How to Grow Succulents in Northerly Climates

Resources and info for growing hardy succulents in cold, northern climates. This is the handout sheet for attendees of my Northwest Flower & Garden Festival presentations. ~ Debra Lee Baldwin

Above: These images from my presentations at the Northwest Flower & Garden Festival are also in my book, Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.)

Succulents are light-lovers from regions with low humidity, above-freezing temps, and fewer than 24 inches of rainfall annually. No matter where you live, protect your succulents from excessive damp and cold, and if growing them indoors, install T-5 bulbs and provide good air circulation. And because succulents really do prefer to be outdoors, take them outside during seasons YOU want to be outside enjoying the fresh air and sunshine!

Nearly any succulent will grow in northern climates as a windowsill or greenhouse plant. Your biggest challenge is giving these sunbathers enough light. Indoors, set them near windows that face south or west. Don’t bother with north-facing windows, but if your windows face east, do collect and enjoy low-light lovers such as haworthias and gasterias. Tip: Maximize the vertical space near a light source by growing small succulents in hanging pots or globes.

Seasonal: Cultivate succulents native to arid climates (which are the majority) outdoors during warm, sunny months and shelter them indoors during cold, wet months. Most need to be kept above 32 degrees year-round and dry in winter.

Water thoroughly but infrequently. Waterlogged roots may rot. Don’t use pot saucers. Let soil go nearly dry between waterings. The fatter the succulent, the more camel-like, and the less water it requires. Cacti in particular cannot tolerate overwatering. In winter most succulents go dormant; withhold water unless days are unseasonably warm.

Soil needs to drain quickly and go almost dry between waterings. Amend garden soil and potting mixes 1/3 to 1/2 with perlite or pumice, or use a commercial cactus mix.

Food: Lightly fertilize (half-strength liquid fertilizer) in spring.

Sun: Give at least three hours of light daily, indoors or out, to maintain plant symmetry and color, and to encourage flowering. Protect from intense afternoon sun in summer. See my article: Why Doesn’t My Succulent Bloom? 

Create an indoor “light island” for overwintering your succulents or if you don’t have adequate window light. You’ll need multi-shelf wire racks with trays to catch drips. Ready-to-go units often include lights, or install T-5 fluorescent grow lights that stay on for six to eight hours daily (less in winter). Include a fan for air circulation and a timer that switches everything off in the evening and on in the morning.

Above: Made of lightweight, powder-coated aluminum, these indoor plant shelves come with adjustable lights with energy-efficient bulbs; plastic drip trays; and wheels for easy positioning. Provides 18 square feet of growing space. From Gardener’s Supply Co., about $600.

Air circulation is important to prevent insect infestations. Watch for mealy bugs in leaf axils and aphids on flower buds. Control by spraying with dilute rubbing alcohol.

Temperature: 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 85 (if shaded), between 40 and 80 degrees is ideal.

Overwintering. Echeverias and other rosette succulents are shallow-rooted and can be scooped from garden beds and packed into nursery flats. Provide six hours of light (fluorescent is fine and economical) daily to prevent stretching; store between 35 and 60 degrees; and keep a fan running for air circulation. In spring, reintroduce to strong sunlight gradually lest leaves sunburn.

Varieties: Most succulents dislike being cold and wet, but certain ones can handle northern winters, excessive rainfall (if given excellent drainage) and even summer dry spells. See them on my Cold Hardy Succulents page.

Design ideas: Go to my article, Designing with Cold-Hardy Succulents. Watch the corresponding video: Sedum Chicks at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show. For containers by Vancouver BC designer Todd Holloway, see his Pot Incorporated website and my article for Garden Design magazine.

Also on YouTube: 

Growing Succulents in Northerly Climates: Sempervivums  Part One of my presentation at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show. Gorgeous new cultivars and design ideas.

Growing Succulents in Northerly Climates: Sedums and More Part Two of my presentation at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show. More cool succulents for cold climates plus how to grow frost-tender succulents indoors.

View my YouTube Succulent Container Gardening playlist.

In print: 

See pp. 109 – 115 of my book, Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.) for information on growing succulents in Zones 8 and lower, and hardy varieties for outdoors.

For growing and designing with tender succulents, my book Succulent Container Gardens is your best resource for design information, plant-pot pairings, and tips on indoor care and cultivation.

Hardy Succulents by Gwen Kelaidis, photos by Saxon Holt offers a terrific overview on growing and designing with cold-climate succulents of all kinds.

More scholarly (but also more comprehensive) is Cacti & Succulents for Cold Climates: 274 Outstanding Species for Challenging Conditions, by Leo J. Chance

If you’re into stonecrops, you need The Plant Lover’s Guide to Sedums by Brent Horvath. Look for SunSparkler (TM) varieties introduced by Chris Hansen. See my video,

Sempervivums: A Gardener’s Perspective of the Not-So-Humble Hens-and-Chicks by hybridizer Kevin Vaughn is coming out in April, 2018.

In the Pacific Northwest, especially if you’re into collectible cacti and succulents and want to connect with experts, attend meetings of the Cascade Cactus & Succulent Society and visit the Indoor Sun Shoppe—a great source of unusual plants, cacti and succulents. Other suppliers include Sky Nursery in Shoreline, The Brothers Greenhouses in Port Orchard, and Molbak’s in Woodinville.

For hardy succulents by mailSMG Succulents and Mountain Crest Gardens.

Sempervivum plug tray assortment from Mountain Crest Gardens. 

Below: Wonder why your otherwise healthy succulent is floppy, leaning or stretched? It’s all about light! See my post, “Why Doesn’t My Succulent Bloom?”