The Ultimate Succulent Guidebook by Outdoor Art Pros
What Is a Succulent?
Succulents are unusual plants for people who spent their childhood in the United States because they aren’t grown naturally in many regions. For most individuals, these plants look like something fresh from the imagination of a creative writer with their unusual shapes, strange textures, and intriguing names. Raising succulents is one of the most popular, current trends in the United States. It seems like every store sells many varieties, and it’s not uncommon to see succulent growing classes and even planting parties across the country. But what exactly is a succulent?
Succulents are plants which evolved to possess fleshy parts that store water. These sections help the plant survive in arid and dry climates, such as deserts, where there is little moisture to keep the succulent nourished. The fleshy areas can be part of the leaves, stem, or roots. The most important component of this definition is that these areas need to be made of special water-storing tissue. Many look like rosettes, with their leaves or petals clustered around the stem. Colloquially, people will distinguish between succulents and cacti, which technically count but have some different characteristics.
For example, a cactus has something known as areoles. These areoles are where extra features grow, such as the famous cactus needles. Cacti also do not have leaves or branches, unlike the majority of plants which can be considered succulents. Despite these differences, all cacti are succulents even though not all succulents are cacti, sort of like how all thumbs are fingers but not all fingers are thumbs.
Fig. 1 Cactus with Defined AreolesPeople can further identify succulents by feeling the leaves or stem, or by seeing the inside of these sections. Many people describe the leaves as feeling squishy, or kind of like a stiff container full of jam. Although firm, the areas with water-storing tissue have some give and feel thick and soft. The inside of a succulent will usually be full of a gel-like substance and quite moist. Aloe vera is a popular variety and one that most people will have seen inside and outside.
Fig. 2 Aloe Plant Exteriors
As can be seen in Figure 2, the aloe plant consists of bunches of thick green leaves. These can grow to impressive lengths of 29 to 34 in. long. People who have seen the plant in person might recall how the interior is full of a gel that can be used to treat sunburns and other skin ailments. This is a primary characteristic of succulents because of the water-storing tissues. In fact, the word “succulent” is a synonym for juicy or full of juice, which references this particular characteristic.
Succulents themselves are not an actual plant family. Instead, they can be found all throughout the botanical kingdom, with over 25 different scientific families having plants that meet the requirements. The succulents most individuals grow are members of a group called the xerophytes.
Xerophytes are plants designed to survive in arid, dry climates with little rainfall. These come from regions in the southwestern United States, Latin America, and South America. Most of them have waxy leaves in addition to juicy interiors. Stems tend to be thick and stout, and the roots spread out underneath the surface of the soil and don’t go deep. Some examples of xerophyte succulents include the ever-popular aloe vera, the agave, haworthia, peperomia, kalanchoe, and bryophyllum. Surprisingly, pineapples also count!
So, a succulent can be any of these plants which have juicy, fleshy leaves, thick stems, shallow roots, and require little water and lots of sunlight. They are easy to care for and require little weekly attention to ensure they thrive. But how should an individual decide what to grow, and how can they care for them?
Compared to other plants found in homes, succulents are some of the healthiest options for gardens. They suffer from few diseases and are typically left alone by pests. They also hold their ground against invasive plants like grass and dandelions, instead being able to thrive despite opposition. Once planted, succulents will last for years, unlike other perennials which might perish after a single season of blooms.
The Two Types of Succulents
People divide succulents into two primary groups: hardy and soft. These descriptors refer to how durable a plant is and the type of environment it enjoys. Despite sharing similar characteristics, some succulents would rather spend their time in the desert while others thrive in the tundra. When planting outdoors, gardeners should determine the climate they live in, how much rainfall should be expected throughout the year, and the minimum and maximum temperatures reached. This helps individuals determine whether the right succulent for them is hardy or soft.
Hardy succulents are fleshy plants which survive and even thrive in barren, cold climates where other plants might fail. They originate from northern, frigid regions. Most of them come from the areas known as Zones 3, 4, and 5 for plant hardiness. Zone 3 is the warmest of the trio and refers to a region where the average lowest temperature is -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Zone 4 stops at -30 degrees Fahrenheit, and Zone 5 ends at -20 degrees. Despite preferring the ice and snow, hardy succulents also thrive in semiarid regions and live nicely indoors.
