A beginner’s guide to growing succulents
Fascinating and beautiful, succulents are wonderful examples of nature’s adaptability. You’ll find succulents thriving the world over, in places with little rainfall where most plants stand zero chance of survival. To withstand these harshest of conditions, succulents grow slowly and store water in their thick, fleshy leaves, stems, roots or tubers.
Succulents come in a cornucopia of colours and shapes and, thanks to their simple yet striking foliage and a tolerance to drought, have become a firm favourite in modern Australian homes and gardens.
Easy varieties for the succulent beginner
When growing succulents indoors, make sure they have plenty of bright light and air circulation to reduce disease.
- Crassula perforata (string of buttons)
- Haworthia margaritifera
- Mother-in-law's tongue
- Rhipsalis pilocarpa
The rosetta-shaped echeveria are a popular choice when growing succulents outdoors in pots, as they come in hundreds of varieties and almost as many colours and are easy to propagate. Sempervivum and hens and chicks are great options too while agaves and aloe make great landscaping options.
The best soil for succulents
Succulents love well-draining soil. For impeccable soil, Flower Power’s succulent expert Brenda Cook recommends an equal blend of cacti/succulent mix and perlite. Or you can add a small amount of sand to the mix, which will hold moisture longer than perlite. Just keep in mind the sand will make a pot heavier.
There are those who suggest mixing well-rotted compost or manure into the soil, but Brenda believes the extra nitrogen can do more harm than good, as succulents get most of their nutrients from the air and rainwater.
Top it off with a layer of gravel, which keeps the plant’s collar dry and covers up the perlite.
Growing succulents in pots
Indoors or out, succulents grow happily in pots. Pick a pot suited to the size of the plant and steer clear of plastic pots, instead choosing terracotta, which lets the soil dry out faster. Make sure the pot isn’t standing in a saucer of water - it must have free drainage.
How to feed succulents
Feed your succulent in spring and early summer, while it’s growing. Use a slow-release fertiliser, at half the recommended rate on the label. If you overfeed, you’ll end up with soft, sappy growth that won’t stand up to tough weather conditions.
Where to position succulents
Succulents are tough plants that can never have too much sun. They’ll stand strong through the heat of summer, making them perfect for hot patios and porches. If you’re growing your succulent indoors, it’ll appreciate a summer holiday outdoors. Just make sure you give your plant time to transition from the indoors to the outdoors. Some succulents can suffer burns if you put them straight into summer sun. The sunburn won’t kill them but it may produce scars which, given these plants longevity, could remain unsightly for years. Make sure to bring your plant back inside the moment the weather turns cold and damp.
Clockwise from left to right: kalanchoe, aloe ‘Always Red’, mother-in-law’s tongue, echeveria flower, agave.
Succulent slip-ups to avoid
Not enough light
If your succulent looks like it’s stretching out of its pot, it’s a sign it’s not getting enough light. Once this happens, it’s hard to get your succulent back to a compact shape. You can try propagating the plant, taking a cutting one to two inches from the plant’s base. Place the cutting in a shady spot and give it just a little water (make sure it’s not bone dry) and let it reshoot new growth.
While it's important to give your plant plenty of water in spring and early summer, while it’s growing, overwatering is a common boo-boo. In summer, let the soil dry between watering. Tail off watering with the return of cooler weather, letting your plant become bone dry. In winter, when your plant is dormant, allow it to dry out completely. Don’t panic if it shrivels alarmingly. It’ll bounce back as soon as you water it again in spring.
Overwatering encourages Botrytis cinerea fungus to rot the roots and base of the plant. Once this fungus has set in, it’s very hard to save the plant, even after using strong fungicide.
Mealy bug can infest the roots of just about any succulent. As soon as mealy bug rears its soft, white, fluffy head, spray the top of the foliage and soak the roots in a powerful insecticide.