Many garden plants grow vertically, adding height and focal points to a flower bed. As such, the bare areas closer to the ground often need more color. One remedy is to plant a ground-hugger that tends to grow outward more than it grows upward. The ice plant is an easy-to-tend succulent that blooms and spreads across the ground like a vibrant carpet from late spring into the fall months. These hardy little plants require little maintenance, plus they’re drought-resistant.
The name “ice plant” refers to several different varieties. Some people call them “sea figs” or “sea marigolds.” But all ice plants share the hardiness feature. They spread easily across even the most inhospitable sections of ground.
Some gardeners cringe when they hear mention of the ice plant. The truth is that that botanists have attached a warning label to one type: Carpobrotus edulis, which goes by its common name, the Hottentot fig. This aggressive grower was planted along right-of-ways throughout California in the 1970s. Today, these plants have colonized huge areas of the coast. The Hottentot fig grows an additional three feet in diameter each year and increases the soil’s salt content, preventing the growth of other plants. Experts have deemed it an invasive species in the western parts of the U.S., Australia, and the Mediterranean.
Although hardy, ice plants don’t like soggy roots or clay soils. Well-drained soil is crucial. And, don’t bother fertilizing or composting these little gems. They grow profusely in pure sand or gravel mixed with some gardening soil. These succulents love full sun, but they’ll tolerate a little shade as well. Because they prefer dryer soil, they tend to be less cold-hardy in wetter areas than in dry ones.
To plant seeds, rake the soil and water it. Scatter the seeds lightly and press gently into the soil, but not too deeply. Don’t cover them with additional soil. The sunlight germinates the seeds. Once you’ve established your ice plants, you create new plants by dividing the original plant. Or, try propagating cuttings from existing plants using a two- to four-inch length of stem cut from a healthy plant. Set aside until the cut area develops a callus. Remove any lower leaves. Plant the cutting in a pot filled with succulent potting soil. The soil should be damp, but not soaking wet. Set the pot in an area with access to bright sunlight.
While ice plants don’t crave water like many other plants, they still need it to survive. During the hot summer months, water deeply once per week, but stop watering in late autumn and throughout the winter. The thick, fleshy leaves of succulents store nutrients and moisture. That’s why they are so drought-tolerant. When you water them, the leaves plump up. But once the cold weather and freezing temperatures arrive, plump leaves tend to freeze more easily. Changing the watering schedule before the cold weather hits allows the leaves to harden and become more weather-resistant.
Although ice plants look beautiful nestled among other plants in a garden, they can also be the low-maintenance yet opulent star of the show. Ice plants flourish in raised gardens, sloped areas, or on hillsides. If you need to cover a wide area, this plant is an easy solution. If you’re short of ground space, these plants also work great in pots. They grow fast, and soon after planting, their magnificently colored blooms will be cascading over the edges of their containers.
Cut off damaged stems in mid-spring. During the blooming periods, remove wilted flowers, trim plants to a uniform height, and cut off dead foliage. Then, in the fall, prune ice plants again after the blooms have all faded. This limits seed production. Cut back rampant growths to prevent them from smothering out other plants or taking over your garden or yard.
The flowers of an ice plant resemble daisies or asters. If you’re seeking showy, bold, bright colors on a plant that requires little fuss, the ice plant is an excellent choice. From deep purples to dazzling reds, eye-catching yellows, vibrant pinks, and even bi-colored blooms, you’ll have no trouble finding the perfect shade of ice plant to jazz up your garden. You can expect blooms to start showing in late spring and extend through summer or early fall. The plant’s foliage varies from one species to the next, with unique shapes and colorations. In colder areas, the green foliage dies back, but in more temperate climates, the plant stays green year round.
Most ice plants creep along the ground and grow no more than six to eight inches tall. However, the Lampranthus, which includes more than 100 different species, also offers shrub-like types that grow taller. The Lampranthus blandus is a succulent perennial shrub with three-sided, gray-green leaves that are covered in translucent dots. The blooms are pale pink and last throughout the summer. It grows to a height of two feet in a garden and about 18 inches in a container. Like other ice plants, it’s super-hardy.
Keep an eye out for mealybugs on your ice plants. These pests thrive in warmer growing climates. The wingless creatures with long, sucking mouthparts look like fuzzy, white masses on leaves. Scale insects are another common pest attracted to the leaves and stems. Some species have wings. Prune infested stems and leaves to get rid of these pests. Dab them with a cotton swab soaked in alcohol and introduce ladybugs to feed on the larvae. Or, use insecticidal soap to get rid of them.