“All succulents are good companions,” says Lynn Wilson, greenhouse manager at Pete’s Greenhouse. These cute, low-maintenance plants take up little space and are relatively simple to care for – even for home gardeners whose thumbs aren’t exactly the right shade of green. Succulents are inexpensive and come in an endless variety of shapes and appearances. This makes them a popular choice to improve the decor of any well-lit interior space, from a shelf in the kitchen to a cubicle in the workplace.
At Pete’s, Wilson walked us, step by step, through the process of planting and propagating succulents.
Hardy succulents can be used to create a beautiful mini-garden in a shallow ceramic pot or dish. These “dish gardens” are one of the easiest ways to care for the plants, whose only necessities are well-drained soil and sunlight.
Start by placing a quarter- to half-inch layer of charcoal in the bottom of the dish. This acts as a water filter and a drainage layer, pulling moisture away from the roots and the soil. This protects the plant against over-watering. “In a clear container, it will also give you a window so you’ll know when to water,” Wilson says.
Place a layer of gravel above the charcoal, which will also assist with drainage. Then top with potting soil. Once these layers are in place, plant the succulent. Dig a hole with your fingers, loosen the root ball, remove any dead leaves and extra dirt, and insert the plant into the soil. “Make sure you don’t damage the roots by forcing it into the container or when you pack the soil,” Wilson says. “And don’t be afraid to rearrange as you plant.” Keep the soil loose so you can adjust each plant as you add to the dish.
A packed succulent container can result in cramped planting spaces, so don’t be afraid to use long teaspoons, tweezers, or funnels to help arrange the various plants.
Once your succulents are in position, you may want to hide the soil with a more appealing top layer. Sand (including colored sand) is a popular choice. “You can also use moss,” Wilson explains, “but don’t cover the soil completely so the plants can breathe.” Other potential toppers may include shale, gravel or river rocks.
Set your succulent dish garden in a place where it receives bright sunlight and good air circulation. Succulents may be hardy and low-maintenance, but that doesn’t mean you should treat yours like a cactus, Wilson says. They need water, but because dish gardens don’t drain, you should always let them dry out before the next watering.
Some people are tempted to use glass terrariums for succulent planting, but Wilson says these aren’t ideal because they don’t allow enough air circulation. “Dish gardens offer the same type of look but are easier to maintain,” she says.
If you’re planting succulents in a drainable pot rather than a dish, use a combination that’s half potting soil and half sand. Mix the substances well and fill up the pot almost to the top. Succulents have small roots, so you’ll plant the succulents as shallowly as possible, digging a hole that is bigger than the root ball.
A healthy succulent is going to grow. They are not often fast-growing plants, but propagation actually stimulates young growth and gives you the opportunity to make additional miniature gardens using the same plants.
Even if succulents are exposed to enough sunlight, they can get “leggy.” This happens when a succulent starts to grow toward a light source. This can cause its compact leaves to space apart, taking away from its visual appeal – especially if the lower leaves dry up or fall off. A succulent that looks like a weird, tiny tree no longer looks like a succulent.
A leggy succulent is an ideal candidate for propagation.
Start by using scissors or a sharp knife to cut off the youngest part of the leggy stem. Remove any leafy shoots from the stem. Gently wiggle these leaves in order to pull off the entire leaf – including its base. Once you do, it can be used to grow into an entirely new plant. After the leaves have been stripped, set the stem aside to dry for at least 24 hours. Plant stems in potting soil.
Both the single leaves and the larger clipping can be propagated, as long as you let the ends dry out first. You’ll know it has dried properly if the raw end develops into a protective callous. (Some may take two or three days to dry fully.)
Once dry, place these leaf and shoot cuttings on top of succulent soil. Water minimally. Eventually, tiny pink roots will start to grow from each base as they search for water. For a common succulent like donkey-tail sedum, this process may take around six weeks. After these have developed, the original leaf or stem may wither. Carefully remove it, then replant the baby succulent. They will still need sunlight, but keep them out of direct light until the new plants have been safely established.
Some succulents – like hen and chicks – self-propagate with “offsets.” These are small plants that start to develop from the base of the mother plant. To replant from these, allow an offset to grow for several weeks. Once you notice root development, twist, pinch or cut the “chick,” being careful not to damage the roots. Clean off any dead growth, then go ahead and plant the baby succulent, forcing soil around the leaves. Removing these offsets not only expands your collection of greenery, but can improve the health of the mother plant.
Succulents are a fun way to beautify an indoor space during the winter and early spring, but they can also add color and variety to outdoor spaces once temperatures rise. “After winter, you will want to gradually expose indoor succulents to the outdoors,” says Wilson. “Leave them in full sun a few hours a day.” Don’t leave them too long, however, as the sun exposure can damage them.
As the weather turns cooler, a slow transition is equally important. Before bringing outdoor succulents back inside, trim and fertilize them to make sure they are strong enough to adjust to the changes in temperature and circulation. “Don’t transfer them back and forth,” says Wilson. “It shocks them and they’ll die.”
Unless they are perennials, indoor succulents prefer warm, dry rooms. This can make bathrooms a challenging space to grow healthy succulents. In this environment, Wilson advises watering less to account for the humidity. She says misting isn’t necessary with succulents. “But if you choose to mist, use only bottled water – not city water,” she says. This keeps mineral deposits from forming on the plant’s leaves.
by Jason Boyett
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.