Adored for their vivid colors and intriguing shapes, succulents are incredibly popular with both amateur and professional gardeners worldwide. Succulents are defined by their thick, fleshy parts that hold water, allowing these plants to survive even the driest conditions. Common to deserts, semi-arid regions, and steppes (virgin grasslands in Europe and Siberia), succulents are often difficult to distinguish from their close cousins, the cacti.
Some succulents also have practical uses, such as the Aloe Vera plant, which treats burns, including sunburn, as well as frostbite, skin conditions like cold sores and psoriasis, itching, and even calms an upset stomach. Asparagus is actually a succulent, too. Asparagus is incredibly nutritious, delivering a healthy dose of vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6, C, E, and K, as well as folate, copper, selenium, fiber, manganese, potassium, zinc, iron, protein, and more.
Growing succulents is astoundingly easy, as they require so little in the form of care and nurturing. In fact, over-nurturing is the usual reason why gardeners tend to fail with succulents. Too much water, over-fertilizing, and other intrusive care kills these plants, whereas a more hands-off care plan usually results in healthy, happy succulents that bring their owners years of enjoyment. Here’s how to do it right.
A Good Beginning Assures a Great Future: Choosing the Growing Conditions of Your Succulents
First, decide whether you prefer an indoor or outdoor succulent garden, and whether you want to plant directly in the ground or in containers. Container gardens are ideal for climates with harsh winters, because it allows you to bring in and shelter your plants when conditions are unfavorable, or to move them away from damaging winds or hail storms. Many gardeners choose to plant in containers so that they can place their succulents for regular sunbathing in the summer and tender loving care indoors during the winter.
Choose pots with adequate drainage holes, because succulents don’t like wet feet. Glass bowls and other containers that don’t allow water to drain quickly and thoroughly will likely kill your succulents. Opt for unglazed pots with generous drainage holes.
If you’re growing succulents outdoors, they tolerate a jam-packed environment. But inside, you’ll want to leave some breathing room for your plants. To create a colorful, vibrant succulent container with lots of different plants, leave ample growing room for each plant. Most plants purchased from greenhouses or garden centers are ready to be transplanted immediately, because plants are kept in as small a container as possible to save space and money on shipping.
The Dirt on Dirt: Choosing the Right Soil for Your Succulents
Ordinary potting soil is too rich for succulents. Remember, in the wild, these plants live in some of the most rugged conditions on earth. Succulents don’t tolerate lots of coddling and cushy living conditions. Opt for a soil mix that’s designed for succulents or cacti, or mix your regular potting soil with a three-to-one ratio of potting soil to builder’s sand. That’s 25 percent builder’s sand with 75 percent potting soil.
Use clean, unused soil and sand, because plants can carry diseases just like pets and people can. If you reuse a pot that had a diseased plant, you risk transmitting the disease to your new succulents. Thoroughly clean your planters between uses, just like you would your dinner plates between meals, and buy new potting soil for your brand new plants.
It’s Always Sunny in Succulent Land: The Ideal Amount of Sunlight for Succulents
Typically, succulents enjoy about six hours of sunlight per day, but that varies from one variety to another. Most also tolerate indirect sunlight well, such as a window that gets six or more hours of indirect sun per day. They’ll also usually be fine outdoors in full sun. But they need at least six hours of good sun per day. Check the particular variety of succulent you have and its specific sun and light requirements, and keep an eye on it for the first few weeks in its new home. Always keep a close check on plants when you move them to a new, environment, too.
Succulent leaves burn when they get too hot or too much direct sun. If you notice your leaves looking burned or changing color, it’s likely getting too much direct sun. Move it to an area that gets only indirect sun or fewer hours of direct sun each day. Remember: the amount of direct sun an area receives changes continually all year long. Keep checking your plants and their habitat as the seasons change.
Some Like It Hot! The Ideal Temperature Conditions for Succulents
Succulents are happiest at 90-degrees Fahrenheit or lower, but not below 60-degrees. Some varieties are a bit heartier, tolerating conditions that hover at 50-degrees or lower. Few succulents can survive freezing or near-freezing temperatures for long or very often. They also like to feel the seasons, preferring warmer temps of 70 to 80-degrees in the summertime and cooler 50-60 degrees in the wintertime. Most zones get at least a few sub-freezing nights during the winter, so have a suitable indoor spot prepared for your plants during the cold months, and keep an eye on your local forecast.
