As I write this, I’m staring out of the second-floor window of my local library in Portland, Oregon at the full ponds and mossy gardens filled with ferns, Douglas fir, and scarlet rosemallow, on a foggy, wet day.
The furthest thought from my mind? Succulents basking in the dry heat.
But there are many succulents that can be grown successfully outdoors in the northwest. My stonecrop is looking absolutely stunning as the roses are fading.
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Lots of people don’t realize that many succulents are native to the soggy areas of the Pacific Northwest.
If you live in the northwest, you can enjoy succulents in your garden. It’s just a matter of knowing how to care for them and part of that is understanding when to plant them.
Coming up, we’ll answer that question – and a few others. Here’s what I’ll cover:
For the sake of clarity, when we talk about the northwest, we’re referring to Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
Some people also include western Montana, northern California, and British Columbia, but those areas encompass a huge variety of environments and climates.
We’re going to focus on the areas that experience mild, cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers. This is the region west of the Cascade Range, running from Lassen Peak in northern California to Mount Baker in British Columbia.
Areas east of the Cascades have a climate that is more in line with the western states like Utah and Wyoming, which have the type of climate for succulents to thrive.
Selecting the Right Species
When selecting succulents for your garden, the first consideration is the USDA Hardiness Zone rating for the specific species or cultivar you want to grow.
Obviously, those that are hardy to your specific region are the best options.
It’s not just about picking a species that is ideal for your Zone, but choosing one that will tolerate your climate. Much of the Pacific Northwest is extremely wet for at least a portion of the year, so look for species that tolerate lots of moisture.
Dudleya species, and Sedum oreganum, S. oregonense, and S. spathulifolium are native to coastal Washington, Oregon, and northern California, so you know they can handle the Pacific Northwest climate.
Broadleaf stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium) is another stellar PNW native species. You’ll often spot the native Siskiyou lewisia (Lewisia cotyledon) in Pacific Northwest gardens as well.
Any of these native species have figured out how to navigate our wet winters.
When to Plant
The best time to transplant succulents is in the spring. This gives the plants plenty of time to develop adequate root systems that will allow them to deal with the soggy winter ahead.
But try to avoid planting during the heaviest period of springtime rain. If the ground is still extremely soggy from the winter rain, wait until it dries out a bit.
In Portland, we joke that spring doesn’t end until the 4th of July, but you don’t have to wait until the end of June to put them in the ground!
A little bit of rain won’t hurt and will probably help. It certainly takes the pressure off you to be diligent about watering your new transplants.
I’m talking about the kind of rain that lasts for weeks and makes the ground into a giant mud puddle. That’s a bad time to put succulents in the ground. Wait for a few dry days to pass and a few dry days predicted in the future and then go ahead and plant.
Obviously, if you set them out in March, April, or May, it’s likely that you’ll have another period of rain. That’s fine, and you don’t need to do anything to protect your plants.
Definitely don’t get too excited and put your succulents in the ground during the “false spring” of February.
I know it’s tempting to get started when it feels like spring has arrived, but not only might you experience another freeze, but you know that soggy, wet weather is coming right back.
All that said, if you come across a screaming bargain on some suitable succulents at the store and it happens to be autumn, don’t worry. You can transplant them in fall, and they’ll probably do just fine, especially if they’re native species.
The only times you absolutely shouldn’t plant succulents in the northwest is in the winter months and during the hottest part of summer.
Where to Plant
This might seem obvious. You’re gardening in the Pacific Northwest, right? So that’s where you’ll plant. But you might have noticed that the environment in different parts of your region and even your yard can vary dramatically.
You might have a spot in your backyard that seems to remain soggy all year long, while another area seems to dry out quickly.
Take note of the specific microclimates in your garden and place your succulents in those areas that have good drainage and sun exposure.
Since many parts of the northwest have clay soil, you might need to do a little amending to make your succulents happy.
Rather than adding humus or sand (which won’t hurt), it’s best to work some fine grit into the soil. This creates more channels through which moisture can escape.
Alternatively, you can always put them in raised beds or containers.
When you’re growing a species that doesn’t necessarily thrive in your region, sometimes you have to do a little research to determine how to make it work.
If a species is rated for a climate just outside of your USDA Hardiness Zone, there are actions you can take to influence the microclimate so that you can grow plants you might not be able to otherwise.
For instance, if you live in Zone 8b and you find a succulent that’s hardy to 9a, you can still grow it, but you’ll need to find a spot in your yard that has conditions more like Zone 9a.
As an example, you can put your succulents near a brick wall which will help to increase the temperature, or you might have a protected, sunny area that retains heat better than the breezy, low spot in your backyard.
Alternatively, you can choose to grow your plants in containers so you can move them indoors during the winter.
In addition, it helps to understand the environment in which a plant grows naturally. Pediocactus species grow in the southwestern United States, where they are periodically covered in snow during the winter, so we know they can tolerate cold winters.
But they are only covered with snow for a short period. For that reason, if you have snow in the forecast, and it tends to linger in your neck of the woods, you should protect your plants with frost cloth that you can lift off after the snow has been there for a day or two.
Or, if a species only grows well in rocky soil, you might build a raised rock bed for the plants.
When you’ve chosen your plants and decided where to put them, you’ll still need to provide protection for your new transplants.
A late spring freeze doesn’t just damage fruit tree blossoms. Succulents exposed to strong, direct sun in the spring during a hard freeze may be damaged or killed.
Cover these with frost cloth or grow your succulents on the west side of a large rock or building so they have time to defrost during the day before the sun hits the foliage.
You should also provide a thick layer of mulch, so long as it doesn’t cover any part of the foliage, to help protect the roots from the heat and cold cycle that happens in winter.
Bring the Desert Vibe to the Rainy PNW
It makes sense that there are many succulents that love the conditions in the northwest.
Although rain is usually the first thing that comes to mind when people think about the PNW, most areas also experience long, dry summers.
Plants that have adapted to collect water during the rainy season and store it up for the long dry season have an advantage. And that’s what succulents do.
Knowing how to work with the environment, which includes understanding the best time to plant, is part of helping succulents thrive.
What species do you plan to grow in your garden? What Zone do you live in? Let us know all the details in the comments section below!
Don’t go yet! There’s so much more to learn about growing succulents, no matter where you live. Have a read of these guides next: