When to plant succulents?

I know, I know—that wall of succulents you saw in the latest edition of Architectural Digest is to die for. They’re all the rage for wedding florals these days, too. But somehow, despite your best efforts, your jade is dropping leaves and that sedum you’ve been lovingly watering is wizened and wrinkled.

Is that perfect hen-and-chicks, all cute and rotund, really so much to ask for? The answer, as with most plant-related questions, is ‘it depends.’

The oft-spouted proclamation that succulents are easy to grow is, in fact, fiction. Sure, it can be easy, but it requires a bit of a mental adjustment. Get into the desert mindset. Imagine unrelenting sun, monsoon-like down pours, and the boomerang temperature changes that characterize the desert’s days — and you might have a little more luck.

Here are five of the most common mistakes succulent newbies are making, and how to get those beauties to thrive.

1. Putting Them in a Poorly Lit Area

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The natural light of a plant’s native habitat is perhaps the most difficult environmental variable to emulate indoors. For common houseplants, we have an easier time. Many are native to tropical jungles and accustomed to the shifting periods of shade and sun that happen in your home. After all, that’s what naturally happens as the sun moves over a forest canopy.

But if you put a plant that’s used to experiencing a full 12 hours out in the broiling hot sun on an east-facing sill, you’re begging for failure. Your best bet: Choose the sunniest south-facing window available, and if all windows face elsewhere, pick a more forgiving succulent like aloe or throw in the towel and opt for a sturdy pothos.

2. Not Watering Them Enough

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The Chihuahuan Desert gets a little over 9 inches of rain annually — a drop in the bucket compared to what the verdant landscapes most of us call home receive. In the desert, however, when it rains, it pours. To make your own desert-dweller happy, try to emulate the rainfall patterns native to its home habitat. Don’t treat your cacti with a trickle; turn on the taps and let loose a deluge.

All succulents (and all plants for that matter) benefit from a complete soaking, until water comes out of the bottom of the pot. For succulents, wait until the soil is bone dry — and then some — to water again.

3. Using a Standard Potting Soil

Tan Shiek Wei / EyeEm/ Getty

Most potted plants come in a standard soil mix that works for almost every kind of plant, from ferns to fiddle-leaf figs. The problem: Succulents are designed to withstand one of the most extreme environments on planet earth, so standard potting soil just won’t cut it.

Once you get your succulent baby home, change its soil to a desert-dweller mix, combining half potting soil with something inorganic like perlite. This super well-draining, low-nutrient soil will work for most succulents whether they’re used to thriving in the high and dry Andes or the broiling bottom lands of Death Valley.

4. Crowding Them Together

dinachi/ Getty

Succulents tend to come packed into adorable little dishes, all crammed together cheek by jowl. There aren’t many plants that like this arrangement, including succulents. Overcrowding is one of the best ways to encourage mold and insect infestations.

The second issue is that, although succulents do very well getting by on slim pickings, they still need food and water. Too much competition means they’ll probably miss out. If your succulents arrive in a crowded arrangement, pluck them out carefully and give them each their own spacious mini desert dune.

5. Growing Unrealistic Varieties

Tuanjai/ Getty

I know it’s really hard to resist growing saguaros indoors, but please DON’T. Some wild things just aren’t meant to be tamed, no matter how pretty their flowers or beguiling their form. Stick instead to the tough little cookies that will happily accept the windowsill as their home sweet home.

Crassula is a good genus to explore if you’re working with indoor conditions, as is Sansevieria (a.k.a. snake plant). The Mammillaria cacti (so called for their woolly hair, see above) is another good pick if you’re looking for a prickly plant companion.

Molly J Marquand is a gardener, small farmer, botanist and writer living in the Catskill Mountains of New York. True to her academic background, all of her writing reflects careful consideration of nature. You can find more of her work at mollyjmarquand.com.