Water, Water Everywhere, It’s Just Too Much to Drink! The Ideal Watering Conditions for Succulents
Like cacti, succulents are accustomed to drenching rains followed by long periods of drought. It’s best to mimic those conditions as closely as possible when growing succulents at home. Water thoroughly on a regular basis, allowing the water to drench all the soil down to the deepest roots. Then allow it to dry completely before watering again. Don’t re-water until the top inch or two of soil is dry. During the dormant season (winter), you can wait until the entire top half of the soil is dry to the touch. If you live in a particularly wet region, you might want to keep your succulents under an awning or covered porch so you can control how often it gets wet.
How often you water depends on the size of the pot, the species of succulent, and other factors. As a general rule, water your succulent when the top inch or two of soil gets dry to the touch. When a succulent is over-watered, leaves begin to yellow or appear transparent, or feel squishy. If your plant looks healthy, you’re doing fine.
Don’t fret if the lower layers of your succulent’s leaves occasionally turn brown and fall off. Just like the trees in your yard and all other plant life, leaves eventually get old and need shedding. Only be concerned when the bulk of the plant’s leaves don’t look healthy, or when the top leaves look scorched or discolored.
Feed Me, Seymour: Feeding & Fertilizing Your Succulents
Just because succulents need little care doesn’t mean they need no care. It’s best to fertilize your plants every few months, perhaps once during each of the four seasons. There are several commercially marketed succulent foods and fertilizers on the market, and most cacti food or fertilizer works on succulents, too. Be sure to read all the instructions and information on the packaging, including accurate dosage, how frequently to fertilize, and exactly what varieties of succulent the manufacturer recommends using it on.
Don’t apply fertilizer directly to the plant. Like watering, you’re not really feeding the plant as much as you’re feeding the soil. The plant draws what it needs from there. Avoid getting the fertilizer on the leaves and stem. Most fertilizers and plant foods can burn and damage the plants. Apply the fertilizer to the soil at the base of the plant, where the roots can absorb the nutrients as the plant needs feeding.
Mommy, How Do Succulents Make Babies? Propagating Succulents
The best time to propagate succulents is when they grow long (gardeners refer to this as, “getting leggy,) with widely dispersed leaves. This usually happens when the plant doesn’t get enough light. But you can remove leaves and turn those leaves into new succulent plants any time you like.
Remove the leaves from the lower part of the plant. If you damage the leaves during removal, leaving part of the leaf on the stem of the plant, your leaves won’t grow into new plants. So, be careful. Grasp the leaf you’re removing firmly but gently and start wiggling it from side to side. As it comes loose from the plant stem, you’ll feel a little snap. Now it’s time to remove what gardeners call the “rosette.” It’s the top of your succulent left after removing those leaves. Do this by snipping just below the rosette using a knife or scissors.
Lay the leaves and rosette in a dry place and allow the “wounds” (cut places) to “heal” and callous over. After you’re sure the cut edges are healed (a few days to about one week), lay the leaves and rosette on top of a succulent soil mixture, placing it directly in the spot where you’d like your new plant to grow. If you like, you can use a rooting hormone, but most gardeners propagate their succulents just fine without it.
Spray the soil and leaves well with water, and repeat whenever the soil gets dry. Within a few weeks, your leaves and rosette will grow roots right down into the soil. When it begins to wither and die, it’s okay to gently pull the propagation leaf or “parent leaf” away from your newly formed plant.
Don’t expect a 100 percent success rate with this method. Some of your leaves will probably just wither and die. But most will produce new succulents, and your original stem, if you continue to water and care for it, will eventually grow into a brand new plant, as well.
When treated with respect and kindness, it’s not unusual for succulents to live for decades. Most gardeners prefer buying succulent plants to work with, but you can try starting your own succulents from seed. Local and online garden centers and seed distribution companies offer a wide variety of succulent and cacti seed. Just pick the varieties that look fun and easy to care for in your growing conditions.