Succulents are beautiful, diverse and increasingly popular houseplants and garden specimens, amongst new gardeners and avid collectors alike. When potted, succulents can be grown individually, or in groups for either a dramatic effect or understated charm, depending on your preference.
I’ve grown succulents in different ways in my gardens in Pretoria and in Shanghai. I have found succulents to be quite resilient, if they are provided with the basics they require.
What are the basic requirements of succulents?
In my experience succulents require just a few basic elements to thrive. Some people struggle to keep them alive, so I hope these tips will help.
1. Excellent drainage
2. Gritty soil
4. Don’t over-water, particularly in winter.
More details on the above follow, along with the process of planting a succulent pot.
1. Excellent drainage
Any container you use to plant succulents must have proper drainage holes. Succulents grown in glass or other decorative containers, without drainage holes, will slowly die from root rot or plant rot. This is one of the reasons that growing succulents in fancy terrariums doesn’t work (the other main reason is too much humidity, as most succulents are desert plants).
The size and shape of the pot is up to you. Most succulents have very shallow roots, so you can plant your mixed succulents in shallow containers. I prefer the shallow containers because they allow water to drain away quickly. A shallow, wide container also allows you to play around more with the design and layout of the plants, than a standard plant pot would do.
2. Gritty soil – again for good drainage
Related to the need for good drainage, is the correct type of soil. Don’t use normal compost or a nutrient-rich potting soil for succulents. As I mentioned, most succulents are desert plants which means they prefer sandy soil. Other succulents are alpine plants, meaning they grow on mountainsides just above the tree line. These types prefer rocky soil. Some succulents like the Christmas cactus grow as epiphytes, meaning they grow in trees. This planting method does not apply to those. So research the type of succulents that you have, to make sure that you use the correct growing medium.
There are succulent soil mixes available, which are gritty or sandy with little to no organic material. If your garden soil is sandy like some of mine, that can also be used. The South African indigenous and central American succulents I planted in the soil did well.
My own succulent mix of equal parts grit, play sand, silica sand and my garden soil. In other pots I used compost instead of garden soil, but added more sand.
Most succulents prefer sunny conditions. Read up on the type of succulent you have, to determine how much sunlight they require. Some succulents can make do with indoor conditions and lighting. However do try to place those close to a sunny window. I grew gasteria, sempervivum & kalanchoes indoors on a sunny windowsill, and most of my other succulents outdoors in full sun.
Keeping South African succulents outdoors in winter in SA was no problem of course. I was worried about how the South African Haworthias, Gasterias, Crassulas & Lithops would do in Shanghai over winter. The previous December (2018) there was snow. I kept my plants indoors. December 2019 was milder but still cold.
I got a mini-greenhouse online in October 2019, with a clear plastic cover that zips closed. The succulents all survived the winter (unlike my poor outdoor orchids). The South African group of succulents has been flowering throughout Spring.
4. Don’t over-water
Succulents are mostly desert & alpine plants. Only water them when they are completely dry and the pot feels light (if it is a plastic or light terracotta pot – concrete pots always feel heavy to me).
I cannot say how often you should water, because that will depend on your location, the plant and the soil. The best way to determine when to water is by checking that the soil is dry.
Be most careful in winter, regarding watering. A succulent that has too much water in winter is at risk of both rot and freezing. If the plants are outdoors in winter, keep them covered when it rains or snows, if possible. Also ensure there is good air circulation, as excessive humidity can harm them.
Those are my four main tips regarding the basic requirements for growing succulents. Once you have a pot with good drainage and the correct soil mix, you can start planting.
You can select the plants that you simply like the look of, or better yet, look up the individual plants and group together plants that have similar requirements.
Before I start arranging the individual plants, I like to think about how I will most often be viewing the pot. What often works best is to place taller plants at the back and then add shorter ones around them, and towards the front.
Arrange the plants as you wish, and firm the soil around the roots.
I grouped the smaller plants together and I also added a layer of grit and stones on top of the soil, in a pattern. The pattern doesn’t matter. The layer of grit keeps your soil and plants in place when you water them. I also think it looks neat and almost natural. The stones and grit also retain heat.
You can wait a couple of days before watering the newly planted pot, particularly if the individual plant pots were recently watered. I always water the pots on the same day I plant them.
Succulent pots are so easy to put together and quite rewarding. These “mini gardens” are always growing and changing with the seasons. Get started on yours and enjoy.