Everyone always says that succulents are impossible to kill. I would beg to differ, because I had quite a killer streak of keeping succulents alive in my house. This black thumb continued until I figured out the best way to plant and care for succulents. Now, even though I’m somewhat of a forgetful plant caretaker, I still have amazing succulents that are thriving. Plus, I’ve learned how to propagate succulents, which means I’m swimming in cute little succulents plants.

I’ve organized all my tricks for keeping succulents alive into four main categories. These are the main questions I get asked about succulents, but if you have more questions, or other tricks for keeping them alive and thriving, please feel free to write them in the comments!

Can succulents be planted in a container without drainage holes?

The technical answer is no. Succulents need well-drained soil to survive. If their roots sit in water or moisture, they become moldy and the plant will die. However, with that being said, I’ve figured out a trick to keep my succulent plants happy even when they are planted in a container without drainage holes.

The trick is to add a layer of pea gravel into the container you are planting the succulent in, before adding any soil. This creates a drainage-like effect that keep the roots from sitting in excess water.

I was skeptical when I first tried it out, but I have two dishes in my kitchen window without drainage holes, and those succulents have lasted well over a year, and continue to grow and thrive. (I know, I really need to transplant the ones in the pink dish; they have grown so much they don’t really fit into it anymore!)

How much water do succulents need?

Not much. In fact, over watering will kill your succulent much faster than under watering it. In my small dishes without drainage holes, I add a tablespoon or two of water every few days. In my dishes with drainage holes, I add enough water to completely moisten the soil every few days. Basically, water the soil until it is slightly moist. Then, allow the soil to dry out completely before watering them again.

I’ve found that when I forget to water my succulents, their leaves start to lose their firmness, which is a sign I’ve left them without water for way too long. But, once they are watered, they perk right back up and are just fine. On the other hand, it’s much more difficult, and I’ve found more often than not, impossible, to reverse the damage caused by over watering.

Err on the side of caution to start and give the little guys less water than you think they need, especially if they are in a container without drainage holes.

Do succulents need to be placed in a sunny spot in your home?

Yes, succulents most definitely need direct sunlight. I would recommend a windowsill that receives a substantial amount of sunlight. I’ve tried growing them in containers on my kitchen table that is close to a window, but doesn’t receive direct light throughout the day, and they did not do nearly as well as those in the windowsill.

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Do succulents need special soil?

There is soil that is formulated specifically for succulents and cactus plants. It mimics the soil found in their natural habitat and allows for proper drainage.

You never want the roots or leave to sit in water, so I add a layer of pea gravel on top of the soil as well. This gives the leaves something to rest on that does not hold moisture, thus keeping them dry and happy.

What about if I keep them outside?

In some areas, you can plant succulents right in the ground and they will survive year round. Where I live that is definitely not the case, but if you live in zones 8 or 9 in the United States, you might want to look into it. (Or maybe you already know, because you see them growing naturally!) I know nothing about living in mild, year-round temperatures, so I will just speak to how to grow them in containers outdoors.

If you plan to place your container of succulents outdoors, I would definitely recommend making sure it has adequate drainage holes. If it rains enough, the soil will never have time to dry out, and the water will just sit in the bottom without those holes.

Also, you’ll need to pull your container inside once the weather is too cold for them to survive. I always take mine inside when the nights get to be in the upper 40s. They certainly can not handle a frost. Just be sure to put it in a sunny window and water every so often, as mentioned above.

I trust these tricks so much that I actually have incorporated them into my handmade business. When I sell at vintage markets, I set up a little succulent planting stand. All of the containers are unique vintage dishes, mugs, and other vessels, almost of which do not have drainage holes. Then, I plant the succulents for the customer in the dish they select using the tricks I described above.

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Don’t underestimate the power of that succulent in your living room. “We believe part of the satisfaction of living with indoor plants is in their modest requirements, and just as much pleasure can be found in a humble potted cactus as in a conservatory full of demanding tropical plants,” write London garden designers Caro Langton and Rose Ray in their new book, House of Plants: Living with Succulents, Air Plants, and Cacti (Frances Lincoln, $30). Ultimately, theirs is a guide for those who’ve never even considered developing a green thumb until this very moment. “It’s likely your indoor greenery will find you when you are least prepared: given as gifts, or perhaps stealing your attention while strolling through a local market,” they write. Whether you’ve been gifted a jade plant or you picked up a echeveria at the store, it’s important to learn how to care for succulents. Read on to find out how to keep your plants healthy and happy.

