The Treasure of Succulents

By Lori Murray, Cameron County Master Gardener

I grew up in the Midwest, a land of rhododendrens, tulip bulbs and winter snows, so I was shocked to discover that a plant could be propagated by sticking a piece of it into loose soil.  This surprising information began my experience with succulents, plants that store water in their plant tissue and are characterized by enlarged, spongy leaves and stems.  Now succulents are more the norm for me, but I was still surprised to see a great bed of them featured at a Michigan Farmer’s Market last summer.  I think their popularity must wax and wane and it must be on the upswing again.

Clearly, succulents are popular plants here in the Valley both indoors and out since they are drought resistant and easy to grow.  They are easy to propagate too, commonly by cuttings but also by babies, and there is a great selection available.  They don’t need much water or fertilizer and tolerate the dry air indoors very well.

One very important thing to remember however is not to overwater. Like most plants, they DO NOT LIKE THEIR FEET WET and their response is not pretty  AT ALL.  If they sit in water, they will probably rot.  One other thing to watch for is direct sun.  While succulents can take a few hours of direct sun outdoors, they cannot tolerate direct sun through glass.  They will burn and turn black.  Despite these problems, succulents can survive in areas where other plants suffer.  (In Northern California, succulents have even replaced some yards of grass.)

Plant your succulents in pots with drainage holes or in beds that you do not over-water.  Indoors, succulents do well in planters and in combinations.  They have beautiful, unique shapes, sizes, and colors. You can buy potting soil designed for succulents both online and at local stores, or you can make your own.  Directions can be found online and include various combinations of regular potting soil, perlite, poultry grit, and coarse sand.  Anything to provide fast draining soil that won’t expose the plants to a soak.

Outdoors, aloe vera, sanseveria, agave, pony tail palms, Kalanchoe, sedum and Jade plant are easy to grow in the ground and provide blooms.  In pots smaller succulents will present endless variety.  Just use common sense:  water succulents a bit more in spring when they’re growing and in summer when it’s hot and water a bit less in winter and fall when the plants are becoming dormant.  Water small pots more frequently that large ones.  Provide drainage.  Water only when the soil is completely dry, avoid pots without holes, and remember that more succulents die from overwatering than underwatering.