There are those of us with a green thumb and also those who have convinced themselves they are incapable of keeping even the hardiest of plants alive. For those of you in the second group, I assure you there is hope for you in gardening. The growing trend in succulent gardens just might be the perfect opportunity for you to give it a try. With more than 60 families and thousands of hybrid cultivars to choose from, succulents make for the ideal choice for experienced and beginning gardeners.
Let’s begin with a little clarification. Many times, the term “cacti and succulents” is used as if they two were separate, distinct groups. A simple rule can clear up this confusion: All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. There are roughly 10,000 species of succulents worldwide. The cactus family, or Cactaceae, contains about 2,500 species of succulents. Besides cacti, they include many familiar plants such as jade plant (Crassula arborescens), snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata), medicine plant (Aloe barbadensis), century plant (Agave americana), flowering Kalanchoes (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana), sedums (Sedum sp.), and hens and chicks (Sempervivum sp.) which are common in the perennial garden.
Succulent, coming from the Latin succulentus, from sūcus meaning juice or sap, contain special tissues that store water in thickened stems, leaves, roots, or a combination thereof. They have often been called the camels of the plant world. They are hardy, low-maintenance plants that have adapted to survive long periods without water.
The most important rules in starting a succulent garden:
1. Choose an appropriate container. Containers can be terra cotta, plastic, ceramic, tin or glass. The container should have drainage holes, or you can put crushed rock on the bottom beneath your planting medium.
2. There is no one perfect mix of soil for succulents, but there are some basic guidelines to start with. Succulents must be placed in a soil mixture that is porous so that water penetrates easily and drains away quickly. You can use a special soil mix for cacti and succulents that can be found at most garden centers or you can choose to make your own mix. A mix of one-part potting soil and one-part coarse sand is usually porous enough. A good test is to moisten the mixture and squeeze it in your hand. On release, the soil should fall apart. Keep in mind that a standard potting soil will hold too much water near the roots of succulents. Over time, heavier soils will also become compact and restrict much needed airflow to the roots of these plants.
3. Succulents should be watered weekly in the summer when they are outdoors, allowing the soil to dry out between watering. During the low-light winter months, water cacti and succulents only enough to prevent shrinking and withering. Depending on the humidity level in your home, you may be able to wait two to four weeks between watering. When watering, do it thoroughly. Water should flow through the drain holes and any excess water should be removed after a few minutes. Succulents should never be in standing water for prolonged periods of time. Soggy roots will lead to rotting and decay, ultimately killing the plant.
4. Most succulents need very little fertilizer. Watering with a well-balanced fertilizer once a month will be all they need during active growing periods, typically in the late spring and summer.
5. Succulents are happiest in a south-facing window where they will get half- to full-day sunlight. Light can be supplemented with fluorescent light bulbs, a combination of natural light and artificial light, or, if you are willing to move your plants occasionally, they can be rotated and will survive with less light for short periods of time. If you are using fluorescent lights, keep them 6 to 12 inches above the plants and on for 14-16 hours daily.
6. While there are some succulents that are winter hardy, many are native to warmer climates and find themselves quite content as easy-care houseplants. Tropical succulents prefer a minimum temperature of 50-60 degrees while more cold-hardy varieties may be able to withstand 35 degrees or lower.
7. Succulents are affected by relatively few diseases, especially when kept indoors. Maintain good cultural conditions, such as bright light and proper watering, to prevent fungal or bacterial rots.
8. Pests are a rare concern for cacti and succulents. If they have mealybugs or scale, wipe them off with alcohol-dipped cotton swabs. Fungus gnats can be avoided by keeping the soil dry.
Succulents have a wide variety of shapes and colors that make these plants an attractive addition to interior and exterior gardens. Being so uniquely easy to care for makes succulents perfect for beginning growers, busy growers and even forgetful growers.
Don’t dwell on your past plant casualties or your fear of future failure! Gardening is for everyone in every space and we are always here to help. Give our helpline a call and we would be happy to identify the variety of succulent you have and give tips for keeping your plants happy. You can reach the Rutgers Master Gardener Help-Line for Atlantic County at 609-625-0056. Cape May County Residents can call 609-465-5115, ext.3607.
Do you have a gardening related question you would like answered here? Please forward your questions to Belinda Chester, Master Gardener Program Coordinator, Rutgers Cooperative Extension Office, 6260 Old Harding Highway, Mays Landing, NJ 08330. You can also submit questions at Rutgers-atlantic.org/garden or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org; please include “garden question” in the subject line.