Your Region and the Season Matter
Where you live and the time of year make a big difference as to how well your succulents grow and perform, and even which kinds you should choose---especially if they're in the open garden. Indoors or in a greenhouse, you have more control over the environment, but seasons still affect cyclical aspects of growth such as flowering and dormancy.
How to grow anything, anywhere
Here's the secret: Replicate its native growing conditions as closely as possible.
Obviously, the more you kow about a plant, the better you'll be able to keep it alive and thriving.
Most---but not all---succulents come from areas of the world that are hot and dry, with minimal rainfall. These plants are best suited to USDA zones 9 and 10, although they will survive outdoors in zones 8 and 11 with adequate protection from frost, excessive heat, and moisture.
This ideal climate for growing succulents is found sporadically in latitudes from 20 to 40 degrees, notably marine-influenced, nontropical areas of the US Southwest, Mexico, South America, eastern China, southern Japan, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Mediterranean. In other zones, especially during seasonal temperature extremes, tender succulents are best cultivated indoors.
New to Arizona?
Succulents are desert plants, right? Wrong! Well, not all of them anyway. Scroll down to the "DESERT" section for what to expect when gardening with succulents in the Phoenix area.
Growing Succulents in Northerly Climates, Sempervivums (9:03) - The basics, plus design ideas and exciting new cultivars.
Growing Succulents in Northerly Climates: Sedums and More (7:08) - Cool succulents for cold climates plus how to select, grow and design with them.
Debra Lee Baldwin’s Southern CA Succulent Garden in Spring (3:12)
See what's blooming and what needs doing.
Debra Lee Baldwin's Southern CA Succulent Garden in Summer (10:34)
On an 89-degree day I give a tour of my garden, noting what's in bloom, lookin' good (or sadly dreadful), and checking the health of succulents small and large.
Post-Summer Care for Succulents (6:49) I show and explain how to deal with scorched tips, sunburn, mealy bugs, shriveled leaves, yellowed stems, burned patches, dead-looking succulents, keeled-over cactus and cochineal scale.
"Seasonal Care for Succulents" on pages 74-75 of my book, Succulents Simplified.
"Cultivating Succulents in Challenging Climates" pp. 143-148 of Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.)
Seasonal Succulent Care
My spring garden’s most vivid blooms are those of succulent ice plants. Aloes, bulbine and numerous arid-climate companions are bright and beautiful from March through mid-May. Increasing temps tend to put the kibosh on delicate spring flowers. If you live near the coast of CA, you’ll enjoy a longer spring, but you may not get…
Don’t let summer sun and heat harm your succulents! Heat generally isn’t a concern. Although some succulents (like sempervivums) tend not to thrive in temps above 80 or 90 degrees F, the majority are fine. It’s heat plus sun that’s the concern.
See the video Depending on how long temps stay below freezing (32 degrees F), “frost tender” succulents may show varying degrees of damage. When moisture in the cells of a vulnerable plant freezes, it expands, bursts cell walls, and turns leaves to mush. In a “light frost,” leaf tips alone may show damage (“frost burn”). In a “hard…
Texas update, June 2021: Gwen’s agaves recovered beautifully! What you’re seeing on the lower leaves is all that’s left of the damage. New growth is concealing the old. Basically, all Gwen needs to do is to cut the damaged leaves to a point to make the ugly tips go away. See me trim a frost-damaged agave:…
Regional Succulent Care
HOW TO GROW SUCCULENTS in San Francisco (Bay Area) Gardens A plant is “succulent” if it stores water in fleshy leaves and stems in order to withstand periods of drought. Cultivate species native to arid climates (the majority) in warm, sunny areas of your garden, in mounded, fast-draining soil. Protect from prolonged dampness,…
Coastal Southern California
Certain readily available succulents not only get by on rainfall alone, they’ll grow in nutrient-poor soil and can handle searing sun and frost. No-water succulents for Southern California gardens that are native to the Southwest and Mexico include dasylirions, agaves, cacti and yuccas. They thrive from south of the border to the Bay Area and…
I'm grateful to Nancy Mumpton of the Central Arizona Cactus & Succulent Society for this advice on growing soft (non-spiny) succulents in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. Nancy explains why such plants tend to go downhill in summer, and what to do about it.
