Though they are quite low maintenance with their modest care requirements, succulents can seem daunting to indoor gardeners used to growing leafy tropicals. There are basic habitat considerations, as with all plants, but succulents are truly an optimal beginner’s plant and their beautiful colors and textures attract even the most well-seasoned houseplant enthusiast. Here are the basics you’ll need to know for succulent success…
Bright light, bright light, bright light… but not a lot of direct sun. You’ve probably heard us say it a million times at the greenhouse. One reason is that soil dries out slower in lower-light conditions and consistently moist soil is not our friend. So a brightly lit area is great. But not in the direct sun, especially here in Colorado. Did you know succulents can suffer sunburns? It’s true. If you notice your leaves have brown spots or crispy edges, and they receive direct sun, it’s probably a sunburn and you can easily solve the problem. Just move your plants a bit farther back from the window. Southern and western exposures have fantastic light but that hot afternoon sun can prove damaging. If your succulents are growing leggy, spindly, and stretching at an angle, they are saying “more light, please!” Moving your plant to a brighter location and rotating the pot regularly can help keep stems growing straight.
Succulents are low-water plants. The quickest way to kill a succulent is with overwatering. Those plump fleshy leaves are great indicators for when it’s time to water again. Do not water on a schedule, but rather, wait until the leaves begin to wrinkle the tiniest bit, looking flat and less than succulent… Then water and watch them plump back up! If your leaves are drooping but still plump, it’s likely the roots are soggy. You can stick a finger in the soil and if you feel moisture, put away the watering can. If you aren’t confident in your water-gauging, then it’s best to have a pot with a drainage hole. There are adorable cachepots and repurposed tin containers that succulents look great in, but you really have to be on top of your watering game to succeed with no drainage hole. So if you are a succulent newbie, give yourself a break and get a well-draining pot.
Succulents grow naturally in porous, nutrient-poor soils. So avoid a loamy, compost-rich soil. Use a specialty succulent/cactus mix or create your own. We like to build our succulent mix with bark fines (Soil Pep), perlite, and a small helping of regular houseplant soil. The bark fines hold the right amount of water while preventing soil compaction, perlite helps create tiny pockets of air for roots, and the houseplant soil provides a good dose of nutrients.
Your succulents do get some nutrients from the soil but watering washes many of these nutrients away over time. So you’ll need to provide your plant with the nutrients it needs to grow sturdy and strong. Houseplant fertilizers are great though they can be rather strong for succulents. We recommend using these liquid commercial mixes at 1/2 or 1/4 strength. Fertilize twice a month during the growing season (early spring through early fall) and then very weakly once a month, or not at all, during the dormant season.
The most common pest you’ll find on a succulent is mealy bug. Usually exacerbated by overwatering or over-fertilizing, these bugs look like tiny isopods and are easy to detect with their white, cottony residue. You will likely notice the cotton web-like patches before you notice the bugs. Mealy bugs are most commonly found on the undersides of leaves and in the crevices between leaf and stem. Use a Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol and touch it to the cottony spots, zapping the most visible bugs. If the infestation is beyond the scope of a Q-tip, or your patience for zapping individual bugs runs low, fill a spray bottle with rubbing alcohol and go to it! You will probably need to repeat this process a couple times over a number of days as leftover eggs hatch in the soil. We recommend using a granular systemic pesticide to control/prevent more outbreaks.