Photo: Erika Raxworthy

1. Make Sure Your Succulents Get Enough Light

Succulents love light and need about six hours of sun per day, depending on the type of succulent. Newly planted succulents can scorch in direct sunlight, so you may need to gradually introduce them to full sun exposure or provide shade with a sheer curtain.

2. Rotate Succulents Frequently

Succulents love direct sun, but if yours is sitting in the same exact spot day after day, it’s likely that only one side is getting enough light. Langton and Ray suggest rotating the plant often. Succulents will lean towards the sun, so rotating them will help them stand up straight. (Leaning may also be a sign that they need to be in a sunnier spot.)

Photo: Erika Raxworthy

3. Water According to the Season

Just like us, succulents need more energy when they’re in a period of growth. During the spring and summer, the plants are thriving and drinking up much more water than when they’re resting in the fall and winter. Langton and Ray recommend testing the soil with a finger—when the top 1.25 inches are dry, grab your watering can. Overwatering can kill your succulent, so make sure you let the soil dry between waterings.

4. Water the Soil Directly

When you water your succulents, soak the soil until water runs out of the drainage holes. (If your container doesn’t have drainage holes, use less water.) Don’t use a spray bottle to water your succulents—misting can cause brittle roots and moldy leaves . You can also place pots in a pan of water and allow the water to absorb through the drainage hole. Once the top of the soil is moist, remove from the pan.

When to Plant: Succulents

Succulents are one of the easiest plants to grow.

The Succulent family is made up of virtually endless varieties of Sedums, Echeverias, Aloe, Aeomoniums, and Crassulas, all offering unique colors, textures and forms that can turn an ordinary container into a unique accent on your patio or window ledge. Cacti are also an extraordinary subset of the succulent family.

We love succulents in rock gardens, between patio pavers or in the crevices of rock walls and most of all, in succulent wreaths. But one of the easiest ways to grow and enjoy them throughout the year is in containers.

The beauty of succulents comes in their colors (wide ranging from chartreuse to deep crimson), texture and form (tight rosettes, trailing columns, flat paddled leaves and spiky, rounded, ruffled leaf forms and plant shapes) and low maintenance. A friend of the forgetful gardener, they are very forgiving when it comes to watering, with most preferring soil that nearly or completely dries out between waterings.

Succulents are most commonly found in extremely hot, dry climates. Thick, fleshy leaves, stems and roots enable the plants to preserve water and survive and thrive in these conditions. These same characteristics also make succulents perfect for interesting and architectural container gardens no matter the climate. In colder climates, containers can be brought in during the winter months. The same warm and dry indoor air that can stress other houseplants encourages succulents to thrive.

Choosing your container

Because succulents have such low water needs, containers that are small or shallow are ideal. Terra cotta or clay containers are an excellent choice. These materials are porous, allowing excess water to evaporate quickly through the sides of the container.

We love to plant up a series of shallow bowls or a shallow tray for a long table, stretch of counter or window ledge. Strawberry jars or multi-opening herb containers can also make interesting succulent gardens.

Make sure any container you use has excellent drainage.

Soil

Fast-draining succulent and cactus soil mix is ideal for container gardens. If you prefer to mix your own soil, use one part regular potting soil, one part peat and one part non-organic material such as perlite, crushed granite or small gravel. Soil should be crumbly and not form clumps.

Water

Succulents are unusual in that they should not be watered immediately after transplanting. Place the container in a sunny spot. Wait a day or two and water lightly the first time. Thereafter, check plants weekly during growing season (spring and summer) and water thoroughly when the soil is completely dry.

During the cold days of late fall and winter when your plants go dormant, you can cut watering back to once every 2-3 weeks.

