Monday, January 23, 2017

Sucessful Succulent Gardening


Succulents seem to be the new big plant trend. They are brightly colored, easy to grow, and very forgiving plants -- why not!  Visit any greenhouse or big box store, and you will find a large display of succulents in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors.   It is very hard to walk past them without placing a few in my cart. Actually more than a few make it home to my garden.  After much trial and much more error (resulting in a few dead plants),  I am sharing what has worked for me.


Succulents grow best in well draining soil. Packaged potting soil(less) mix contains mostly peat moss and not my first choice.  Many of the less expensive bagged potting soils typically  hold too much water for good succulent root growth.  One alternative is to purchase Cactus and Succulent mix or a Bonsai mix, containing a grittier list of ingredients.  A little more expensive,  but a good soil mix is the first step to healthy plants. If you have a large number of containers and do not mind mixing the ingredients, my preference  is AL's Gritty Mix. You cannot buy this bagged in a garden center, rather the ingredients are purchased and mixed.  Details can be found on the main page of my blog or search the Garden Web Forum - Container Gardening .  The main ingredients are:  pine bark fines,  Gran-it-grit (grower size chicken grit), Turface MVP (used for baseball fields).  Al provides a great deal of information on why this mix works so well in the many posts he has written on the forum.
Using one of these soil mixes requires that initially you monitor your watering more closely until you  find the best schedule for your plants in your location.


Sometimes called the flapjack plant -  Kalanchoe luciae

If you use  a well draining  soil mix,  watering will be easy.  There is a common misconception that succulents do not need to be watered much.  Most succulents will tolerate occasional neglect, however most do not  "thrive" in a drought-like situation. On the other hand, if you are too attentive, and tend to water frequently,  the roots will stay too wet, roots will rot and you will eventually have a new addition to the compost pile.   The best approach is to water well and then allow to dry for a short time, and then water well again. 
Sunlight, containers and soil mix can impact the time in between watering. Clay pots are a great choice, because tend to dry out little faster than a ceramic or a plastic pot.  Because many of my succulents are outside during the summer, I like to use hypertufa pots. Not sure what that is - read about them on this blog.   Using containers with a drainage hole(s)  lets the water drain better, and is my preference when selecting a container. Planting succulents in tea cups, mason jars and old shoes is not a good choice for a long term container, however they will work if you add a layer of gravel and are cautious not to over water.

Container of succulents growing in a small garden center in California.

Succulents display at Longwood Gardens

Succulents can be placed in two categories Hardy (zones 5,4,and 3)  and Soft (Non Hardy zones 9,10,and 11).  Much of what is written here can apply to both, however my focus will be on those more tender plants that we are growing indoors. 
Succulents like a growing environment that has good quality sunlight.  Just like any group of plants not all in that group  require the same amount of light. Succulents tolerate  conditions ranging from bright filtered light to full sun.    I have  had the best success with placing my plants at a window facing  south, east and west ( in that order)  getting  about 5- 6 hours  of sunlight. If your plant does  not get enough sun,  they will demonstrate their displeasure by stretching their stems for more light.  As the temperature outside warm , I will  move my containers outdoors. In my garden - zone 6b Pennsylvania,  I place my succulents in a location with morning sun, or afternoon sun, and hopefully some mid day shade.  Making the transition to outdoor sun should be gradual, ( maybe on the porch first). This will prevent any leaf burn as you move them to their final outdoor location.  It should be understood that you may  have different light challenges and requirements for other parts of the country.

Many Soft or Non Hardy Succulents ( i.e Echeveria), can also be taken out of the container and planted directly in the ground.  Not a new thing for those gardening in Southern California, but I encourage anyone in colder zones to try it out. For years I have planted Echeveria in my garden next to my perennials and annuals. They are extremely tough plants, will tolerate lots of sun and occasional neglect, and  the plants push out lots of babies increasing my count each year.  They are very easy to dig up in the fall and move indoors as the temps begin to fall. 

In the fall as the temperature drops below 45degrees Fahrenheit potted non hardy succulents must be moved inside.  

A single Echeveria planted in Hypertufa container. .
Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’

In most growing situations we will grow succulents in containers with a soilless mix that provides little or no nutrients.  It's not unusual for gardeners to over fertilize their container plants.  We are sold super fertilizers to stimulate growth and  grow enormous flowers.  More is not better with succulents. Too much fertilizer, especially high-nitrogen blends, increase leaf and root rot problems. It also builds up in the soil interfering with the uptake of water.  Succulents are efficient growing plants, they will grow well will less fertilizer. Begin by using a fertilizer  that has low N-P-K . If your mixing a water based fertilizer, mix it at 1/4 to 1/3  of the  manufacturers recommended  strength.   Frequent watering with very diluted fertilizer is preferred.
Repurposing a fire pit bowl as a planter with some paint and a few drainage holes drilled. 

I have recently tried a  new technique for growing these tough plants.  Below is a photo of  succulent moss ball I recently made.  It is called Kokadama, and is made using soil,  a sheet of  green moss and twine.  The plants were taken from cuttings, and I expect with proper care will root easily in the ball of soil and moss.

Succulent cuttings planted in a moss ball.

I still have lots to learn.  Like many gardeners I do this best by trial and error. However I do love to search the internet for great photos and  easy to read information. I found this site to be very helpful, and easy to navigate.
One final thing, you are welcome to share my photos, please link back to my blog, do not however copy and use for your site without my permission.

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