Plants

What are Succulents? Complete Beginner’s Guide

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Creatively displaying succulents has become a fun new trend in home decorating.

It is tempting to buy the pretty succulents you see at the grocery store or the trendy display you see at the garden center, but it is important to know how to care for these live plants.

Before you make an investment into such a display, it is beneficial to learn how to care for your new succulents.

Succulents and Watering Schedule

First, you should understand what “succulent” means. Succulents are plants that typically reside in deserts and are excellent at making a little bit of water go a long way.

If you were to squish a succulent, it would be very wet and messy. Due to their desert habitat, you should generally go with the phrase “less is more” when it comes to watering your new succulents.

During the spring and summer months, it is recommended to water your succulents at least once a week. During fall and winter, you’ll want to keep your watering schedule to once a month. If you were to water more frequently than recommended, the plant would likely become waterlogged and begin to rot.

Succulents

A good rule for beginners is to let the plant’s soil become completely dry all the way through before watering again.

If the bottom parts of the plant start to becoming rotted and squishy, this is a good sign that you are watering too much. If this happens, don’t throw the plant out just yet! Just allow the plant time to dry out, and you should see slow signs of the plant coming back to full health and happiness.

On the other hand, if the leaves of the succulent start looking shriveled or wilted, this is a good sign that it’s not getting enough water. In this case, give the plant some water, but slowly. Do not panic and give the plant too much moisture, especially when they are planted in glass terrariums with no drainage holes.

Living Space

When creating a living space for your succulent, you’ll want to make sure you choose soil that is especially good at draining excess water. If planting in a container, it is best to purchase a commercially prepared cactus soil mix to ensure drainage. If planting outdoors, you’ll want to create a small mound to plant your succulents atop, or plant them at the top of a slope to be sure the water drains away from the plants.

Since glass terrarium displays are common for indoor succulents, you’ll want to choose an open terrarium. This is due to the succulent’s preference for low humidity. Choosing a closed terrarium for succulents does not allow it the ability to dry out completely between watering, nor enough air flow.

Succulents in a Terrarium
Succulents in a Terrarium

Temperature and Light Needs

Thinking back again to the succulent’s native desert habitat, these unique plants enjoy low humidity, morning sun, and afternoon shade. Most succulents do not do well with temperatures below freezing.

There are a few exceptions, such as cacti native to the Americas. If you’re not sure about your succulent’s adaptability to cold temperatures, it is best to keep them in a container that can be moved if cold temperatures are common in your area. You’ll also want to avoid placing them in direct afternoon sunlight, which is usually the harshest and hottest part of the day to keep them from drying out too much. This is especially important if they are to be potted and kept indoors. Placing them in a window that receives too much direct sunlight isn’t ideal either, as the glass may amplify the sun’s rays and heat the plant too much.

If you’re not sure if the plant is getting enough light, look at its growth. If it becomes tall, or starts stretching in the direction of the available light, this is a sign that you may need to move it into a brighter location.

Another sign of too little light is the plant losing its color or becoming paler. If you live someplace where it is often dark or overcast, you may want to invest in some grow lights to place near the plants to help supplement the available light.

Succulents in Pots
Succulents in Pots

If you’re concerned the plant might be getting too much light, here are the signs to look for: burn spots on the leaves, or the leaves of the plant drying on the outside and eventually, all the way through. In this case, you may want to move it slightly so that it is not getting direct sunlight, but still getting plenty of bright light during the day.

Planting Indoors or Outdoors

Many commercially grown succulents will contain a plant marker that displays how to care for your new succulent. The marker may also display what USDA zones the succulent will do well in if planted outdoors. You can find out what USDA zone you reside in by searching the internet or writing your local University’s gardening extension.

There is an endless amount of succulent breeds and types, so don’t despair if you find that your USDA zone isn’t especially hospitable to succulents. You’re very likely to find at least one that will do well where you live, and if not, you can cheer up your indoor living space with their unique look.

You won’t need to pack up and move to the desert to enjoy their beauty!

Fertilizing needs

To make your succulent thrive (especially if potted!) you’ll want to apply diluted liquid fertilizer with every second or third watering during their growing season, which are the spring and summer months.

Standard liquid plant fertilizer will do, just be sure it has balanced amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potash (20-20-20). For dilution, you’ll want to follow the directions on the bottle, except use half the amount of recommended fertilizer for your succulent.

Fertilizer is important if you have many succulents sharing a small living space, such as in a terrarium.

Propagation

If your succulent has ideal conditions, you might find it self-propagating. Most succulents are especially easy to propagate. Typically, you can pull off a whole piece where it attaches to the plant, and place it on top of well-drained soil and you’ll find roots within a few weeks. Some may even grow roots without any soil!

Christmas cactus are a good example of this, and an easy to find plant. If a piece of the cactus falls off the plant, it will grow an entirely brand new plant from one piece without any special care.

Succulents in Yard
Succulents in Yard

Benefits of Using Succulents for Landscaping

With water conservation tactics becoming more common, considering succulents as a way to landscape is beneficial to not only the environment, but likely your water bill.

Another benefit to landscaping with succulents is their fire-retardant properties. If you live in a wildfire prone area, you could use succulents as a protective perimeter to help slow the spread of the fire.

Since there are so many varieties of succulents, even some that bloom, creating a pretty garden in especially dry areas isn’t impossible!

Conclusion

All of this information can seem a little daunting at first to a beginner, but the good news is that if you do kill one (and we all do) they are cheap and most of these plants are pretty forgiving.

As with any new hobby, there is a bit of a learning curve, and some plant death is to be expected.

Keep on preserving and creating pretty displays, and you’ll learn exactly which areas of your home and landscape are hospitable to succulents, and how to best care for them.

Hollie Carter

Hollie is a life-long gardener, having started helping her Dad work on their yard when she was just 5. Since then she has gone on to develop a passion for growing vegetables & fruit in her garden. She has an affinity with nature and loves to share her knowledge gained over a lifetime with readers online. Hollie has written for a number of publications and is now the resident garden blogger here at GardenBeast. Contact her at hollie@gardenbeast.com

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