True, succulents are the easiest plants on the planet, but like all living things, the more you know about them, the higher your success rate and the fewer worries you’ll have. Here are the basics for how to grow, care for and create more succulents.
Aim to keep soil about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. About once a week water thoroughly to soak the roots and flush salts. For succulents in containers, that means until water drips out the bottom of the pot. Let common sense prevail: water more during hot, dry spells and less or not at all during periods of high humidity, cool temperatures and rain.
The fatter the succulent or the fleshier its leaves, the more water it stores in its tissues and the less water it needs (and will tolerate). Cacti in general are less tolerant of overwatering than smooth-leaved succulents.
Succulents need water most during summer heat waves.
If you live in a climate that gets more than 20 inches of rain annually, move potted succulents beneath your home’s eaves lest the roots rot. Place patio umbrellas (with concrete bases for stability) in the garden to keep rain from soaking your in-ground succulents. Channel runoff away from garden beds. Move and replant succulents in low-lying areas where water puddles. Topdress the soil around the plants with several inches of pumice to absorb excess moisture.
The best soil for succulents is coarse and crumbly, as opposed to sandy or claylike. Amend potting soil with pumice, a crushed volcanic rock, sometimes sold at tack and feed stores under the brand name “Dry Stall.”
Along the coast of California, from the Bay Area south, most succulents are fine out in the open year-round. Inland, it’s a different story; most succulents will need some sun protection in summer especially in the afternoon. But often all that is needed is the right microclimate, such as a lacy tree canopy. Incidentally, even in their native habitats, young cacti won’t tolerate open exposure. They grow in the shade of nurse plants until they’re large enough to handle the rigors of the desert.
Q: Why are my succulents leaning?
A: Your Agave attenuata are healthy but searching for sunlight. Rotate the containers 180 degrees weekly for even sun exposure.
Moisture in the cells of a “frost tender” plant expands when it freezes, cell wall burst, and the tissue turns to mush.
In southern and coastal CA from the Bay Area south, most senecios, agaves and aloes do fine out in the open, but echeverias, aeoniums, kalanchoes, crassulas, sempervivums and fine-leaved sedums need protection from frost in winter and scorching sun in summer. Grow them beneath latticework or lacy trees, or perhaps in an open-air greenhouse with a shadecloth roof.
In areas where temperatures drop below freezing, move your potted succulents indoors. Give them bright light for six hours a day and good air circulation. Most kinds go dormant in winter, so they don’t need much water. Enough to moisten the soil occasionally is fine. In-ground succulents will need to be covered with frost cloth or sheets when temperatures drop to freezing (32 degrees F), unless they’re frost-tolerant.
See my video: Protect Your Succulents from Frost (3:30)
Succulents that can handle temperatures well below freezing for extended periods include fine-leaved sedums (stonecrops), sempervivums (hens-and-chicks), most ice plants and yuccas, and a few kinds of agaves and cacti. If you live in a cold climate, I recommend the book “Hardy Succulents” by Gwen Kelaidis. Incidentally, the majority of succulents can handle temperatures below 32 degrees for short periods (an hour or two), but may show some damage on leaf margins and tips. And even if the plant freezes, it may return from the roots in the spring.
Growing succulents in challenging climates is why I wrote “Succulent Container Gardens.” Anyone, anywhere can grow succulents in containers, which are portable and can be moved and sheltered when the weather turns too cold, wet, humid or hot.
Want ideas for your desert Southwest garden? Visit my Pinterest page, Cactus Chic.
When leaves get brown and dry under the main head, it’s normal. Remove them if you find them unsightly, just keep in mind that dry leaves do offer greater protection from sunburn and climactic extremes (if those are issues).
Echeverias, aeoniums and most rosette succulents form new leaves from the center of the rosette, and older leaves dry and fall off, exposing an ever-lengthening stem. So, yes, they’ll need to be cut back if you want to keep the planting dense and low to the ground. The tighter you want a composition, whether garden bed, wreath or container, the quicker you’ll have to cut it back due to plant growth. And don’t fertilize. If they’re not fed, they tend not to grow too rapidly.
See my videos:
How to Refresh an Overgrown Succulent Container Garden (4:31)
Refresh a Succulent Hanging Basket (4:37)
How to Refresh an Overgrown Succulent Garden. (4:48)
Aeoniums for Your Garden (3:15)
How to Behead Ruffled Echeverias (3:56)
Fertilize succulents when they’re emerging from dormancy and beginning their annual growth spurt, which for most is spring. A light feeding of manure tea, diluted fish emulsion, or a balanced fertilizer will help them grow lush and lovely. Most commercial growers apply a balanced liquid fertilizer whenever the plants are watered during the growing season (generally spring and summer)—once a week, half strength.
See my video: How to Fertilize Succulents (1:33)
Most succulents are sun-lovers, but a few highly desirable ones actually prefer low-light conditions. Among them are haworthias and sansevierias, of which there are dozens of varieties. Some of my favorites are fairy washboard (Haworthia limifolia) and zebra plants (Haworthia attenuata cultivars), and “bird’s nest” sansevierias, which are more compact than taller, better-known snake plants. So-called “walking sansevierias” are cool, too; they send forth horizontal offsets (miniatures of the mother plant) that produce chubby aerial roots in hopes of finding soil in which to establish themselves. Tropical succulents such as Rhipsalis species, being understory plants, do well indoors; grow them in hanging baskets or in pots that allow them to cascade, ideally in a bathroom or kitchen where they’ll benefit from extra humidity. Also, many succulents that are variegated (striped or mottled with white or shades of yellow) that may sunburn due to lack of protective pigment will work as house plants.
Rotate pots weekly for even light exposure, lest plants grow (and stretch) in one direction. Indoor succulents—indeed, all indoor plants—need good air circulation to keep pests such as mealy bugs from settling in.
Good air circulation keeps pests from settling in.
What looks like bits of white lint in leaf axils are mealy bugs. They won’t go away on their own, and will spread rapidly and infest other plants. Isolate affected succulents and spray the pests with Isopropyl alcohol. Still wondering what’s wrong? Quickly diagnose it on my Pests page: symptoms, causes, severity, prevention, and treatments for common succulent pests and problems.
See Succulents Simplified, pp 76-77: “What’s Wrong with Your Succulent?”
Videos: Oh, No! There’s Something Wrong with My Succulent! (12:19)
Agave Snout Weevil Prevention and Treatment (6:43).
You’ll find succulents among the easiest plants to propagate by pups, offsets, stem cuttings or rooting leaves. To the novice, of course, such tasks are mystifying. How deep, for example, does one plant a leaf? Learn more.
Q: Where can I obtain seeds to grow succulents?
A: Check out the CSSA Seed Depot online.
Videos on my YouTube Channel:
Succulent Propagation from Leaves (5:57)
Succulent Propagation—Stacked Crassula (3:52)
Succulent Propagation—Offset Plants (4:50)
Succulent Propagation—Coring to Create Offsets (4:00)