Succulent success….sort of

Succulents. You either love them or you hate them. Or you love them so much you kill them.

I hear so often that succulents are finicky and hard to keep alive. And I’ve found that to be somewhat true. But I’ve found some useful tips that help keep these little gems alive and thriving.

1. Location. Location. Location.

Living in West Michigan, there aren’t many varieties that will tolerate the harsh winters. Succulents here will require a nice indoor spot. Fortunately, we have a lovely porch that gets great sun. But some varieties will die if they get too much sun. If you get your plant from a greenhouse, refer to the tag for the light requirements. Full-sun, morning sun, indirect light. These will give you a better idea of where your plant will thrive. If your plant isn’t from a greenhouse, you have a little detective work to do to determine it’s variety and light requirements. Mine line a south facing window, a west facing window and an East facing window. Keep an eye on the color. If your plant looked bright when you first got it but now it’s dull, it’s getting too much direct light. If it’s growing tall and leaning towards the window, it’s not getting enough.

2. Water. Water. Water.

Most people will tell you that they over-loved their succulents to death. But just as there are variations on light requirements, there are also various requirements for watering. I’ve found that my leafier succulents need more water more often or they dry up. I’ve also found some juicier succulents, like my string of pearls and my large aloe need more. So how on earth do you tell who needs what? Ask them. “Little Jade, are you thirsty?”Ok. In all seriousness, your plant can actually talk to you. But you have to be looking rather than listening. The first clue is the soil. If the soul becomes dry in 3 days, water it every 3 days. If it becomes dry after 3 weeks, water every 3 weeks. The second clue are the leaves. Succulents store water, so if they aren’t getting enough, they’ll look thin or wrinkly. Aloe plants are the best at this. The leaves get thin and curl inwards when it’s not getting enough water. Every plant will be different in it’s watering needs, so paying attention to it’s clues can help your plants thrive.

3. Water. Location.

The number one problem I see is a perfectly healthy plant getting the right light and the right amount of water and suddenly, it’s turning brown and dying. Where you put the water is just as important as how much water it gets. Watering succulents can be logistically difficult because sometimes they dome their whole container. It is absolutely essential that you water under the leaves at the base. If you water from the top and let it pool, it will rot the plant right down the middle.

Poor spike. Never had a chance.

I learned this one the hard way. I have so many plants that I added another row in my window making it harder to lift each container and I got lazy and watered from the top. And I managed to kill the rookie plant that is nearly impossible to kill. Sigh. Lesson learned.

4. Soil

I’m so excited I soiled my plants! The type of soil that will allow a succulent to be successful needs to be porous and well drained. Succulents need the water to reach the roots but they can’t sit in it. Back to my dead aloe plant, pooling the water made it rot. One watering. And this one goes hand in hand with the next one.

5. Containers.

We all love the look of tiny succulents in little tea cups or other creative containers.

The truth is, most of these creative containers will kill your plant. If you have the perfect light, the perfect watering system, and the perfect soil, your plant can be in serious jeopardy if there aren’t any drainage holes. Water will dry are the top because the soil is pourous. You’ll read all the signs that it needs to be watered. But without somewhere for that water to go, the roots will become saturated and kill the plant. My favorite container from the article above is the tea tin. I use tons of them (mostly because I can get them free from my local coffee shop). I can use a hammar and a phillips-head screw driver to poke 6-8 holes in the bottom before I put in the soil. They also nicely hold a 2.5 inch plant.

If you do use a teacup or other cute container, make sure you have a small plant in a big container. Fill the bottom with a 1/4 inch of pea gravel (tiny stones) before putting in the soil. These cute containers will only work if your plant needs a low amount of water and has short roots.

6. Space case.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the look of multiple varieties of succulents in one container, but your plants won’t grow, they’ll compete. Someone always loses. I have only found one combination that is symbiotic and that is this guy:

This cactus HATES direct sun. But it’s companion loves it. Plant A hides and plant B protects it. They both have shallow roots and need little water.

Because there are so many variables with lighting and watering, it can take some serious skill and time (or trial and error) to find the right combination. Most box stores and even many greenhouses don’t take that into consideration. They plant what looks nice together.

Succulents love to grow and given enough space, they’ll have little off-shoots (yes, I call them babies). And when the babies get big enough, you can give them their own space.

My best suggestion is to start small. Get 2-3 plants. Learn their needs. Make notes of what works and what doesn’t. I truly believe that anyone can be successful growing succulents. There are so many fun varieties out there to explore and learn about. Take it slow and enjoy your plants!