Many people don’t associate succulents with cold climates, but they are popular for outdoor gardens because they are durable and don’t die in frost or snow. They come in a variety of colors, shapes, and textures, but most tend to be compact and grow in clusters. They are easy to propagate and don’t require a lot of work. Strangely, most hardy succulents are also smaller than their soft cousins. Most do not grow more than a foot off of the ground, at which point they begin to struggle and seem to lose their ability to combat frost and cold. Some might require a period of winter dormancy, where they don’t bloom but also don’t die.
When planting a hardy succulent, it’s important that they have well-drained soil with a higher elevation. This prevents the buildup of pools of water, which become cold or freeze during the long winter months. It’s also crucial that snow be cleared from taller plants because the extra weight can damage the leaves and pads. While the succulent might recover, an open scar makes it easier for the water-storing tissue on the inside to form ice crystals and freeze. Internal freezing can kill the plant.
Some of the most well-known hardy succulents are members of the scientific family Crassulaceae. Among this family are significant species like the hen and chicks. One of their most defining characteristics is the simplistic nature of the plants. Members of Crassulaceae tend to have short, compact shapes with plain flowers of yellow or white. They can be found throughout the world and have been a mainstay in the gardens of homes in the United States for decades.
Sedum is an enormous genus within the Crassulaceae family that features flowering plants also called stonecrops that tend to stretch across the ground. Although there are some longer-leafed varieties and shrubberies, the smaller, tighter plants that seem to crawl along the garden survive the longest. These members of the family can be considered hardy and can survive everything from heavy rainfall to a dry summer to a winter storm. Some popular plants in this category include the Corsican stonecrop, the creeping stonecrop, the woodland stonecrop, and the sedum weinbergii.
Fig.3 Sedum Weinbergii
Soft succulents are also called tender succulents and refers to plants which can’t survive in colder climates. Most of the plants in this category need to be in areas labeled Zone 9 and above, which means the maximum low temperature is around 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit. If someone wants to grow a soft succulent but lives in a colder area, it’s recommended that the plant be moved indoors before the winter hits.
Many soft succulents look like rosettes with a central stem and thick leaves surrounding the center circle. Plants with thicker leaves can sometimes survive beyond the first frost, but tender succulents with thinner leaves can be killed down to the roots once they encounter the first drop in temperature. One example would be variants of the Kalanchoe succulent, which possesses long, curled leaves with minimal protection from the weather.
Fig. 4 Kalanchoe Gastonis
Unlike a lot of hardy succulents, soft varieties survive much easier in hotter, dryer areas where there is little rainfall and lots of sunlight. They need well-drained, partially sandy soil and should be kept away from shady areas. Soft succulents should be planted in the southern regions of the garden where they receive maximum sunlight. Sometimes, gardeners mix soft and hardy succulents together to create a thorough ground cover capable of surviving most types of weather.
Similar to hardy succulents, many members of the Crassulaceae family are soft. These include popular options such as the echeveria, jade plant, panda plant, the aloe vera, and the kalanchoe. They possess numerous types of flowers in a variety of colors, including pink, red, white, yellow, and sometimes purple. These succulents prefer dry climates with low rainfall, lots of sunshine, and high temperatures. Most like to live between the temperatures of 70 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Soft succulents are more popular in the United States than hardy variants and make excellent indoor and outdoor plants. They have longer leaves and bloom more often, so individuals enjoy planting them for their beauty and easy care.
Climates in the United States
Climate refers to the standard, predictable, long-term weather patterns in a given area over time. Because the United States encompasses a massive landmass, there are dozens of different climates which affect what succulents a gardener can plant outdoors. These climates can even affect succulents planted indoors, since there will be limited access to sunlight in areas with long winters or a particularly damp, stormy environment. Some examples of the climates across the country include tundra, hot deserts, semi-arid, continental, and subtropics.
What Succulents Are Easy to Grow?
