Succulents

Succulents

Succulents are rising in popularity, and with good reason. Their beauty and resilience make them perfect for creating tasteful, sophisticated, long-lasting works of living art. Although succulents have a reputation for being impossible to kill, there are some basic guidelines you should follow to keep your plants healthy and looking their best. In this chapter, you’ll learn about some of the most common types of succulents and how to care for them.

WHAT IS A SUCCULENT?

Succulents are plants that have thick leaves, stems, or roots that store water in order to survive extended periods of drought. Their leaves and stems are often called “juicy” because they are capable of holding a lot of liquid in them.
Although they are commonly thought of as desert-dwelling plants, succulents are actually grown all over the world in many different climates. They have become a very popular houseplant in recent years because of their reputation for low maintenance. Their durability and ability to propagate easily make them the ideal plant for use in crafting and the types of arrangements we will create in this book. They come in many different colors, shapes, and sizes, so there will always be a succulent perfect for your project.

Succulents

Succulent Cafe in Oceanside, CA

COMMON VARIETIES OF SUCCULENTS

There are thousands of varieties of succulents available today. You might be overwhelmed when you see the number of options available at your local garden center, but the following breakdown will help you zero in on what variety is best for your needs.

ECHEVERIA
ECHEVERIA

ECHEVERIA
Echeverias are gorgeous rosette-forming plants that come in a variety of shapes and colors. From pointy to round, curly to ruffled, their leaves provide an endless array of geometric beauty. Best suited for USDA hardiness zones 8–11, their leaf colors can intensify with colder or warmer temperatures throughout the year. (To find your growing zone, visit ) They range in diameter from 1″ to 20″. Some echeverias reproduce on their own by shooting off pups, which can be wiggled off and replanted. Echeverias have shallow roots, so they will do well in containers lacking depth.

GRAPTOPETALUM
GRAPTOPETALUM

GRAPTOPETALUM

Like echeverias, graptopetalums are rosette-forming succulents. They have thick leaves that can change color depending on the amount of sun exposure they receive. For example, Graptopetalum paraguayense, when placed in full sun, can appear bleached out, pink, orange, and even white—while the same plant kept in the shade might be a darker bluish gray with opalescent tips hinted with purple. Graptopetalums should be handled with care, as their leaves snap off quite easily. Over time, they tend to grow long stems as their lower leaves wither and fall off and new growth develops from the center of the forming succulents. They have thick leaves that can change color depending on the amount of sun exposure they receive. For example, Graptopetalum paraguayense, when placed in full sun, can appear bleached out, pink, orange, and even white—while the same plant kept in the shade might be a darker bluish gray with opalescent tips hinted with purple. Graptopetalums should be handled with care, as their leaves snap off quite easily. Over time, they tend to grow long stems as their lower leaves wither and fall off and new growth develops from the center of the rosette. They will grow very long and cascade unless you cut them off and replant them. Graptopetalums will do best in USDA hardiness zones 7–11.

SEDUM
SEDUM

SEDUM

There are many different types of sedum, from low-growing ground cover to varieties like Sedum morganianum (also called Burro’s Tail) that cascade more than 3 feet. Many varieties are topped with starry flowers in summer and fall. Some members of the sedum family are commonly called stonecrop. They do best in USDA hardiness zones 3–9.

SEMPERVIVUM
SEMPERVIVUM

SEMPERVIVUM
Sempervivums are often referred to as “hens and chicks” because of their ability to reproduce by the sending of offsets. The offsets, or “chicks,” are attached by an umbilical-like cord that can be cut and then the chick can be planted on its own. Sempervivums may be the most frost tolerant of all succulents, so if you need a cold-hardy plant, these are hardy in USDA zones 4–10. Sempervivums grow in rosettes and come in hundreds of varieties.

CRASSULA OVATA

CRASSULA OVATA

Crassula ovata, commonly referred to as jade plant, is an evergreen that grows green leaves in pairs along thick stems. Some leaves may appear yellowish green or even reddish on the edges when exposed to lots of sunlight. Jade plants flower in winter or early spring. Jade plants are hardy in USDA zones 9–11.

