4 Secrets for Successful Succulents

Earlier this summer a local greenhouse in my area offered a succulent workshop.  It was a fun way to kick off the weekend with some girlfriends and I learned a ton about growing healthy succulents! As the class was beginning, the instructor asked how many of us had succulents growing at home?  About three quarters of the class raised their hands.  Next she asked how many of us had ever killed a succulent? Every hand in the room went up. It is a miracle any of my succulents have survived as I quickly learned that I was doing almost everything wrong.  In this article I want to share just a few of the basic things I learned which may lead you to have more succulent success too.

Secret #1: The Soil

The first secret to successful succulents is to have good quality soil.  I about fell out of my chair when the instructor said she changes the soil in her pots of succulents every year.  I have several small succulents on my kitchen window sill that have probably been in the same pots and same soil for at least 10 years. Oh brother! I knew I was in trouble for sure.  The instructor recommended that you buy good quality potting soil and add your own perlite to it rather than buying more expensive cactus specialty soil.  What is perlite, you ask? It is the little white styrofoam looking pieces that you see in soil mixtures.  It is actually a mineral that helps hold moisture and nutrients in the soil and creates pockets of air so that the soil does not become too compacted.   She also recommended that you never keep your succulents in the soil they came in unless you know the source is reputable.  So, I probably shouldn’t have just jammed that little succulent I bought at IKEA into a random pot when I got home, huh? Who knew?

As we prepared to plant the succulents, we took each plant out of the container and gently shook all of the soil off the roots. Here is another thing that I have never done with my plants! Once the soil is off, you can look over the roots to make sure they look healthy.  If any parts look dark or rotten, you can gently cut them off or pull them away.  This is also the time to gently remove any dry or old looking leaves from the bottom of the plant.

Making sure that your soil has adequate drainage is also important.  We started our containers with a small layer of gravel (see photo below). This will allow excess water to drain to the gravel ensuring that the soil does not stay too wet.

After filling our containers with a layer of gravel and then good quality potting soil, it was time to gently arrange the plants.  Because the soil is so light and fluffy, it is easy to pull out a plant and re-position it until you get just the look you are going for.  Once the plants were in their final places, we topped the soil with another light layer of gravel. A small paintbrush was a great tool to use for finishing touches.  The handle can be used to gently tuck the gravel up under the plant so that none of the leaves are laying on the soil.  The brush itself can be used to clean any loose soil or debris off the leaves of the succulents.

Secret #2: Adequate Sunlight

The second secret to growing successful succulents is to make sure they get adequate sunlight. Succulents really do need plenty of light. My little potted succulents have done well on my kitchen window sill because they get a lot of sun there.  What I didn’t know is that when growing succulents outdoors, you need to be careful that they do not get too much direct sunlight (no more than 4-5 hours of direct sunlight each day). Keeping them on a covered porch or under a table or overhang is best. My planter from the workshop has been hanging out under one of my small patio tables this summer and seems quite happy there.

You also need to be mindful about sunlight indoors.  Have you ever had a succulent sprout out or lean to the side? Great! It’s growing, right? Nope! Not a good thing… your succulent is actually stretching itself towards the sunlight because it is not getting enough light.  Do yourself a favor and make sure your succulents are placed close enough to a sunny window to get enough light each day.  At this point in the workshop, I was starting to wonder if I have what it takes to grow healthy succulents.  These little suckers are kind of high maintenance, eh?

Secret #3: The Right Amount of Water

The third secret to growing successful succulents is to water them correctly. Oh man, this was another thing I was doing completely wrong. Yikes! It is important to err on less water rather than over-watering.  Too much water can lead to rotting, dying succulents.  Succulents store water in their leaves and stems so they can withstand periods of dryness without a problem. So if your succulents aren’t looking so great, check the soil but don’t just keep giving them more water.  I speak from experience here and it wasn’t pretty.

During the warmer months of the year, you will want to water your plants thoroughly and then allow the soil to dry out before watering again.  Before adding more water, stick your finger into the soil to check first.  If it still feels moist, wait a little longer to add more water. Watering about one time per week is probably adequate. During the colder months, succulents go into a more dormant state and can be watered much less frequently. Once a month may be enough!

Another tip about watering … don’t pour the water directly on the plants if you can help it.  It is better to pour the water into the soil around the plant keeping the succulent leaves dry if possible. Oh, boy! I used to pour the water right down the center of mine and I thought they liked it. Oops! It really is a wonder that any of my previous succulents made it.  Also beware of leaving your succulents in the pouring rain.  One heavy downpour can be the undoing of your hard work.  This is another reason keeping them under something outside is best.  That being said, they do really love rainwater – just not being rained on directly.  See?  High maintenance, right?

Secret #4: Ideal Temperature

The fourth secret for growing successful succulents is to be aware of the temperature.  If you are growing your succulents outside, it is important to know that they cannot tolerate temperatures lower than 40 degrees Farenheit.  If the temperature is expected to get lower than 40 F, be sure to bring your little darlings inside.

I took my class through Molly at Swell Succulents.  If you are in Michigan, I highly recommend you check out one of her workshops or host a private party.  Even if you are not local, you must look at her Facebook and Instagram pages.  Her succulent photos are incredible.  And she is a master at growing the cutest little baby succulents from leaves and cutting of her existing plants. Amazing!

I hope that these tips will help you grow gorgeous succulents of your own.  I am no expert by any means (as you can see by all of my examples of how not to do things) but I do feel like I have a much better understanding of these awesome plants.  There are so many incredible variations of succulents in every color you can imagine.  And all kidding about being high maintenance aside, these plants are really fun to grow and aren’t as difficult as they may seem.  Wishing you all sorts of succulent success!

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