Succulents are amazing plants for beginners because they require little work but still reward their owners with beautiful leaves, interesting shapes, and fragrant scents from blooms. People enjoy succulents because they require minimal effort, but some are still easier to grow than others. Succulents which thrive in indoor environments tend to have simple needs and mean gardeners don’t need to invest too much energy to grow beautiful plants.
Gardeners can grow the following varieties during every season of the year. They prefer environments indoors and typically need little water, a moderate amount of sunlight, and potting soil designed for cacti and arid environments. Under each section will be a sentence or two that explains whether or not the succulent is hardy or soft and whether it prefers to be indoors or outdoors.Aloe Vera
Aloe vera is an evergreen perennial which is easy to grow indoors. The leaves stretch between 24 and 39 in. long when fully grown and tend to be solid green or tinged with gray. Many have white spots and noticeably serrated leaves, which means they have jagged edges and points. The aloe vera’s leaves are thick and filled with a gelatinous substance frequently found in cosmetic products like sunburn cream.
Aloe vera is simple to take care of. It is a soft succulent, which means it requires little water, well-drained sandy potting soil, and lots of sunlight to remain healthy. It is even resistant against pests like spider mites and aphids, which plague other succulents. Aloe vera is one of the only plants to receive the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit and is sold all around the world and cultivated in foreign regions like Bangladesh, Tanzania, and China.
Fig. 5 Young Aloe Vera
This adorable succulent is named after a donkey’s tail, which tends to be long and tangled from working outdoors. It grows best in a hanging basket so its thick stems covered in leaves have somewhere to go. These leaves are fleshy and range in color from gray-green, to gray-blue, to greenish blue. The perennial flowers that bloom at the end of these stems are bright pink.
Unlike many other succulents, the burro’s tail can grow indoors and outdoors. It does best when exposed to maximum, daily sunlight and will switch color based on exposure. The leaves are quite delicate and separate from the stem easily. The leaves can survive for days away from the main body and many will begin to root, making the burro’s tail easy to propagate. It qualifies as a soft succulent because it prefers warmer climates and doesn’t do well when confronted by frost.
When most people think of a Christmas cactus, they imagine a green cactus with segmented leaves and bright red flowers which bloom at the ends. The Christmas cactus is a member of the family Schlumbergera, which grow in shady areas with lots of humidity. They are native to Brazil but people transplanted them to other places around the world, enjoying their unique bodies and beautiful blooms. They are known as the Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus throughout North America because they are given as presents and decorations from October to January.
These can be grown in a humus-rich, slightly acidic soil that drains easily. Using too little or too much water can kill the cactus, so it’s important to keep the potting mix damp but not dry or soaked. It requires very little sunlight and can be damaged if it spends too much time in the light, so keeping it indoors and away from windows is important. It’s easy to transplant cuttings so they propagate. Most pests don’t touch the Christmas cactus, but it is susceptible to aphids. Despite its name, the Christmas cactus does not enjoy cold weather even though it likes the shade.
Fig. 6 Young Christmas Cactus
Echeveria isn’t a single plant but actually an entire genus of flowering plants native to Mexico, Central America, and sections of northwestern South America. The plants look like compact rosettes and tend to be short and stocky with numerous fleshy leaves. The majority of Echeveria are green, although others have brightly colored leaves that don’t tend to flower. Many people use them in gardens as decoration, and Echeveria plants are important hosts for several species of butterfly.
Different Echeveria species require varying amounts of water. Although they are drought resistant, these plants do enjoy being thoroughly soaked and fertilized throughout the year. They do lose their leaves during the winter and can be easily propagated by planting leaf cuttings, seeds, and other offshoots.
Hen and Chicks or Houseleeks
Hen and chicks are a type of succulent characterized by small, easily propagated succulents which grow in groups. They flower and look like compact rosettes surrounded by their offsets, or the “chicks” in the name. Hen and chicks have thick, stocky leaves and prefer rocky, well-drained soil. The plant will rot if the leaves are kept wet, so it’s important to make sure they receive little water. They enjoy the sun but grow best when kept in light shade outdoors. Houseleeks are hardy succulents which can survive in the frost and work well as ground coverage in gardens.