AEONIUM
AEONIUM

AEONIUM

Aeoniums are rosette-forming succulents that usually grow on a long, bare stem. They are not frost tolerant and do best in USDA zones 9–11. Purple aeoniums can tolerate full sun, while the green ones prefer some shade. Aeonium flowers come out of the center of the rosette, and in most cases the plant will die once it has set seed.

cactus
Cactus

CACTUS

Cacti are spiny plants that are typically found in very dry, desert-like environments. Cactus spines are modified leaves that defend against herbivores and provide limited shade. Cactus spines grow from areoles, which also give rise to flowers. Cacti are available in a variety of sizes ranging from only 1 cm to an enormous 63′.

TILLANDSIA
TILLANDSIA

TILLANDSIA (Also Called Air Plants)

Air plants get their name because they normally grow without soil while attached to other plants, gathering nutrients and moisture through the air. Using their roots as anchors, they absorb nutrients through their leaves. Thinner-leafed varieties tend to require more water, while those with thicker leaves can better tolerate drought. Tillandsia may bloom on a regular basis. They do best in USDA hardiness zones 9–11.

How and Where to Buy Succulents

The great news: Succulents are readily available. From your local big-box garden centers to grocery stores and farmers’ markets, you don’t have to look far to find them.
If you are looking for quality and variety, you may want to check out a local nursery. Some nurseries sell directly to the public, and if you can cut out the middleman, you are likely to take home healthier plants. You’re likely to pay around $2 to $5 for a smaller plant and up to $20 for a larger one.
When purchasing succulents, it’s important to make sure they are free from pests and diseases. Check the center of your plant and under its leaves for aphids and mealybugs (see a later section for more information). Make sure the leaves are not soggy or black, which are signs of rot.
Succulents can also be purchased online if necessary, but it’s always good to see them in person whenever possible before buying.

Rancho Vista Cactus and Succulent Nursery in Vista, California.
Rancho Vista Cactus and Succulent Nursery in Vista, California.

Succulents Alongside Children and Pets

There are a few succulent plants that can be poisonous if ingested. You can avoid this problem altogether by hanging your plants or keeping them out of reach of your children and pets. Cats often chew on plants to get chlorophyll to aid their digestion. It’s a good idea to keep barley grass available for your cats to chew instead of your succulents. Kalanchoes, Euphorbias, and Agaves are on the list of potentially harmful succulents.

The Best Pots for Succulents

Succulents thrive when grown in containers, especially well-draining terra cotta, concrete, and stone pots. Most succulents have shallow root systems, so shallow, wide pots are perfect for creating a home for your plants. In most cases, deep pots are a waste of soil and the soil takes longer to dry out. Since succulents suffer if their roots sit in soggy soil, it’s important to choose containers with drainage holes.
In this book, the variety of containers used may require some alterations to create good drainage systems. For example, when you use a container with no drainage hole, you can drill one if possible, or create a soil-draining system with pebbles and/or moss. Any pebbles will do, as long as you are able to create a space for water to escape from the soil. You can also use long-fibered sphagnum moss in containers without drainage, because it absorbs a lot of water and then dries out quickly. This moss is great for succulents because they can get the water they need without suffering the damaging effects of sitting in excess water.

In a natural setting, succulents seem to do best when neglected. They are often found growing in the most unlikely places: in rock gardens, on walls, and in nooks and crannies between pavers, just to name a few.

Caring for Your Succulents

Just as with any other plant, there are three main factors to consider when growing succulents: soil, water, and sunlight. Using the correct type and amount of each of these factors will help your plants look their best.

  • SOIL

Succulents thrive in well-draining soil. You can buy bags of soil mixed especially for succulents and cacti at your local garden center. Kellogg Garden Organics Palm, Cactus & Citrus mix is one great option. Sometimes these store-bought mixes can contain undesirable sticks and such that can be sifted out if necessary. (For example, if you are making a tiny terrarium, big sticks might take up too much space.)

