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May 21, 2024

Sublime Succulents

Cleveland resident creates unique arrangements

by Mark H. Stowers

The Bolivar Bullet

Toiling in her mother and grandmother’s acre-plus gardens as a child gave Joni Speck the understanding of planting and harvest and filling the freezer with purple hull peas, corn, and more. However, these days, she’s taken that education and is creating succulent plants that are all the rage at the Cleveland Farmer’s Market. Speck, a teacher at Cleveland Central and part of the Cleveland School District for nearly two decades, uses the plants in her educational arena. 

“All my plants come home with me for the summer and into the fall,” she said. “Then, around November, I bring them all to school and it usually takes about four trips in my SUV. I have a huge table set up under my classroom window. They winter in my classroom and my students help me take care of them and water them and check on them. They really enjoy it.”

She enjoys introducing succulents and just basic gardening to students and adults. 

“It’s surprising how many students have never grown anything,” she said. 

With more than 100 succulents on average, Speck stays busy with her gardening passion. The Cleveland resident and Greenville native is a Delta State alum who never left town after graduation.

“I came to college at Delta State and just stayed,” said Speck. “I taught 11 years at Margaret Green Middle School and then after consolidation I moved up to the high school. I teach nine through twelve Special Ed and Inclusion and Resource.

Speck has been with the Farmer’s Market for six years but initially had a much shorter term in mind.

“My goal was to do just one market,” she said. “Once I got out there and saw how amazing it was and starting meeting people, I’ve been doing it ever since.”

She first started growing vegetables that fertilized her green thumb. Then, on Pinterest, she found succulents. But, there weren’t any of the low-maintenance plants around at the time. Speck reached out to a San Diego, California succulent grower and entered a drawing to win plants. She didn’t win but her essay connected with the SoCal grower and she sent plants to Mississippi for Speck.

“She emailed me and said she was from a small town and felt my pain. She sent me plants and then being a Southerner, I sent her a thank you package,” said Speck. 

Her package included some handmade clay plant holders in the shape of mushrooms and other gifts. The SoCal grower was enthralled with the gift and continued sending more succulents to Speck. 

“She wanted to carry my mushrooms in her Amazon shop and at her nursery. But, I was kind of apprehensive because I’m a teacher and it takes up a lot of my time. We made a deal that I’d make mushrooms when I could and she’d send me plants.”

That’s when she decided to go the Farmers Market. And, Speck worked the plant science side of things by creating new succulents. The plant has many types but typically the plants are found in dry climates.

“They have shallow roots. Their ideal environment is getting very little rain sporadically,” she said. “A lot of times when people try to grow succulents – and I killed so many when I started because you love them to death. I was watering them once or twice a week. But, now I water mine in the summertime once every three weeks and in the winter, once a month. They seem pretty happy with that.”

With several varieties including aloe hybrids.

“I try to grow a big variety so when it’s time to get my cuttings and propagate, I like my arrangements to have at least four to five succulents in it. I like to pack my pots,” she said. “I try not to mix succulents that need more water with those that don’t. But, you can mix because they make beautiful arrangements.”

She notes that “because they thrive off of neglect and you don’t have to do much, anybody can grow them. I still have people come by my booth at the farmers market and tell me their plant is doing so well.”

Speck with be at the Fall Market tomorrow, October 5, and will have her special succulent pumpkins.

“I use a live pumpkin that I disinfected and waxed and make arrangements on them,” she said. “That was something I started doing when I worked at Cleveland Fresh and it grew from there.”

Speck makes her own epoxy and cement pots that she puts special touches on.

“I always like to have something special in it. Epoxy birds or snails and of course my polymer clay mushrooms. There’s always something special in there,” she said. 

To learn more about Speck’s succulents, visit her Instagram page @Justly_Joni.

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