The jade plant is also known as the lucky or money tree and is one of the most popular succulents around the world. It’s believed that the plant brings good fortune when kept in homes and offices. It is an evergreen with thick, dark leaves shaped like ovals. It produces pink or white flowers, and some leaves develop a red tinge once exposed to sunlight.
The jade plant is one of the easiest to care for because it requires little effort. All it needs is well-drained soil, frequent sun exposure, and enough water to dampen the soil once a week. People can propagate the jade plant easily by getting cuttings, allowing them to dry, and then transferring them to similar soil and allowing them to grow. These are soft succulents which can grow to impressive lengths when left alone.
The panda plant is also called the chocolate soldier and originates in Madagascar. It is typically a faint, gray and green with dark brown specks near the tips of the leaves. The panda plant is a relatively compact succulent and grows easily in warm climates, making it a member of the soft succulent family. It requires moderate sunlight, enough water to soak the soil without filling the pot, and a potting mix which drains easily. The panda plant propagates easily and can be transferred from one pot to another with little effort.
Where to Place Succulents and the Best Containers
Despite being simple plants, succulents have specific needs when it comes to potting. Most need lots of sunlight and fresh air with temperatures between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Although people seem to have them in every environment known to humans, succulents still prefer containers and areas which experience excellent drainage so excess water has somewhere to go. Too much moisture or liquid buildup is bad for these plants because it causes root rot and even drowning.
So, individuals who want to grow succulents need to know how to identify a container or area which has excellent drainage options. Store bought pots with drainage frequently have holes along the bottom of the container where unnecessary water can exit and not build up in the soil. Pots with drainage should not be left on saucers of bowls which will allow the water to filter back into the original container. Clay, terracotta, and ceramic pots continue to be some of the best options because they are breathable materials which won’t suffocate the succulent. It’s also easy to add extra holes as needed without damaging the structural integrity of the pot. Many times you can buy sets of planters so you can have a range of complimentary pots and planters.
Sometimes the drainage holes might be too large for the type of soil needed for the succulent. When this happens, it’s possible to tape or glue mesh over the holes so water escapes but the soil doesn’t. Glue is recommended since tape can be loosened by water. The whole process can take less than five minutes and save gardeners weeks of trouble with their plants.
People with pots that don’t fit the mold can add drainage holes using a diamond-tipped drill bit. Diamond-tipped is recommended because it is one of the strongest materials available and is less likely to damage or shatter the container than other options. All the individual needs to do is mark the bottom of the pot and carefully drill one or two holes into the material. People should use a thin or narrow drill bit in this process.
Even though drainage holes can be beneficial, some people might prefer pots without them. When choosing a container that lacks holes, it’s important to pay attention to size and how much water the soil will absorb. Succulents planted in pots without holes need less water than their counterparts in containers with drainage. There should only be enough water to dampen the soil. The potting mix should then be allowed to dry before the succulent receives water again.
Plastic planters remain a popular option because they come in numerous colors, shapes, and sizes. The main downside with these containers is that plastic is not breathable and the soil won’t dry out easily. Problems with plastic planters can be avoided by giving the succulent less water than its counterparts in different pots. The main idea is making sure that more water isn’t poured onto damp soil. Drilling holes into plastic is almost impossible because the material is brittle and unmalleable.
Concrete or Cast Stone planters are a great option for succulents. They are sturdy and typically provide a drainage hole as well. They come in many shapes and sizes and these are often more customization in that you can choose your stain or finish. The Nyssa Cast Stone Garden Planter is a small cast stone planter measuring at 12.75"L x 9.25"W x 4"H. It's small and petite so it can fit almost anywhere. Another great cast stone planter for succulents ins the Stone Barn Board Garden Planters. These are still cast stone, yet they have a "wood look" to them so they provide a rustic appeal but the concrete durability.
Glass is one of the worst options for succulent containers even though it is beautiful. Most glass pots lack drainage areas and are completely unbreathable. This means the water might sit too long and root rot could form. Other problems are that glass is breakable and can develop hard water spots which can distract from the natural charm of the succulents. Similarly, metal also shouldn’t be used because it will heat up in the sunlight and raise the temperature of the soil too much. Metal pots should only be used as a temporary container.