If you can’t find specialized soil or if you have regular potting soil on hand that you’d rather use, you can customize it to best suit your succulent. To increase drainage, mix in equal parts:

  • Regular potting soil
  • Perlite (an expanded volcanic glass used to improve aeration and drainage) and/or 
  • Coarse-grained horticultural-grade sand

You can find both perlite and horticultural sand at garden centers. Succulents will suffer if their roots sit in excessive water, so it’s worth the time up front to create a very well-draining soil.
Repot your succulents in fresh soil once a year to keep them healthy and looking their best.

 

  • WATER

There is a common misconception that succulents don’t need much water. While it’s true that they can go longer periods of time without it, they will not thrive in a drought-like situation. My general rule of thumb is to water your plants when the soil is completely dry—typically once a week during hotter months and a little less often when the weather cools. You can kill succulents by overwatering, so make sure the soil is totally dry between waterings.

To actually water the plants, give the soil a good soak so that the water runs out of the bottom of the pot. Try to water the soil, not the plant, if possible. Letting water settle on the leaves can cause rot, in addition to leaving unsightly markings.

If the pot you’re using doesn’t have drainage holes, don’t soak the soil. Instead, give it more of a “sip.” In this book, we will be creating arrangements in containers without drainage holes, such as teacups, Mason jars, and glass terrariums. Because succulents do better in containers that drain well, we will always layer the bottom of the container with pebbles to create an alternative drainage system. Although this isn’t the ideal situation for growing succulents, they can certainly survive. Repot your plants if they begin to look as if they are struggling in a container without proper drainage.

If you water your indoor plants outdoors, be sure to keep them protected from direct sunlight, as the sudden change in sun exposure could shock them and cause the leaves to be scorched and scarred. On very slow-growing succulents, a sunburn can scar a plant for the remainder of its lifetime.

  • SUNLIGHT

In general, succulents do best in bright but indirect sunlight. A few hours of morning sun and indirect sunlight throughout the day is best. Different species can tolerate different amounts of light, but most tend to suffer in extended periods of direct sunlight. To avoid burning and scorching your plants, keep them in a place where they get shade but still receive adequate light. My healthiest plants are outside on windowsills, where they are protected from direct sunlight for most of the day by small overhangs. A few hours of direct sunlight is okay; just be sure your plants are sheltered from the harsh afternoon sun.

Experiment with your plants to see what works best where you live. The amount of sunlight succulents receive can affect the look of the plant. Succulents grown in full sun can become washed out and turn pinkish orange or even white, while the same plants grown in the shade will be more of a bluish green. If your plants are not getting enough light, they may become leggy and stretch toward the light. If your plants are stretching out or bending toward the light, you can slowly move them to a brighter spot or rotate their pots from time to time to keep them growing straight up. If your plant has grown too long, it may be time for you to propagate it (see the next article).

HOW TO OVERCOME COMMON PROBLEMS WITH SUCCULENTS

Caring for your succulents’ soil, water, and light exposure will help you avoid the majority of issues with succulents. Despite your best efforts, however, you might run into a problem once in a while, like you would with any other plant. Luckily, most trouble spots with succulents are easily identified and solved. Here are some potential trouble spots and how to fix them.

BUG INFESTATION

To avoid bug infestations and diseases in the first place, it’s a good idea to remove any dead leaves from your plants, as they provide a perfect hiding place for pests and a breeding ground for fungi. Mealybugs, aphids, and spider mites are three common pests you may run into when growing succulents. If you have bugs in small numbers, they can be removed with a sharp pin or a strong stream of water. If you have a large infestation, you may need to use insecticidal sprays.

OVERWATERING

Succulents are designed to survive extended periods of drought, therefore they store water in their leaves. When they receive too much water, however, their leaves become very plump and swollen and may even rip open. If you have an overwatered succulent, cease watering it until the soil is completely dry.

ROT

Rot is a very common problem and goes hand in hand with overwatering. Fungi and bacteria tend to thrive in the fleshy tissue of succulents, so take special care to keep your plants in well-draining soil. If kept in moist, soggy soil, your plant will undoubtedly begin to rot.

SUNBURN

“Sunburns” happen when harsh sunlight causes a dark spot on a succulent’s leaf. Succulents can become sunburnt very easily, especially when moved from shade to direct sunlight without being slowly acclimated. Sunburn can permanently scar a slow-growing succulent, so be very cautious of placing your plants in harsh sunlight.

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