It was a sunny Monday morning and Shannon Kerner was working in a bright and airy greenhouse. Although she was the only human in the room, she was not alone.
Surrounded by hundreds of colorful plants, Kerner was busy preparing for the biannual Succulentopia, a two-day sale that begins Oct. 25.
“I think it can be really centering to take care of something else, especially plants, because you have to be really observant on how they’re responding to what you give them,” Kerner said. “It’s not like they can scream at you that they need water.”
Kerner, an agricultural and environmental plant sciences junior, is the student lead of the succulent crew. The five student employees in the group propagate and prepare plants Succulentopia and other sales.
“Being in touch with something living that communicates totally different than you do, I think that’s pretty cool,” Kerner said.
Succulentopia, which occurs fall and spring quarter, is the group’s biggest sales of the year.
This week’s will be the fourth Succulentopia, according to horticulture and crop science lecturer Mike Bush. There will be around 7,000 succulents of approximately 150 varieties available, and most will be sold for between $4.50 and $7, according to Bush.
Bush estimated that the two yearly Succulentopias bring in around 75 percent of the annual revenue from all Horticulture Unit succulent sales of the year. The money raised is returned to the Horticulture Unit to employ students, Bush said.
Succulents are grown year-round in two greenhouses at Cal Poly’s Horticulture Unit. They are sold at various locations, including the Poly Plant Shop and San Luis Obispo Saturday farmers’ market.
However, Bush said he wanted to offer more students the ability to learn to grow succulents, which meant he needed to come up with a way to sell more. This led to the creation of Succulentopia, named by Bush.
“I’m kind of a word geek and a plant geek, so Succulentopia seemed like a fun word to me,” Bush said.
Preparations begin well before the sale.
A lot of the plants have been growing since last school year, Kerner said. Some that take longer will not be ready for the fall sale and will be sold in the spring sale, according to Bush.
How they’re grown
Almost all of the succulents are propagated by hand, according to agricultural and environmental plant sciences senior Beth Funke.
“Our greenhouse starts out with trays and trays and trays of tiny little leaves that grow into succulents,” Funke said. “The bare minimum what you think it would start at, that’s how it starts.”
Echeveria is a common type of succulent, according to Kerner. Many, including one variety called Echeveria ‘Pollux’, are often propagated using a method called leaf propagation.
To begin, a leaf is torn off of a larger succulent. The leaf is placed into soil that is in a plug tray. (Alternatively, leaves can be placed in a seed flat instead of a plug tray, Kerner said).
From there, roots will sprout straight from the leaves. They grow in the plug trays until roots fill the plugs, and then are transferred into larger pots.
It takes around nine months to a year for an Echeveria ‘Pollux’ propagated this way to fill a 4-inch pot, according to Kerner.
Leading up to the sale
Agricultural and environmental plant sciences sophomore Henry Main, who works at the Horticulture Unit, helped prepare for the sale. One preparation was measuring the area to put more shade cloth up. A lot of succulents are grown in a greenhouse at a slightly lower light than most broad sunlight, Main said, and bringing them outside runs the risk of them getting sunburnt.
Other preparations included printing labels for the plants and coming up with systems for moving plants from the greenhouse on the days of the sale to limit empty shelf space, according to Main. Staff members who are not as familiar with succulents are educated so they can answer customer questions.
“It’s a sale at a university,” Main said. “We want to not only be selling plants and making money but also meeting people and doing a little bit of diplomacy stuff for our university.”
Funke said Succulentopia is important because it connects Cal Poly and its students with the San Luis Obispo community. Most of the people who come to the sale are community members or those driving through the area.
“They’re coming onto our campus, seeing the hard work that our students put in, and literally seeing, I guess you can say, the Cal Poly ‘Learn by Doing’ in person,” Funke said.
Working in the succulent crew is a learning experience. The learning environment allows for mistakes to be made while still preparing students for life after college, Funke said.
“I think that that gives them not only the skills that they’re looking for in terms of growing plants in this major, but it also gives them life skills,” Bush said.
Bush said it is fun seeing the students be happy to see people purchasing the “fruit of their labor” because they realize all the hard work was worth it.
Kerner said her favorite part of Succulentopia is sharing her love of plants with others.
“I just think it’s fun to see everyone so happy and stoked about plants,” Kerner said. “It’s really wholesome.”
She said she thinks people like succulents nowadays because they are cute, easy to take care of and fun to collect.
After Succulentopia, there is more room for the Horticulture Unit to continue preparing succulents for future sales.
“It’s crazy to see our greenhouses full and then the day after the sale, they’re empty,” Funke said. “It’s like a fresh start and it’s just crazy to see how much people really buy.”
Succulentopia will take place Oct. 25 from 12 to 6 p.m and Oct. 26 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Cal Poly Horticulture Unit (building 48).
Caring for your succulent
After buying succulents from the sale, there are certain ways they should be cared for. These are some general tips and can be adjusted based on the succulents’ reaction to the environment, Kerner said.
Watering: Kerner said oftentimes, people only water their succulents a little bit due to a belief that succulents do not like it. However, she said they should be watered thoroughly so the water is soaked through the soil. Between waterings, the soil should be completely dried out.
Light: To get the best coloring, lighter purple and pink succulents should receive bright, indirect light, Kerner said. Succulents that are darker can usually receive full sunlight. This can be adjusted based on how it looks like the plant is reacting to the light.
Insects: To get rid of insects like aphids and mealybugs, Kerner said to spray the succulents with a mixture of soap and water.
Temperature: The succulents at the Horticulture Unit can typically grow in outdoor temperatures in San Luis Obispo, Bush said. However, in other parts of the county, such as Paso Robles, it may be too cold for some of the succulents to be grown outdoors year round, he said. If keeping the succulent indoors, they do well in room temperature, according to Kerner.
Pots: When a succulent looks like it has outgrown its pot, it should be seamlessly transitioned into a larger one, Kerner said. Plant growers do not want the roots to be bound, she said.