Succulents in the genera Crassula, Echeveria, Sedum, Sempervivium, Aeonium and more close their pores during hot summer days (starting in June) and open them on nights when it cools down adequately. In other words, they breathe at night. The technical term for this is Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM).
In Phoenix, especially during the monsoon season (June through September), the nights do not cool down enough, but stay as high as 85 to 90 degrees. Consequently, CAM plants are unable to breathe effectively, and they suffer.
How to save soft-leaved succulents
Move them indoors to a cool but bright location in summer. Move them back outside when the nights start to cool down, usually late September. If they must stay outside all year, set them in the shade, give minimal water, and let them rest for the summer. "They will not look good and may lose leaves," Nancy says. "But in the fall they'll perk up, grow and look better."
Nancy suggests two Facebook groups that often deal with this topic: Arizona Cactus and Succulent and CentralArizonaCactus. "In June, you'll see all the problems that people ask about CAM plants!" she says, adding that in Phoenix such succulents are sold at Home Depot, Lowe's, many garden centers and even at the Desert Botanical Garden. Consequently residents assume soft-leaved succulents should do well in their climate, and blame themselves when they fail to thrive.
She also notes: "There are some areas of AZ like in the northern parts of the state and even Tucson that are somewhat cooler than Phoenix in the summer, where the problem is not as great."
In Baja California recently I was showing off my knowledge of native succulents when one “got” me. The friend who was taking a video with my phone gasped when I unsuccessfully tried to set a 3-inch-long chunk of cholla (“choy-ah”) cactus back onto a boulder. It resolutely clung to my fingers. When I…
Of the dozen or so types of cacti in my garden, I have more opuntias than any other. Also known as paddle cactus or prickly pear, Opuntia species have stems shaped like ping-pong paddles. New pads grow from older ones after rains drench the roots and help fuel new growth. Typically these new pads, and flowers that turn…
Succulents for Northerly Climates
In general, the farther away you go from the Epicenter of All Things Succulent (coastal and southern CA), the fewer varieties of succulents you'll be able to grow successfully outdoors, and the smaller their size. Learn more:
Showy Succulents for Snowy Climates (Debra’s WSJ Article): A shorter version of this article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, 3/9/18. This is the unabridged original. Is it a given that Northerners can’t grow succulents? Not at all. Granted, most of these moisture-storing, arid-climate plants prefer warm, sunny habitats. Yet in response to demand, major growers are…
The popular and readily available varieties shown here can handle northern winters, snow, rainstorms (if given excellent drainage) and summer dry spells. There are two main genera: Sedum and Sempervivum. Lesser known are Rosularia, Delosperma, and Orostachys. Notably, certain species of Agave and cacti don’t freeze in all but the coldest climates.
With the exception of sempervivums, jovibarbas, many sedums and yuccas, and certain cacti and ice plants, the majority of succulents are frost-tender. Although they can tolerate temps down to freezing and in excess of 90 (if shaded), between 40 and 80 degrees is ideal. But you can grow any succulent, anywhere, if you understand its needs.
Southern US, Florida, Hawaii
It may surprise you that aeoniums---which originate in the Canary Islands and the northwestern coast of Africa---love Southern CA but don't do well in Florida or Hawaii. The latter have high humidity and summer rainfall, which Southern CA doesn't. The same goes for echeverias, which are native to Mexico.
If you live where humidity and rainfall are high, consider succulents as annuals, get a dehumidifier, or grow "tropical" varieties (see pages 145-146 of Designing with Succulents, 2nd ed.).