Succulents are more sensitive to overwatering than under watering. In fact, repeated overwatering will rot the roots of your plants, hands down the most common cause of plant failure.

Light

When indoors succulents should be in a high light window, south or west is best. High light conditions are ideal for all succulents, however there can be some discoloration on leaves in the strong summer sun. If this is the case, make sure to diffuse the strongest direct sun with a shade or move your plants out of the direct sun, at least temporarily.

If your plants aren’t getting enough light, you’ll notice stretched or elongated stems with more spacing between leaves, a condition known as etoliation. Don’t give up on your plant. Simply give it more light and prune it back to its original shape.

When outdoors, most succulents will thrive in the summer sun. And surprising to some, they’ll even stand up to chilly evenings. These temperature fluctuations are actually common in their natural habitat where desert temps can swing from highs above 80 degrees during the day and down to 40s and 50s in the evening.

Fertilizer

Only light fertilizing should take place during the growing summer season with a water-soluble fertilizer once per month. You’ll want to stop fertilizing completely during their winter dormant season.

The secret to caring for any plant is to understand its native habitat and to try to replicate that as much as possible in your garden, greenhouse or home environment. Succulents by and large come from warm, dry regions with low humidity and minimal rainfall, and the majority can’t handle freezing temperatures. After all, these are plants that survive some of the planet’s harshest growing conditions by storing water in their leaves. The plants may go dormant, close their rosettes, and their roots may desiccate during long dry spells. When the rains (i.e., you, wielding a hose) come again, they rehydrate and grow new roots. In this respect, they’re among the easiest plants to grow. But what you want to avoid is letting them get scorched by too much sun, having their roots rot by too much rain or watering (rot quickly spreads up the stem), or making them susceptible to insect infestations due to high humidity and poor air circulation.

If you live in the desert, move your container-grown succulents outdoors when daytime temperatures drop below 90 degrees. Give the plants bright shade and occasional water. Keep in mind that many need nighttime temperatures below 45 degrees (but above freezing) in order to bloom in spring.

If you live in southern or coastal CA from the Bay Area south, your succulents likely will be fine year-round, in the ground or in containers (provided they’re protected from occasional frosts). If your area gets drenching rainstorms combined with cold temperatures when the plants are winter-dormant, they may rot. Protect your container-grown succulents by moving them beneath an overhang. Grow in-ground succulents atop berms so water flows away from the roots. Amend the soil with crushed volcanic rock, such as pumice or scoria, to enhance aeration and to absorb excess moisture.

Before a rainstorm, spread a granular pre-emergent herbicide wherever you don’t want weeds; it contains an enzyme that prevents seeds from sprouting. Pre-emergent is available at most nurseries. I wouldn’t be without it, but I also am keen to be green, so I use it mainly around my large, spiky agaves and cacti. Also before a rainstorm, boost the growth of in-ground succulents by fertilizing with Ironite. Don’t let granules land in rosettes or on hardscape, because they can leave rust stains.

If you live where temperatures drop below freezing (32 degrees F), most succulents (except for sedums and sempervivums, which are frost-tolerant) will need to be covered. Translucent frost cloth, which protects the plants but allows them to photosynthesize, is sold at most garden centers, or you can simply use bed sheets. Overwinter container-grown succulents indoors or move them against a structure that radiates enough warmth to raise the the temperature above freezing—such as your home’s south-facing wall. In colder climates, options include moving the plants into a sunroom, greenhouse, or basement with lights on a timer to simulate daylight. As the plants’ growth slows and they begin to enter a three-month dormancy, they’ll need less water. Give enough to keep roots from desiccating, but not so much that they rot. When in doubt, err on the side of dryness.

Watch for mealy bugs and treat the plants at the first sign of an infestation. I spray with isopropyl alcohol. Succulent grower Petra Crist (Rare Succulents Nursery) uses Windex. There are commercial insecticides as well. Isolate infested plants, and destroy any that are severely infested. Mealy bugs, which resemble bits of white lint, tend to live in leaf axils (where leaves join the stem). The best preventative is good air circulation. Indoor plants are especially susceptible, so keep a fan running. If you find pests on one plant, be sure to check the rest.

