type of plant that stores water in its leaves. They are native to hot, dry climates and can withstand a fair amount of drought. Most varieties cannot handle temperatures below freezing, except for sempervivums and some sedum.
How did you become interested in succulents?
My love for succulents actually began with some cuttings a friend mailed me. I think it was some jade, donkey tail, and kalanchoe lavender scallops. I was able to propagate those and slowly began ordering and searching out succulents locally. I didn’t kill them, and, in fact, they seemed to thrive under my care. Soon all of the windows and counters in my small cottage began filling up. That’s when I began making arrangements, and the rest is history.
What do you love about them?
There is so much to love about these plants! To start with, I feel like they all have their own personalities. Each species grows in a unique way. Some trail, some stretch, some spread. Some are very fast growers, some are slower. Their growing ‘habits’ and the huge variety of textures is what makes them so appealing to me as someone who studied art in college. Now that I am more aware of what they do as they grow, I can plant varieties together with an idea of how they will mature in an arrangement together over time. I see my arrangements as living artwork.
As my collection grows it’s also been very exciting to see some of my plants begin to bloom. If you haven’t ever seen a succulent bloom, it’s really a treat. Most varieties, once mature (Aloes included, which are one of the longest lasting blooms) produce these very long stalks with either one or many cascading blooms in various shades of bright pink, yellow, and deep red. There’s actually a very old agave or century plant about to bloom on 12th Avenue. Its bloom stalk has to be about 14’ tall. The colors of the blooms are often very different from the plant itself and the bloom stalks seem to just pop up overnight.
Another aspect I find so intriguing is the way they change color, or “blush” when temperatures change. Some plants, like jade, are a kind of standard green throughout the year, but in early spring and winter, the tips will flush this brilliant red. I should mention that when plants are outside they are more likely bloom and have shifts in color.
Finally, what has really hooked me on these plants is the ability to propagate them, and the way they reproduce from cuttings. Some plant’s leaves fall off super easily, while others you can gently twist and pop off the plant. You can lay these out on soil, or in a sunny window, and in a few weeks, roots and tiny new plants begin to grow. In a similar way, you can trim plants, lay them out, and new roots will begin to grow.
When and why did you decide to start selling your arrangements?
As my collection grew and I ran out of room, my soon to be husband told me I needed to do something with them, so East Hill Succulents was born. I sell the arrangements so I can keep buying and growing plants, and make more arrangements. It’s still what I call an over-blown hobby. I work on the weekends and sometimes weeknights when I’m off the clock on my ‘real’ job (I am a pre-K through 8th-grade art teacher). It combines two of my passions, thrifting and antiquing for containers and plants. I love matching plants to their container and then when the right person finds ‘the one,’ it’s pretty magical. It brings me such joy to have people connect to what I do and bring plants to new homes.
How many arrangements do you make a year?
I make around 100 to 120 for each pop-up sale, and I do about 20 customs a year. So, probably upwards of 400 a year!
What are the best succulents for indoor?
All succulents will grow indoors. There are more tender varieties like string of pearls and some exotics that are more sensitive to shifts in light and temperature. The main thing for all succulents, indoors or out, is a good light source, and not to water too often. My rule of thumb is to water approximately every week, but that can change with the seasons. You have to pay attention to how happy your plant looks. The light will change throughout the year and sometimes that necessitates moving the plant around or increasing or decreasing the amount you water. They thrive on neglect, is the common saying, but you do have to pay attention just a little if you really want them to thrive.
What are the best succulents for outdoors in our area?
I’ve found that my jade, string of bananas and sedums all love being outside here. You do have to be careful with the winters (like the one we just had). If you plan on keeping your plants outside just be prepared to cover them at times when temperatures drop below 35/30. I wasn’t totally ready for the steady cold weather this year and lost quite a few plants that I was too slow to cover. What happens is the water stored in their leaves will freeze, causing the capillaries to burst, and then the leaves turn to brown mush when they warm. If the soil is kept warm, the roots will survive and the plants will sometimes come back (also something I am experiencing) Sedums will die back, sometimes completely to the root, but will pop right back in the spring.
What recommendations do you have in terms of potting and watering?
The biggest cause of succulent death is too much water, so having good drainage is important. Even when a pot has a drainage hole, it can be helpful to put pumice, moss, or pebbles at the bottom to keep residual moisture away from roots. I make my own mix of organic potting soil to about 1/3 sand and 1/3 pearlite.
What are some of your favorites?
I really do love them all for different reasons. But if I had to pick I would choose Kalanchoes (all varieties). Many of them are fuzzy, which I find really appealing. Most reproduce by creating baby “blooms” on the edges of their leaves which then fall off and create new plants! Quite a few shoot out these (kind of ugly) root stalks as they grow. It’s not appealing, but makes it very easy to take cuttings and just pop them in the soil. I like sedums for that reason as well. Kalanchoes also have beautiful pinks and purples, and dusty blues, and many variegated hybrids that are stunning. I also love donkey tail/burros tail. It’s a trailing plant and has very dense, small leaves. It can be blueish to a light green, to shades of light pink with new growth in the spring. It propagates really easily from cuttings and leaves.