Succulents are a lot of fun to grow both individually and grouped together in desert vignettes, using shallow bonsai dishes or ceramic bowls, driftwood, rocks, and gravel.
Place the plants in your sunniest windows.
While some, like Haworthia and Gasteria, do well with 3 hours of sun, the colorful ones, such as Echeveria and Graptopetalum, prefer at least 4 hours, and spiny cacti need 5 or 6 hours. Without strong direct sunlight, plants will stretch, weaken, and lose color.
Make sure you use pots that have drainage holes.
In the winter, keep plants potbound. Do not repot them until spring or early summer, and only if it’s absolutely necessary. Overpotted plants (those in pots that are too large) hold a lot of water, and that can set up root rot. Use terra cotta, a clay-like material that “breathes” water vapor through the pot wall. This helps the soil dry out faster.
Use cactus/succulent potting soil.
It must drain fast. Waterlogged soil is death to succulents! Water only when the soil has completely dried—not just at the surface, but all the way through. On the side of too little water instead of too much. Do watch the weather forecast, and water succulents only if a few sunny days were in the forecast. Succulents that are watered when cloudy weather is rolling in will stay wet for too long. If in doubt, put the plants under a 4′ long LED or fluorescent light fixture, within a few inches of the tubes, to dry them out. Keep the lights on for at least 10 hours a day. A light fixture is great for any plant that needs some rehabilitation. Place overwatered plants on a terry cloth towel, which will absorb excess moisture.
Succulents are enjoying a resurgence in popularity and can be found everywhere—-at big box stores, independent garden centers, farmers’ markets, home and garden shows and online shopping.
Crassula ‘Gollum’ is a type of jade plant whose leaves are rolled up into tubes. It is slower growing than the common jade plant, and makes a decent bonsai after a few years. In good sun, the dark green leaves are rimmed in red at the tips.
Haworthia cooperi, H. retusa, H cymbiformis, and others are easy. Their root system is heavier than many other succulents, and can tolerate a bit more water and less sun than cacti. Haworthia. fasciata is always in demand because of the bands of white dots covering the leaves. Many cultivars of all of these species are available. Haworthia and the related dwarf Gasteria liliputana can be used under the taller Crassula ‘Gollum’ in dish gardens.
Adromischus cristata leaf edges are crenulated like piecrust. Other species are spotted with burgundy, and some have ghostlike lines marking the grayish foliage.
Echeveria cultivars (‘Pink Frill’, ‘Afterglow’, ‘Truffles’, among the dozens available) have fabulous colors, and demand strong sun to maintain them. Pink, lavender, blue, purple, gray…smooth, hairy, smooth edge or ruffled edge… Again, lots of sun for these plants.
Graptopetalum amethystinum, when well-grown, has gorgeous color and pronounced “bloom”. Many succulents have a glaucous bloom, which is a thickened waxy cuticle. This rubs off with handling, so avoid touching the leaves. The bloom will return, but it takes time. In hot climates, the bloom (has nothing to do with flowers) helps protect the plant from losing moisture or burning up in the searing sun. (You can see the bloom also on red grapes and plums.)
Kalanchoe ‘Flapjack’ is grown for its large paddle-shaped leaves and red edges. A variety called ‘Fantastic’ had creamy variegation in the leaves. These grow large. Other types of Kalanchoe grow tiny plantlets along the leaf edges, which drop to the soil and take root, and others are reliable flowering plants, especially in the winter.
Aloe and Agave are widely available, and come in miniatures and giant cultivars. The common Aloe barbadensis (formerly Aloe vera) is the one used on nonserious skin burns.
Check with the salesperson about temperature requirements. The ones mentioned are tender, meaning they cannot take frost. They grow indoors most of the year but enjoy a summer vacation outdoors. And there are many hardy species (Sedum, Sempervivum) that can be used outside in perennial rock gardens.