How To Care For Succulents

Succulent plants aren't for dinner.

Steve Bender
Echeveria Succulent
Shaped like open rose blooms, echeverias are among the most popular succulents.

I like succulent plants at breakfast. I like succulent plants at lunch. I like succulent plants at dinnertime. I don’t eat them, however, for that would be stupid and potentially lethal. Rather, I admire their strange and compelling architecture of shapes, sizes, textures, and colors—often when I’m munching tortilla chips.

Succulents get their name not because of gastronomic appeal, but from their fleshy, plump leaves and stems that store water, allowing them to survive growing in low-rainfall areas. This doesn’t mean you can’t grow them in high-rainfall areas, though. Garden centers across the country wouldn’t be stacked to the sky with them if that were true. Most succulents respond well to summer downpours and bi-weekly watering during active growth as long as the soil drains and dries quickly. Soggy soil kills succulents faster than cruise ship offers stuff your mailbox.

Due to the current succulent mania, you’ll encounter dozens of different kinds for sale at most home and garden centers. Some you’ll find familiar, like burn plant (Aloe vera), jade plant (Crassula ovata), and hen and chickens (Sempervivum tectorum). Most you won’t and they may be labeled with only botanical names, such as Echeveria, Kalanchoe, Sedum, Aeonium, and Senecio. This should be intimidating to a newbie, but don’t sweat it. Succulents are frequently sold in 3-inch pots that cost only a couple of bucks. So pick out that plants that appeal to you, read the descriptions if there are any (many succulents produce showy flowers in addition to foliage), take them home, and see how they do. If you kill one, well, console yourself with the knowledge you’re accompanied by just about the entire human population. And you won’t miss a house payment.

So let’s talk about basic care. Succulents fly out of garden centers because they’re marketed as “no-care” plants. The only plants that truly fit this description are plastic. Succulents do need care, albeit little compared to most other plants.

Their first demand is bright light—even in light shade, they tend to stretch and sulk. Second, as mentioned before, they hate staying wet for long, so plant them in fast-draining soil. (If in a pot, mix one part coarse sand with two parts potting soil and make sure there’s a drainage hole. Water until excess liquid runs out of the drainage hole and then wait until the soil is dry before watering again.) A layer of gravel over the soil surface reduces wetness at the base of the plant. Third, succulents benefit from periodic fertilization when they’re actively growing in spring and summer. Apply a liquid houseplant fertilizer diluted to half-strength once a month.

Finally, keep in mind that most succulents turn to mush with freezing weather and need to spend winter indoors. Sedums, sempervivums, and agaves are exceptions. Indoor succulents need no water or fertilizer during the winter, but they always need bright light.

Probably the most agonizing decision you’ll face when buying succulents—aside from opting whether to offer the cashier Bolivian money—is choosing a number of single plants or going for that ready-made succulent garden composed of many different plants. Ready-made gardens look great—for a time. From my experience, though, they’re temporary investments. This is because some plants grow slowly, while other grow fast; some stay small while others get big; and water and light requirements vary somewhat. Because of this, your ready-made garden will never look better than the day you buy it.

So do what I do. (That’s always wise.) Match individual plants to individual pots, varying the size and shape of each. Then combine them in a display. This way, if one grows big, you can move it to the back where it won’t bother the others. And if one dies, as one always will, you can easily replace it (or not) without disassembling the garden.