After picking a container, the next task for a gardener is determining how to plant it. The typical rule of thumb is that a 2 in. succulent needs a 2.5 in. pot. This means that the pot should always be about ½ to 1 in. larger than the plant that goes inside of it. The container needs to be filled almost to the top with a special type of cacti or succulent soil, but this should be loosely packed. Next, place the succulent inside and allow some of the roots to coil into the soil. A top coat goes over the exposed roots and the potting mix. Don’t water the plant until the roots have had a chance to adapt and heal; usually waiting 1-2 days is sufficient.
Once the succulent is planted, it’s time to pick location. Where the plant goes largely depends on what type of succulent it is. Hardy variations do best in cooler climates and might be able to stay outside all year long, while soft ones need the bright, harsh weather of summer before being brought inside for the winter. Less finicky succulents, like the popular Christmas cactus, can remain inside for their entire lives without issue. When choosing a spot, be sure to pick one with lots of bright sunlight, low humidity and moisture content, and room for the roots to grow.
Therefore, some of the ideal locations are:
- Near a west-facing window
- Along a southern bank in the yard
- On the front porch
- Near companion plants like poppies, irises, and acacia
- Companion plants help others grow by attracting beneficial insects or supplying the soil with nutrients. These will help succulents remain healthy in new environments.
Fig. 11 Poppies
Types of Soil Needed to Grow Successful Succulents
Hardy and soft succulents both require an environment which mimics their natural habitats. For many of these plants, that means living in nutrient-poor dirt. Many gardening stores and suppliers develop special potting mix designed for cacti and succulents so gardeners have an easier time keeping their plants happy. One of the defining traits of this soil is that it is mixed with sand or a similar material to make the overall mix more porous. A major killer of succulents is soil which absorbs too much water that allows the moisture to sit near the roots. This excess water drowns the plant or can lead to rot – many gardeners discovered over the years that too much moisture leads to succulents turning into a black mush. The goal is to mimic the arid environment most succulents enjoy.Fig. 12 An Arid Area
Arid environments are regions characterized by a lack of water and thin, nutrient-deficient soil. Succulents adapted to these regions by developing their special water-storing tissue, which allows them to retain moisture for weeks when there would be no rain. In many ways, succulents can be considered the camels of the plant world.
It’s possible to create succulent soil at home if none can be found at the store. The main way to do so is by filling a container with 50% of nutrient-rich potting mix and then 50% with a porous material. Some of the best porous elements to include are sand, pumice, small stones, perlite, silt, or clay. This composition should be mixed together so there is an even spread of the two materials. With this mix, succulents will receive the valuable nutrients they need without the soil retaining too much water.
So, how does this work? Porous soil refers to a potting mix which has small empty spaces called “pores” in between the dirt particles. These pores allow water that is poured into the container to drain evenly throughout the soil. When combined with a pot that has drainage holes, the porous soil prevents the container from holding on to too much moisture and either drowning the succulent or causing root rot.
Despite needing porous soil, succulents do react well to being fertilized. One of the problems with such a barren potting mix is that the minimal amount of water used can wash away essential nutrients from the soil. But it can actually be damaging to simply fertilize a succulent like any other plant. Instead of applying the normal amount of fertilizer, people should follow this process to ensure maximum succulent health and nutrition.
- Pick a fertilizer. Nitrogen-rich variants are bad for succulents because they can cause nitrogen buildup and facilitate rot. Instead, choose a low-balanced, soluble fertilizer.
- A low-balanced fertilizer means it has a small ratio of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Look for a package that says 8-8-8 or 10-10-10, which means that the mix is made of 8% or 10% of these key nutrients.
- Next, dilute the fertilizer by mixing the recommended amount with a gallon of water. This amount varies based on the fertilizer used.
- Finally, water the succulent with the fertilizer concoction until the soil is damp. Allow excess liquid to drain away.
- Repeat this process as needed every few weeks to prevent nutrient buildup and keep succulents healthy and happy.
How Much to Water Your Succulent
Humans need a lot of water on a daily basis to survive, but succulents are different. While it’s true that many succulent varieties can survive with minimal water for weeks, this won’t result in thriving, healthy plants. Instead, it’s important to ensure the plant receives enough liquid to keep its stem and leaves plump and juicy without drowning it. For many amateur gardeners, this can be a difficult task.