Attend the annual Succulent Extravaganza the last Friday and Saturday in Sept., at Succulent Gardens nursery in Castroville, between Carmel and Santa Cruz. Plenty to see, learn and enjoy—a worthy pilgrimage for anyone who loves succulents! Shares 63

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Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified, all Timber Press bestsellers. Her goal is to enhance others’ enjoyment and awareness of waterwise plants and gardens by showcasing the beauty and design potential of succulents via books, articles, newsletters, photos, videos, social media and more. Debra and husband Jeff live in the foothills north of San Diego. She grew up in Southern California on an avocado ranch, speaks conversational Spanish, and at age 18 graduated magna cum laude from USIU with a degree in English Literature. Her hobbies include thrifting, birding and watercolor painting. Debra’s YouTube channel has had over 3,000,000 views.

Latest posts by Debra Lee Baldwin (see all)

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How to Prepare Your Succulents for Winter

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As temperature is starting to drop, you will be wondering if your succulents will be okay. To take good care of your succulents in the winter, we have some useful tips for you. Here is a complete guide of how to winterize your succulents.

How to winterize succulents

Prepare succulents for indoor living

Before actually putting your succulents indoors, first spray them with a surface insecticide. This prep work should occur at least 3 weeks before their indoor adaptation.

Next, remove the debris, weeds, and leaves, then check if there is any sign of infestation. If you see flies start to gather around the succulents, change the soil. Otherwise, they will soon spread to the nearby plants when you move them inside your house.

Along with these steps, gradually reduce the amount of water for your succulents. Less water and lower temperature will put the plants into dormancy.

Bring the succulents inside

When your succulents live indoors, stop watering them and let the soil dry out. During the winter time, water them sparingly, just enough to keep them from dehydration. Also make sure the temperature is always between 50 – 60 Fahrenheit degrees.

Another thing to consider for indoor adaptation is having enough growth light for succulents. Especially with non-dormant succulents, fluorescent lighting will help plants grow healthy and unstressed.

When is the right time to bring succulent indoor

As most succulents are used to hot and arid environment, going through freezing weather during winter is especially rough for these plants.

Some succulents, such as Echeveria, Crassula, and Aloe will need frost protection when the temp drops below 45 Fahrenheit degrees. Most of the others can survive when the temp is above 40 Fahrenheit degrees.

Regardless of genus, you should never put your succulents in freezing temperature. The reason is simple, succulents store a lot of water inside their leaves, trunks, and stems and when the temperature freezes, water will expand, bursting through the cells’ membrane. Eventually, the plant will die.

The plants know when winter is coming, by sensing shorter days and lower temperature. However, you can trick your succulent by winterizing them. You can bring the plant indoors, provide it with proper care, before it gets too cold outside.

In short, the best time to bring succulents indoors is when fall comes around. Don’t wait until the actual winter because you need to prevent your plants from sensing the change of weather conditions.

How to care for your succulents in the winter

Winterize your succulent is an important step prior to bringing it inside. as you have removed the “bad stuff from the pot”, changed the soil, watered sparingly, cleaned and changed the pot (if necessary), it is now time to take care of the plant indoors.

In fact, the caring works for putting the succulent inside is more a task of maintenance. However, the level of caring will be different depending on whether the succulent is winter or summer dormant.

If your succulent is summer dormant, it will need water more frequently. Regardless of the dormant type, always water the plant just when the soil is completely dry.

Moreover, as the airflow indoors is not as strong as outdoors, the soil will take a longer time to dry. In case you want to accelerate the drying process, put your succulents near the heating vent.

Another note for caring for succulent in winter is providing enough sunlight. It is ideal to place your succulents near the brightest windows, so they can get indirect yet bright natural light all day. Winter days are shorter, therefore the plants will need at least 6-hour exposure to the indirect sunlight.

Overall, caring for succulents during winter time does not require much work. As you can see, it should always be on the “just enough” level.

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