Succulent Care Essentials

Table of Contents

1. Growing succulents in your garden

2. Water and fertilizer requirements

3. Sun and shade

4. In-ground vs. container cultivation

5. Soil and drainage

6. Pest control

The secret to cultivating succulents successfully is to give them conditions similar to their native habitats, which for the most part are warm, arid and receive minimal rainfall (under 20 inches a year).

1. Growing succulents in your gardenKeep succulents on the dry side, and give their roots superb drainage. Although succulents can usually handle more rainfall than they’d get in habitat, their roots may rot if the soil stays soggy. Very few succulents thrive outdoors where temperatures drop below freezing (32 degrees F) for extended periods. Cold-hardy varieties are primarily fine-leaved and perennial stonecrops (Sedum sp.) and hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum sp.)—genera that also don’t do well in temps above 80 degrees.

2. Water and fertilizer requirementsWhen under-watered, succulents subsist on stored moisture. If the soil dries completely, roots may desiccate and growth cease. Some succulents are capable of regenerating roots when the rains return, but it’s best to keep soil about as moist as a wrung-out sponge.

The rule of thumb is to water succulents thoroughly once a week in summer, twice a month in spring and fall, and monthly during their winter dormancy. Increase or diminish the amount per these common-sense considerations: the type and depth of soil, time of year, relative humidity, intensity and duration of sun exposure, ambient temperature, and the type of plant. Apply a balanced liquid fertilizer, diluted to half strength, once or twice in spring (or autumn for summer-dormant varieties such as senecios and aeoniums).

Raindrops, Echeveria
Debra Lee Baldwin
San Diego, CA

Raindrops on an echeveria. Photo by: Debra Lee Baldwin.

3. Sun and shadeIn general, give succulents half a day of full sun, ideally morning, and the rest of the day bright or dappled shade. Keep in mind that the intensity and duration of sunlight varies according to latitude and elevation, throughout the seasons, and in different orientations and locations in your garden. Moreover, the same succulents that bask in full-day sun along the California coast may scorch in under 30 minutes in Arizona. Varieties that will want more sun—indeed won’t bloom without it—are those native to the Southwest, such as cacti and yuccas, and aloes from South Africa.

 Shade Structure, Succulents, Desert Botanical Garden
Debra Lee Baldwin
San Diego, CA

At the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, a shade structure protects non-native cacti from frost and scorching sun. Photo by: Debra Lee Baldwin.

Succulents do need adequate light for balanced growth (so they don’t stretch), and any succulent—any plant for that matter—that has been cultivated in low-light or in a greenhouse should be hardened-off (introduced gradually) to greater sun exposure. Sunburn appears as permanent beige or brown patches, and if extensive, may lead to a succulent’s demise. Those few that don’t tolerate full sun, such as sansevierias and haworthias, make wonderful houseplants. Variegated (striped) succulents, which have less protective pigment, want less sun than their solid-colored cousins.

4. In-ground vs. container cultivationThe banana belt for outdoor cultivation of succulents year-round is coastal California from the Bay Area south. But no matter where you live, you can have any succulent you fancy; simply grow the fussy ones in sheltered microclimates or containers. Succulents, being shallow-rooted, thrive in pots that can be moved and sheltered when the weather turns too hot, cold or wet. And even potentially enormous succulents tend to stay small when their roots are confined.

Succulents In Containers, Container Arrangement
Debra Lee Baldwin
San Diego, CA

At my home, this outdoor countertop is a great location for succulents I prefer not to grow in the open garden. Photo by: Debra Lee Baldwin.

5. Soil and drainageThe best soil for succulents, whether in the ground or in containers, is a coarse, fast-draining mix. You can buy bagged cactus mix, but it’s less expensive to make your own. Although soil types vary from region to region and even within your own garden, the basic formula for in-ground plantings is one-third garden soil, one third compost, and one third pumice. If you’re growing primarily desert succulents, reduce the amount of compost and add sharp (large-grained) sand, such as builder’s sand or decomposed granite. If your native soil drains poorly (typical of clay), avoid having roots sit in water by planting atop the clay in raised beds or mounded soil.

Succulent Garden, Succulent Beds
Debra Lee Baldwin
San Diego, CA

In this newly planted bed, succulents benefit from well-amended, mounded soil. Photo by: Debra Lee Baldwin.

For containers, mix any bagged potting soil half-and-half with pumice. Increase the percentage of pumice for cacti and rotund euphorbias, and decrease it for fine-leaved succulents, such as sedums.

Pumice, Succulent
Debra Lee Baldwin
San Diego, CA

Pumice is a volcanic rock with air pockets that absorb excess moisture and enhance aeration. Photo by: Debra Lee Baldwin.

6. Pest controlPrevent infestations by giving succulents excellent air circulation. Aphids and thrips like flower buds; scale tends to colonize stems; and mealy bugs (which look like bits of lint) burrow into leaf axils. Spray pests with rubbing alcohol diluted 50% with water. Scale can be scraped off, but if it persists, treat it with horticultural soap (not dish soap) and horticultural oil. Isolate any infested plants immediately, lest the pests spread, and thoroughly clean the area. Mold may be a problem in humid climates; keep succulents as dry as possible (which sounds easy but of course isn’t).

Cotyledon Buds, Aphids
Debra Lee Baldwin
San Diego, CA

Cotyledon buds, damaged by aphids, may not open. Photo by: Debra Lee Baldwin.

If pests seem to be winning, take cuttings from unaffected growth and establish them in fresh soil. Discard the diseased plant, soil and all, and clean the pot before reusing.

About Debra Lee Baldwin

Garden photo journalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored the Timber Press bestsellers Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens and Succulents Simplified. For more information about all aspects of growing and caring for succulents, including their many uses in gardens, containers and design projects, visit Debra’s website to view her YouTube channel, and subscribe to her newsletter.

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