Growing Succulents

Nancy Helms, UM Extension Master Gardener in Anoka County, March, 2016

Succulents are among the easiest plants to grow. My favorite thing about succulents is the ease of growing them indoors in the winter, then bringing them outdoors for the summer. They don’t shed and drop leaves all over the carpet. They require very little water. Since you wait for the soil to dry out before watering, there is no need to find a friend to water when you go away for a winter vacation.

They are especially well adapted for growing in pots. Since they are dormant in the winter months, they don’t over grow their pots. They like bright light; a south or east-facing window will do the job. They don’t require any fertilizing during the winter months. Aside from occasional watering, they are practically maintenance free all winter.

Most succulents are native to arid regions. They store water in their fleshy leaves, stems, and roots, enabling them to resist drought. This means they don’t need to be fussed over with frequent watering, so you can go ahead and enjoy a week-long summer vacation without giving them a second thought.

Once the weather warms up, succulents radiate their beauty outdoors. Even though they are often desert plants, they do not tolerate full sun. It is best to move them outdoors gradually, starting with a shaded, protected area once all danger of frost has passed. You can slowly move them to a sunnier location but avoid any area where they will receive hot, intense midday sun. They will require more frequent watering once outdoors so check them regularly.

The surest way to kill a succulent is with too much TLC. Follow these simple guideline lines and your plants will flourish.

  1. Don’t over water. Only water your succulents when you feel the soil around them is dry. Don’t continue to water if the soil stays moist. If leaves are shrinking or puckering or normally shiny leaves appear dull, it may be time to water. Lightly fertilize only during growing months of summer. It is also very easy to over fertilize these plants; use a standard fertilizer at about half the rate for standard houseplants.
  2. Keep out of direct sunlight. While all cacti are succulents, not all succulents are cacti. They are much more delicate and can easily burn and shrivel. They cannot tolerate the extreme heat of the midday summer sun, outdoors or on a windowsill.
  3. Proper drainage. Buy a well draining soil mix; do not use the same soil you grow vegetables in. When selecting a container, be sure it has drainage holes to allow excess water to drain. If the soil doesn’t drain quickly, your succulents will rot.

Succulents can be propagated easily by taking stem cuttings. Many succulents will even form new plants from leaves that have been broken off. Allow the cutting wound to air dry before sticking the cutting into slightly moistened, sterile sand or other fast draining soil. Water sparingly and transplant when roots have formed.

Succulents are seldom bothered by pests, but should you find scale or mealy bugs, wipe the leaves with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol. If you haven’t succeeded with other houseplants, consider succulents. The rewards far outweigh the effort they require.  For more information, see the Cactus and Succulent Society of America.