There are a few simple guidelines people can follow when it comes to watering a succulent. If it is in a proper container with drainage and a porous soil, then the plant will have enough water when the potting mix is slightly damp. Once the soil dries out, it is time to water the succulent again, usually every 3-4 days. This process is easy and ensures that the plant receives the moisture it needs but won’t suffer from root rot. However, this rule changes if the succulent is still growing.
Watering a growing succulent is different from taking care of an older one, just like feeding a toddler should be different from feeding an adult. Growing succulents should be watered at least once a week. The gardener needs to put enough water in the container to thoroughly soak the soil. The caretaker should check to see if excess liquid is running through the drainage holes. If it is, then the succulent has enough and should be left alone for the rest of the week.
Finally, the amount of watering varies based on the time of the year. Most succulents, both hardy and soft, will enter a dormant stage during the winter. At this time, the plant needs little moisture and will not be growing or blooming. Once the succulent enters this phase, the time between watering sessions should be increased by several days. Instead of supplying water once a week, the gardener can wait roughly 10-12 days. While there are a few notable exceptions to this rule, there are rare. People who are unsure about their succulent’s active growing time can contact a local gardening society to figure out the lay of the land.
- Note: Tap water can contain minerals which will buildup in the soil around the succulent and potentially cause harm. People who use tap water should repot their plants every so often to avoid this problem. If possible, collect and use rainwater or invest in a sink filter.
Although it might be tempting for aesthetic reasons, never leave your succulent in a jar with too much water. The plant will not be able to survive and will die quickly, leaving you with a deceased beauty and wounded pride.
How Much Sunlight Your Succulent Needs
Hardy and soft succulents alike are native to arid or dry areas where they experience lots of sunlight. These plants are additionally used to having winter periods where they will become dormant and conserve their energy instead of growing. On average, succulents will be their happiest when they receive roughly 6 hours of natural sunlight during a regular day. Too much more can be damaging, especially if the temperature reaches 90 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Too little can also be harmful, since the plant might not receive the light it needs and could gradually become dormant.
The best way to ensure a succulent receives the amount of sunlight it needs is to place it near a window or in a section of the garden that gets plenty of sunshine. The fifth chapter discusses where a succulent works the best, but to reiterate, it should be kept near a window that faces west or in the southern side of the garden.
Since too much sun can be a problem, it’s important to take steps to protect succulents during long, hot summer days. As silly as it might sound, plants need to be shaded for their own protection. There are a couple of different ways to do so. First, nearby plants can provide shade. Figure out which direction the garden faces and then place taller plants to the east or west of succulents to ensure they are protected from part of the sun’s rays. If this isn’t an option, plant succulents in areas where the house or nearby buildings will have the same function. In extreme cases, such as in a desert, it’s possible to purchase overhangs or curtains that can be set up around the garden to protect the plants.
Light exposure indoors is a different story. Although it might be tempting to place the plants under a lamp and leave them there, lightbulbs are not as nourishing as natural sunlight. People who live in an area with long winters can expect their succulents to enter the dormant stage of their natural growth cycle once the weather grows chilly. This is natural and contributes to the overall health of the plant. Individuals who would like to see their succulent in bloom or fuller for longer can invest in a sunlamp or grow light.
Succulents need a light source which emits 2,000 lumens within a square foot of space. A lumen is a unit of measurement that tracks how much light is emitted per second from a source. Gardeners should inspect any grow lights they want to purchase and make sure it meets this requirement. If the bulb doesn’t, then the grow light will not be effective and the succulent will enter its dormant stage.
Succulents also need light which emanates a warm hue, not a cool one. This means that bulbs which possess a yellow, orange, or red glow will be more effective than ones that look blue, purple, or green. Finally, keep the bulb at least 10 in. away from the succulent since the bulb will emanate heat and too high of a temperature will damage the plant.
Once all of the steps in this guidebook are followed, amateur and experienced succulent growers can let the light shine on their plants and ensure they are happy, healthy, and thriving around the home or office.
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- Ashley Wilkes