The zen of succulents

Minigardens: Hardy plants, plus containers and upcycling are a match made in Zen heaven, as a Tacoma couple have discovered

rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.comOctober 10, 2012 

Imagine a garden that survives drought, snow and neglect. It’s portable, childishly simple to grow and turns landfill trash into Zen-like beauty. It can even break your smoking habit. It’s the succulent container garden, a perfect match of easy-care plants and cheap upcycled containers that a Tacoma couple creates to share beauty and spend time together.

“We’re making the planet greener one container at a time,” says Jeniffer Scitern. In the backyard of the South Tacoma home, Scitern and her husband Terry happily survey the scene: A planter bed of baby succulents such as stonecrop and sempervivum, an awning protecting a work table and supply shelf, and an array of miniature succulent landscapes, inhabiting containers as diverse as an old tea kettle and a beer ice bucket.

Together, the Sciterns make and sell these tiny landscapes as Magical Zen Gardens – but they’re keen to teach everyone the secrets of the hobby that brings them peace and does the environment good.

“We started it because we both quit smoking and needed something to do,” explains Jeniffer.

They were living in West Seattle at the time, around 10 years ago, and Jeniffer happened to follow Northwest garden guru Ed Hume into a small private nursery.

“He was carrying in these sedums planted in recycled containers,” Jeniffer remembers. “I bought one planted in an old basketball and showed my husband. I thought, ‘This is a great green idea.’ It got my mind going.”

A commission seamstress who was set on recycling as much as possible anyway, Scitern was in the habit of picking up reusable stuff at garage and yard sales. Then, she and Terry took it one step further, traveling as far as Orting and Ocean Shores to pick up cheap items that might serve as containers for planting succulents; such items include toy dump trucks and dollar-store salsa dishes.

“We have a few rules: They have to be nonrecyclable materials that might otherwise go to landfill, and we don’t pay over $1 per container,” says Jeniffer.

Going one step further than Hume, they also started looking for quirky objects to fill out the “landscape” of the container: tiny Asian statues, driftwood, old glass, plastic animals or lighthouses.

And the hobby has turned profitable: The Sciterns have been selling their Zen gardens successfully at local festivals and their own yard sale for a few years now, as well as through Terry’s work at Puget Sound Energy. They’ll also be selling some at their annual yard sale this Saturday.

The easiest part is, in fact, growing the succulents. Bending down by the planter box filled with sandy soil, Terry Scitern breaks off a small stem of stonecrop.

“This is all you need to do, then stick it in some soil,” he says. “They’ll root themselves. We buy starts cheap from stores or yard sales, then divide them.”

Succulents, which include sedums, are drought-resistant plants often used for ground cover. They’ll tolerate almost any condition except soggy soil, even heavy snow, and all but the most spindly-leaved do fine inside with lots of light. They only need a little water once a week, but won’t die if you forget. They’ll bloom with feeding, but like barren, sandy soil best. Insects are never a problem.

“They are so easygoing, so friendly,” says Jeniffer. “You can’t kill them.”

Ed Hume agrees. Those plants he was carrying in West Seattle were actually created by his wife, an artist, and they both like succulents for their easy-going ways.

“We really enjoy them,” Hume says. “They’re maintenance-free and so much fun. They come in so many different varieties, different shapes and colors and textures. Some are absolutely gorgeous.”

The Sciterns have held several informal teaching sessions for their friends, as well as at Portland Avenue Community Center events, and intend to hold more classes next summer.

“It’s so simple,” Jeniffer says.

One of the most intriguing things about the succulent garden containers is how they instantly create miniature landscapes. Hens-and-chicks become undulating mountains. Red and green stonecrop tendrils stretch out like trees. Others transform into shrubs or forests.

“It’s like bonsai for dummies,” Jeniffer says, grinning.

But apart from the fun of searching yard sales and the together-time of propagating and creating, what the Sciterns like the best is giving the gardens away.

“Seeing how people react is the most rewarding part,” Terry says.

“This is our we-share time,” Jeniffer says. “It keeps us communicating. It costs much less than smoking! And it’s a great way to save things from landfill. If people would just do more with what they have, I’d be happy.”

How to buy your own

What: Magical Zen Gardens Tacoma yard sale

When: 9 a.m. Saturday

Where: Contact Jeniffer Scitern at 253-475-6262 for directions

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/arts

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