Succulents: Everything You Need to Know

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If you’re on the hunt for the perfect plant to grow in your home or garden, chances are you’ll find it in the succulent section of your local plant nursery.

Is there another plant with such a variety of positive attributes?

  • There are just as many colors and options as there are ice cream flavors.
  • The fabric in the upholstery store has more textures than the ones in the store.
  • A wide range of varieties that are equally capable of sweetening up a year-round outdoor garden or adding flare to a pot that can be placed inside or outside, depending on the season.
  • He forgives the neglectful gardener by remaining untouched — perhaps for years.

The succulent you love will be easy to find, no matter where you live.

“You’ll only have about 20,000 choices,” said Joe Clements, arboretum manager at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, where the Cactus and Succulent Society of America (CSSA) recently held its annual meeting. 

There are a wide range of varieties of this plant that range from those that can survive cool winters outdoors to tropical ones that do well outdoors in warm climates and can be overwintered in pots indoors in climates where the temperature plummets in the fall. There are kinds that grow well in full sun, while others grow well in partial shade. In other words, there are succulents for all kinds of growing conditions.

What is a succulent?

While such diversity in such a large plant group might sound incredible, you might wonder what to look for when you go to the nursery. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Botanists do not agree on what constitutes a succulent.

The succulents are more than cacti, one thing both sides do agree upon. Some succulent growers tend to refer to cactus as succulents and succulents as cactus. The best way to understand succulents is to think of them as plants that store water in their tissues.

How to determine what’s hardy

That being said, perhaps choosing which succulents to grow would become more straightforward if they were divided into two main types:

  • A hardy plant is one that can be grown outdoors year round
  • These plants need to be moved indoors during cold weather, but may be grown in pots during spring and summer.

A hardy succulent should come with a small asterisk — choose succulents for your landscape based on their hardiness for your USDA zone.

It is possible to determine which plants will survive the winter where you live in several ways.

One way to find out is to visit your local nursery or check out the plants at a box store and ask the staff. They can advise you on which types of succulents should be grown in the landscape and which should be in pots. They can also advise you on the lowest temperatures the varieties can grow to.

Also, members of an affiliate CSSA club in your area might be able to share tips and tricks on succulent culture that they have learned through trial and error.

Growing succulents in the landscape

You need to plant your plants correctly in the garden once you have them home, said Clements. Using the English principles of gardening, he proposes creating a succulent garden or adding it to your existing garden.

The best way to get a natural-looking succulent garden is to build a rockery. Rockeries are specifically effective on slopes or terraced areas where they create a focal point in the landscape. It also mimics the natural habitat for many succulents.

To create an English garden look, succulents are planted in groups or plant communities so they have a natural look in the landscape.

“Don’t plant one here and one there,” Clements advised. He calls this “creating soldiers.” Another mistake home gardeners often make is planting at rows, which makes the landscape look boring.

All succulents love well-draining soils, so mix sand and gravel into native soil if your garden lacks well-draining soil, says Amanda Campbell, manager of display gardens at Atlanta Botanical Garden, which has an extensive indoor and outdoor succulent collection.

“Some can go for days and weeks without water, but some prefer more regular moisture,” she added. “But, despite their moisture preferences, none like standing water against their crowns or for soil to stay too wet for very long.” That’s where the well-draining soil comes into play, she said. The right soil for succulents wicks the water away when watered, even onto the crowns.

“With water restrictions becoming more widespread on the West Coast, maybe succulents will become a more popular plant for the landscape!” Campbell said.

Growing succulents in pots

Choose a porous pot in terra cotta and soil that drains quickly for growing succulents in containers.

 Mixing one part organic matter with one part sand or a gritty medium works well for most succulents.

Planting succulents in containers poses the risk of overwatering — otherwise known as succulent love. “Both inside and out, succulents require little care and water,” Campbell said. “At most, people might want to prune them back or take cuttings to propagate.”

Because succulents are also great for pots and overwintering indoors, they can adapt easily to the lower light and dry humidity of most homes.


Campbell said succulents are pest resistant. When there are problems, outside the main pests are scale and aphids and inside fungus gnats, mealybugs, woolly aphids and, maybe, spider mites.

Campbell said neem oil or horticultural oils work well in controlling unwanted visitors in both situations.

Choosing varieties: Outdoors

At least in the Southeast, Campbell said, the box stores commonly sell yucca, opuntia and the occasional agave in the outdoor section. They add beauty to home landscapes, Campbell said, because they can be planted as specimen plants or as an entire landscape. “They are structural, regal, and defiant plants in my opinion,” Campbell said.

Campbell said, “Yuccas are by far the most common succulent for outdoor plants.” Some yucca and agave varieties, specifically Agave harvardiana, are hardy from the Southeast through the Northeast, though maybe not as far up as Maine.

A popular and easy plant for the sunny spot of the garden, Hens-and-chiks (Sempervivum tectorum or Echeveria elegans) get their common name from mother plants producing clusters of offsets (chicks). Plants can also be grown as houseplants, but when grown this way, they should be allowed to dry out between waterings. You can easily propagate them by removing the “chicks” from the “hen” and repotting them or moving them around in the garden.

Another succulent commonly found in the retail trade is the sedum. “Some are bred for normal garden conditions, but some are particularly happy in arid environments,” Campbell said. Many other types of succulents are also tolerant of dry conditions, including Sedum tetractinum and Sedum sexangulare. Campbell advised that the bigger, taller forms are the ones that normally like more water. “And most sedums tolerate partial shade with no complaints.”

Choosing varieties: Indoors

For indoor plants, you cannot go wrong with the jade plant (Crassula ovata),” Campbell said. 

She also recommended that you try growing aloes and Euphrbia tirucalli, which are very easy as well.

Aloe vera is always a popular pick. Its sap is used for treating wounds and sunburn for centuries and has been used as a medicine plant. Ironically, it has blunt edges that can cut passersby’s skin, so be sure to place it in places where people will not come into contact with it.

“Drop plants outdoors in the summer and bring them in for the winter in the Southeast and probably the Northeast as well,” Campbell said.

The box stores frequently sell crown of thorns and Euphorbia psuedocactus in the center of their indoor area. Another general reminder, Campbell said, is that sap from all euphorbiaceae can irritate people.

Also, Campbell said that the box stores sell various aloes, echinocactus, and ferocactus in their greenhouse on a regular basis. “Sometimes, even in the Southwest and on the West Coast, these plants are sold inside, despite their hardiness outdoors in these regions of the country.”

Burro’s tail (Sedum morganianum) can also be grown indoors. The foliage can grow up to three feet long, especially in a hanging basket. Provide medium light for it to grow well.

A popular succulent during the holiday season, the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) blooms when the leaves fall. Plant it outdoors in a shaded spot in the summer. To maximize blossoms, keep it outdoors until night temperatures drop to the upper 40s Fahrenheit in the fall. Fertilizing three times in summer with a 10-30-10 fertilizer and cool fall nights will promote flowering. You’ll want to keep the soil drier in the winter than you would in the spring or summer, but don’t let it become dehydrated or the buds will fall off the plant.

The final discussion on succulents would be incomplete without including Sansevieria trifasciata, often known as mother-in-law’s tongue or snake plant because of the shape of the leaves. It is an indestructible houseplant, not just because of its carefree reputation, but also because its upright growth habit looks beautiful in many home settings. With its bold but clean lines, it is ideal for traditional or modern home architecture, and there are many varieties with different variegated patterns that add visual interest. Even the most black-thumbed gardener would have a hard time eliminating a plant — or a plant family — like this.


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