How to Care for Succulents | Midwest Living

How to Care for Succulents

Succulents have always been a favorite for the plant-challenged because they require little water. But they’re also lookers, with sculptural forms and irresistible personalities. Here's a rookie's guide to succulents, from the owners of one very groovy Ohio succulent nursery.

At Groovy Plants Ranch in Marengo, Ohio, Jared and Liz Hughes stock about 350 varieties of succulents and 20,000 plants, an extraordinary collection that lures visitors from neighboring states. Here are their tips for keeping your succulents happy and healthy. To read more about the ranch, click here.

Talk the Talk

Hardy A hardy plant is one that can survive below-freezing temperatures. Some succulents are hardy to 20 degrees below zero!

Tender A tender plant, on the other hand, doesn’t tolerate cold well. It will look sad (or, ahem, dead) after a frost.

Propagation This means making baby plants! Agaves, aloes and hens-and-chicks grow “pups” that can be cut (with any roots) and replanted. For sedums, echeverias or jade, snap a leaf off at the stem. Let dry a couple of days, then lay in soil. Then leave them be. Some won’t take root—that’s nature—but if they do, mist lightly to nurture growth.

Succulent Propagation

If you’ve ever semi-neglected a pet cactus on a bookshelf, you know succulents are a low-frills game.

Keep Your Plants Happy

Water Succulents store water in their leaves and stems. They like aridity. Avoid soggy areas in the garden; for container planting, drainage holes are a must. Water only when soil is completely dry. Usually one soak every one to two weeks is plenty.

Sun Most succulents are sun-lovers that want to bask for at least six hours daily. But if sun is scarce in your yard or home, don’t fret: Some daintier sedums welcome afternoon shade. Snake plant, a popular houseplant, thrives in indirect light.

Soil Succulents prefer dry, gritty soil. If planting in the ground, amend soil with pumice (especially if your yard is full of clay). For containers, ordinary potting mix works, but a cactus-specific blend is best.

Hardiness Hardy succulents like yuccas and hens-and-chicks actually require a cold dormancy, so they don’t make good houseplants. Tender ones, such as echeverias and jade plants, are happy outdoors in summer—and may even put on a lot of growth—but they must come inside to spend winter as houseplants.

Cereus Cactus

Black-eyed Susan vine and Christmas lights climb up a cereus cactus. Cereus work as houseplants, but eventually require trimming for height.

Stock the Toolbox

Tongs Use metal barbecue tongs for lifting and placing the thorniest plants to avoid ruining pairs of gloves from cacti prickles.

Fertilizer They can handle tough conditions, but succulents do need nutrients, especially in pots. Try a liquid format; for best results, choose one targeted for cacti.

Moisture Meter Take the guesswork out of watering (especially in high, out-of-reach containers) with a gauge that measures moisture levels deep below the surface. Most cost less than $20.

Succulent Diversity

Even within a single genus, succulents deliver vast diversity.  Agave, for example, spans more than 200 species, including the 2- to 3-foot sea urchin-like Agave geminiflora (above right) and the compact, 1- to 2-foot rosette of Agave victoriae-reginae (lower left). Hardy to around 25 degrees, both look striking alone in large containers.

Plant a Mixed Container

Prep Clay pots wick moisture from the roots, and trusty, affordable terra-cotta plays nicely off succulents’ desert aesthetic. Shallow bowls are ideal. Don’t try to fool a plant by putting gravel in the bottom of a pot with no drainage holes, he warns: “It’s still a swimming pool, and succulents will rot.”

Plant For a classic design, choose three plant varieties. It’s fine to mix hardy and tender plants, but that will create some end-of-summer work. Select one large succulent as the statement plant. Add a second, smaller plant in a contrasting color and shape. Fill gaps with sedum, allowing some to tumble over the rim.

Finish After planting, top-dress the container with a layer of rocks to cover the soil. Water thoroughly. Put the container in a sunny spot on a deck, porch or patio, or within a garden planting. In late fall, transplant hardy succulents into the ground and bring potted tender succulents indoors.

Keep Li’l Succulents as Houseplants

Groovy Plants Succulents

For names of every plant in this photo, click here.

Prep Direct light is important, so a south-facing window is best. If they don’t get enough sun, succulents will etiolate—stretch toward the light and get gangly. If you choose to transplant your new baby, keep the pot within 2 inches of the size of the pot it came in.

Plant One of the treats of shopping at a nursery like Groovy Plants is finding specimens you won’t see at big-box stores. Aeonium ‘Kiwi’ (1) adds a pop of chartreuse and pink to containers; it’s a prolific off-setter, so expect lots of rosettes. Echeverias are snapshot-perfect rosette succulents that come in a rainbow of hues and shapes; ‘Perle von Nurnburg’ (2) has purple leaves, while E. shaviana ‘Truffles’ (3) has a ruffled cabbage look. For hanging baskets, consider Echinopsis chamaecereus (4), an easy grower that produces orange flowers. Senecios are Instagram darlings with strings of pearl, icicle or hook-shape leaves. Groovy Plants in Ohio is one of the few nurseries in the country selling the rare ‘String of Dolphins’ (5).

Maintain Water biweekly, when pots are thoroughly dry (or even less in winter). Remove flowers after blooming to preserve the plant’s energy. Prune or take cuttings of larger, unruly plants. If echeverias get leggy, decapitate the top portion and replant it.

Build a Rock Garden

Succulent Landscaping

An expansive rock garden at Groovy Plants Ranch shows how succulents can be a low-maintenance (and high drama) landscaping solution.

Prep Choose a well-drained south-facing slope, a pocket garden around a patio or a sunny corner of an existing border. After preparing the ground, place boulders in a rough border. Build up a shallow mound of soil in the center. Nestle in a few river rocks or small boulders.

Plant Anchor the design with one or more statement specimens, such as spiky yuccas or agaves. Here, Agave americana ‘Mediopicta alba’ (1) and ‘Variegata’ (2) offer dramatic variegated leaves.

Fill Tuck smaller plants among the rocks, mixing textures, shapes and colors. “This is a Picasso,” says Jared Hughes of Groovy Plants. “Not a formal garden.” Hens-and-chicks are a must. (Tellingly, their Latin name Sempervivum roughly means “long-living.”) The variety ‘Cobweb’ (3) has delicate white webbing in the rosettes. A little less familiar, Orostachys are extremely cold-hardy Asian succulents that eagerly self-seed and pop up elsewhere in the garden. O. iwarenge (4) has long tendrils that collect water and look striking after a rainfall. Sedums, also known as stonecrops, creep along the ground or cascade over ledges and are great for filling gaps. Groovy Plants has about 20 different sedums in this garden, including purple SunSparkler (5), which flowers in late summer.

Accent Don’t limit yourself to succulents. For color, height and textural variety, mix in heat-loving perennials like coneflowers and blanket flowers (6).

Finish After planting, top-dress the area with pea gravel or crushed granite to keep the plants’ crowns dry and help control weeds. Water thoroughly once; after that, most plants will subsist on normal Midwest rainfall. If you’ve included any tender succulents, they’ll need to over-winter in pots indoors.

Air Plants

Air plants (above left), are not succulents, but they share the same will to survive. In tropical countries, they hang in trees or on phone lines. In your home, you can perch one (sans pot) on a shelf or table.

Check out our story about Jared and Liz Hughes, owners of Groovy Plants in Ohio who helped us share all of these succulent tips, tricks and photos.

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