The two most important things about succulents are:
Direct sunlight—succulents must have several hours per day of direct sunlight. Indirect light, even bright light, just doesn’t do the job. Certain genera, such as Haworthia (photo, above, at Malone’s Greenhouse, Charlotte NC) and Gasteria, do pretty well with 3 or 4 hours of direct midday sun, and bright light the rest of the day. Echeveria, Graptopetalum, and Adromischus need at least 4 or 5 hours of sun. Cacti need even more sun—6 hours or more.
Soil composition and water—soil must drain very well. Some species collapse with rot if there’s the slightest bit too much moisture in the soil. That’s why the soil should be gritty and dry fairly quickly. Soil with too much coir, peat moss, manure, or vermiculite will hold water too long. Then, with less than optimum sunlight and cool temperatures, or if the plant is in too large a pot, the plant is very susceptible to overwatering.
Steps to plant succulents
Start with a basic cacti and succulent mix, and add to it as the species demand. Or create your own medium from scratch. A very small amount of peat or coir is okay. Drainage is provided by coarse sand (not small, rounded grains as in play sand, but use coarse/masonry/sharp sand), gravel, perlite, horticultural grit, PermaTill, pine fines, charcoal, and expanded clay materials. Once you get to know how your particular plants grow, you’ll be able to amend the soil according to their preferences. But plan on using more drainage material than the other components, in the mix. A soil test will indicate whether lime is needed, although it takes a while to alter the pH of the soil.
Same plants might not fare as well when introduced to lower light levels at home. And that’s when the gritty soil makes a difference.
All the succulents did well in small clay pots. Most have been miniatures or small growing varieties, growing in pots from 1″ to 4″ wide. Every one has a drainage hole. Almost all are terra cotta pots, which are porous and allow water vapor to pass through the pot. That helps dry the soil faster. You can use shallow bonsai trays for succulent gardens—combinations that mimic a scene from nature, with several plants, rocks and gravel, and a piece or two of “driftwood” with character. Deep pots hold water too long, and none of the small varieties need that extra soil.
All gardeners and farmers listen to the weather forecasts—every day, and perhaps a few times a day. Water when the plants need it, of course, but only if sunny days are in the forecast. If you water today, for example, a chilly and rainy day with the same expected over the next 2 days, the soil will stay moist for days longer than if we had sunny weather coming up.
A succulent is less likely to be harmed by waiting another few days for its drink than one that is watered and faces 4 or 5 days of sunless skies. That’s why drainage and soil composition are critical to long-term health of succulents.
- Water after the soil has dried out; it might feel dry on the surface, but soil toward the bottom of the pot might still be damp. Some species are more forgiving than others. Large pots of cacti might need water only every 2 or 3 months from fall to spring.
- Water in the morning, so foliage is dry by mid day.
- Avoid letting water sit in the rosette; shake off most water on the leaves.
- Use rainwater now and then.
- Never let a succulent sit in a saucer of water for more than a few minutes. Sometimes I water from a saucer, but rarely.
- Monitor plants growing outdoors. Move plants under cover in rainy weather.
- Do not repot a succulent unless it’s absolutely necessary, and do so from spring through mid summer. Then, going into winter, the plant will have developed a good root system filling the pot. If in doubt, do not repot.
Enjoy your succulents planting!