To build an arrangement of succulents, you start with an empty pot filled with soil. Slowly, you add cuttings of a variety of different succulents to the pot, planting them in the soil, starting with a few key succulents in the places you want them, and then filling the spaces between them with more, placing all the cuttings in ways that complement and contrast each other in shape, in color, in size, until you find there is no more room left to plant anymore, and until the pot is full. Then, you wait for the cuttings to take to the soil, seeing what successfully roots. (I think this works best if your cuttings have already started to grow roots before you plant them, but you can also use fresh cuttings and hope that they grow roots after they are planted in the soil.)
In April of this year, my editor sent me a succulent arrangement to celebrate the release of my latest book, Goodbye, again. It was a great and thoughtful gift. (Another friend brought me another succulent arrangement a few months later, in the summer, after I had moved, and I loved that one too – I guess that makes me an easy person to gift for.) When I received my editor’s arrangement in April, it was lush and overflowing, filled to the brim with bright, tightly-packed succulents, crowding the wide, drum-like pot so densely so that you could not even see the soil underneath them that they were planted in.
Nine months later, as I look at it now, what remains of the arrangement is a sparse collection of leggy succulents, having grown tall and awkwardly, reaching for the open air above their neighbors as they tried to survive the crowded pot. Now, these are the only ones that remain. The rest of the succulents – most of the succulents in the arrangement – died over the course of the year: some of them having not rooted, some of them having not gotten enough water and drying out, some of them having gotten too much water and getting mushy, and some of them just collapsing and falling apart on their own.
In a pot without drainage (which many succulent arrangements come in), it’s difficult to water all the succulents evenly — sometimes the water pools in certain areas of the soil, causing the succulents in that area of get too much water, while succulents elsewhere in the arrangement don’t get any, depending on how the water travels through the soil. It’s tricky. Water it too little and all the succulents start to crisp up and dry out. Water the arrangement too much and you risk drowning the entire pot — luckily, at least, that hasn’t happened yet.
But this arrangement, as it stands, at the end of the year, is hopeful in its own way. The few succulents that did survive now create the effect of miniature diorama: of a sparse collection of trees towering above a barren earth, craning toward the light from the window they are placed near.
There are open patches of soil now where the succulents that died off have left exposed. Here, I’ve been using the space to try and propagate new succulents, placing leaves from some of our other succulents onto the open soil and waiting for them to grow roots. Most of them have not been successful at this, but there is a single jade leaf that I placed down in October that has rooted, and a tiny bud with two tiny little jade plant leaves is now growing from it, with plenty of soil all around it to grow into when it finds that it needs it.
When I take stock of all the dreams and hopes that I had carefully chosen and arranged for myself at the beginning of the year, I see now that most of them have not survived. Over the year, they have become disappointments, or sadnesses, or tragedies. The more generous ones that have been lost over the year have kindly allowed themselves to simply become overlooked and forgotten.
But still, in taking stock at the end of the year, a few of them still remain, growing tall and awkwardly but still firmly rooted, and still, against all odds, surviving.
And in the empty patches of soil all around them, a new handful of small dreams and tentative hopes are starting to root, each making a promise that they, too, will one day grow and learn to reach toward the light.
See you in the new year.
If you liked this piece, I think you might like my latest book, a collection of essays called Goodbye, again. There are many essays about plants in it, some of which serve as a precursor to this one. Thank you for reading!
Succulent arrangement (after 9 months)