Succulents are trending right now. What’s not to love about them? Their low-maintenance and otherworldly beauty can create dramatic potted arrangements, rock walls of swirls and spines, and even whimsical wall art by mixing together different colors, textures, and patterns.
Succulents are for everyone. They are the perfect gateway plant for new gardeners who want to try out their green thumbs, and they help well-seasoned gardeners with garden withdrawal by bringing some green into their lives during the cold winter months. Plus, they are easy to grow and propagate once you understand them and their basic needs.
What are Succulents?
The word succulent comes from the Latin sucus, which means sap or juice. There are approximately 60 plant families that contain succulents, and thousands of different succulents among them. Many come from hot, arid climates. In fact, all cacti are succulents, even though not all succulents are cacti.
Because water is sparse in their home climates, succulents have evolved to hold water in their leaves. Some succulents can store water in their roots as well. This is what gives succulents their plump, “juicy” appearance. In fact, their leaves will be a good indicator as to whether or not they need water, but more on that later.
Succulents owe their unique beauty to the harsh conditions they’ve had to endure by adapting their size, shape, and other features to conserve water in times of drought. For example, the fuzz on some succulents helps to prevent transpiration, while others developed toxins and spines to keep desert animals from biting into their leaves for a cool drink of water.
How to Take Care of Succulents
If you think about the environmental conditions of the desert, you can start to think in terms of what your succulents need to thrive. In the desert, it rains heavily once a year for a couple of weeks during monsoon season. Other than that, the weather is hot and dry with extended periods of drought and an occasional light rain. The soil does not hold water well and oftentimes water doesn’t even penetrate the soil.
To adapt, succulents’ root systems are generally shallow and far-reaching so that they can soak up surface water when it rains. For example, saguaros, the iconic cactus of the southwest US, has roots that are only four inches deep but extend horizontally about as far as the cactus is tall, and its water-absorbing roots are in the upper half inch of soil. Succulents have adapted to survive in extreme neglect, which is easy to recreate in your own garden.
Your succulents need a pot with a hole in the bottom and well-draining soil so the water can drain and the soil can dry out. Although cute, mason jars and terrariums are not a good environment for your succulents over an extended period of time.
Regular potting soil is likely to kill your plants because it retains too much moisture. You can purchase potting mixes made specifically for cacti and succulents or you can make your own.
You can mix an already coarse potting soil, such as an African violet mix, with perlite at a 2:1 ratio, or you can mix one-part potting soil with one-part sand. To ensure there is good drainage, soak the mix and then squeeze it in your hand. The potting soil should fall apart when you squeeze it if there is adequate drainage.
You might assume succulents want a lot of direct sunlight because they are used to the desert, but that isn’t the case. Succulents do well in at least four to six hours of bright, indirect sunlight per day. Often, the best light is usually in a sunny east- or south-facing window. Too much sunlight can give them a “sunburn,” while too little can make them leggy as they try to reach for the sun. In the summer, you’ll probably need to protect them from too much direct sunlight. In the winter, you may need to put them under an indoor grow light. Position your grow light about six to 12 inches above your plants and keep the light on 14-16 hours per day.
Temperature and Humidity
Most succulents do best between 60 and 90°F and low humidity, somewhere between 10 and 30 per cent.
The most common mistake made with succulents is overwatering. The leaves will tell you what your plants need. Puckered leaves mean your succulent needs more water, and translucent leaves mean it’s holding too much water.
You might think succulents only need a little bit of water at a time, but that will actually lead to weak roots and distorted growth. It’s best to give your succulents a deep watering and then let the soil dry out before you water again. Water should flow through the drain holes in the bottom of your pot, but make sure not to let water stand in the saucer, or else the soil will remain wet and your plant will die.
The time of year will affect how much you water your succulents. During the winter when there is low light, you’ll only need to water enough to keep the leaves from shrinking or withering. As the light increases in the spring, or if your plants are under a grow light, you’ll need to water more. In the warm and sunny months, you might water every other day and perhaps only once a week or so in the winter. Pay attention to the soil and leaves and they will let you know if you need to water or not.
Succulents have relatively low fertilizer requirements, although you’ll want to check your specific variety to see what it requires. In general, succulents only need to be fed a couple of times when they are actively growing in the late spring and summer. You don’t need to fertilize them when they go dormant in the winter. A balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer, diluted to half strength, will suffice.
Common Pests and Problems
If you notice white fuzzy dots on your plant, it is likely mealybugs, a common pest for succulents. Luckily, they are fairly easy to get rid of. Quarantine the infected plant from the rest of your houseplants so they don’t spread. Then dip a Q-tip in isopropyl alcohol and remove the bugs.
If you overwater your plants, you may end up getting fungal issues or bacterial rot.
If you suspect a fungal issue, stop watering immediately. Cut off the infected parts of the plant and treat with a fungicide, such as neem oil. If root rot is present, you’ll need to put your plant in new soil. If none of the roots are salvageable, you’ll need to cut off the roots and replant, as if you were starting a new cutting.
How to Propagate Succulents
It is simple and fun to propagate succulents. There are three main ways to grow your collection. You can separate the baby succulents from the mother when they multiply on their own, take cuttings, or use leaves to start new plants.
Division and Separation
When you see little babies pop up around the mother, you can separate them and put them in new pots. Before transplanting, make sure they have roots of their own and water them before separating so that soil will adhere to the roots better.
Read also: Trimming Christmas Cactus Plants
Some succulents can be started from cuttings. This technique also works well for plants that have gotten leggy and need to be repotted. To do this, cut the top off your succulent. Trim the bottom leaves from your cutting so there is about quarter-inch of stem that you can place in the soil. This is where the roots will grow from.
Next, you’ll need to let your cuttings dry in the open air for about five days, or until the cuts callus over. They could rot if you place them in soil right away. Once the stem has callused, place it in a new pot with slightly damp soil and don’t water for about two weeks. Then mist the soil with a spray bottle until roots form, which can take a month or more.
You can follow a similar process with the leaves. Gently wiggle and pull the leaves from the plant. If you break the leaf, it won’t root. Let them air dry for three to seven days, or until you see the cut has callused. Then place the leaves onto damp soil and wait, misting them daily. After a few weeks, you’ll see tiny roots start to grow from the callus. Keep waiting. In another couple of weeks, a tiny little plant will start to grow. If you place the leaf on top of the soil in a pot you want the new plant to grow in, the roots will start to grow into the soil and the original leaf will shrivel up, at which point you can remove it.
Once you understand their needs, succulents are easy to grow and propagate. They brighten up your home and add a little fun to your garden. Give them a try and you’ll quickly see why they are so popular.