Success with Succulents

Brightly colored Echeveria

Brightly colored Echeveria

The popularity of succulents has surged in recent years, moving to the mainstream after years of being prized mostly by collectors. Spurred by their ease of care and interesting, often flower-like forms and colors, succulents have become the “It” plants. The popularity has led to succulent breeders creating ever-more colorful or oddly-shaped or -textured plants. 

But first, let’s define what a succulent is. Simply, they are plants that have thickened parts that store water. Those parts could be leaves or stems*. The ability to store water makes them adapted to areas of low rainfall and high temperatures. When broken open, the leaves (or stems in the case of cactus) have a thick, clear tissues in which they store water. They also generally have a thick or waxy “skin” and tend to be shallow rooted.

Mountain aloe has thorny spines on the bottom of the leaves

Mountain aloe has thorny spines on the bottom of the leaves

Succulents may be hardy, like Hens and Chicks and sedums, or they may be tender plants best wintered indoors, such as aloe and jade plant. When planting succulents together in a container it’s a good idea to group hardy or non-hardy types together for two reasons. First, hardy types tend to grow more vigorously then non-hardy varieties and may crowd out the slower growing succulents. Second, if you’d like to keep your mixed succulent container indoors for the winter (necessary for the non-hardy varieties to survive), the hardy types will decline without a winter cold period.

Of course if you’d like to create a lovely outdoor succulent container for the summer, mixing hardy and non-hardy succulents is fine (and gives you many more options for color and texture), just be aware you’ll need to break up the grouping and move some indoors to survive the winter.

Echeveria minima

Echeveria minima

Most succulents are adapted to extremely high light levels, and those with interesting coloration often show their best colors in intense sunlight. In many cases though, several hours of direct sunlight with the remaining light as bright as possible will provide enough light to keep your succulents growing. If the succulent becomes elongated, pale and “stretchy” you’ll have to try to find a brighter spot.

For best results it’s a good idea to repot commercially purchased succulents into a homemade soil mix of 3 parts potting soil, 2 parts coarse sand and 1 part perlite. This all but eliminates the leading cause of death for succulents: overwatering. Particularly in winter, when most succulents are semi-dormant and temperatures are lower, soggy soil leads inevitably to death. A fast-draining soil like the mix described will help prevent accidental overwatering.

Hens-and-chicks are a popular hardy succulent.

Hens-and-chicks are a popular hardy succulent.

How frequently succulents need water is determined by the soil it’s growing in and the temperatures and light levels they are exposed to. It may vary from weekly to every few weeks-perhaps even monthly in the winter.  Always feel the soil a few inches down when determining when to water your succulents. If you’re not sure, it never hurts to wait another few days—a succulent is not dangerously dry unless the leaves are beginning to soften. Another trick is to stick a pencil into the soil, sort of like testing cake batter. If moist soil clings to the wood of the sharpened pencil, you can wait a bit longer to water. If it comes out clean, give it a drink.

A frequently overlooked aspect of succulent care is fertilizing. Succulents, like other plants, need basic nutrients to thrive and should be fertilized regularly when actively growing, usually summer. The fast-draining soil mix that protects their roots holds less water because it contains less organic material. It also holds fewer nutrients, so regular (though dilute) fertilizing is essential. Any liquid fertilizer will work, just dilute by half and apply twice a month in summer.

*Technically, plants with fleshy water storing roots are also botanically succulents, but are generally not included when describing collector succulents.

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