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April 18, 2019

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Water, sunlight, soil: How to care for your succulents

Gardening

Dean Fosdick / AP

Succulents, including cactus, are generally the plants of choice for green roof projects, like the demonstration garden on the roof of the American Society of Landscape Architects headquarters building in Washington, shown in this June 25, 2007 photo. They can live on existing rainfall, withstand drought, wind and harsh winter conditions.

These days you’ll be hard pressed to enter any coffee shop, bookstore, boutique or hipster living room without spotting succulents. They’re worn as living jewelry, they show up in wedding décor and they’re great in terrariums. The likelihood that there’s an event in your area devoted to drinking wine and arranging succulents is pretty high. But don’t let their ubiquity deter your appreciation. Succulents come in all sorts of stunning textures, colors, sizes and shapes, and are easy to care for once you know what you’re doing.

Cactus and Succulent Society of Southern Nevada

Need advice? Check out the Cactus and Succulent Society of Southern Nevada. Founded in 1976 by a handful of enthusiasts, the CSSSN is now one of the largest garden clubs in the Nevada State Federation of Garden Clubs. Visit its website for more information at csssn.org

What are they?

Succulents get their name from the Latin “sucus,” which means juice or sap. It’s a perfect nod to their thick leaves and stems that store water. They can be tropical or cold hardy, grow in full or partial sun and come in an array of colors and shapes with unique features. If you’ve ever found yourself thinking, “Hey, those leaves look rather meaty,” you’re likely looking at a succulent.

Capable of tolerating prolonged droughts—often for months—shallow roots help absorb rainwater before it evaporates, and their thick, waxy leaves seal in that moisture. They’re great plants for desert climates or for those with a neglectful “light green” thumb.

Where do they grow?

Almost everywhere. Succulents thrive in hot or cool environments with little rainfall. Grow them indoors and outdoors, depending on your growing zone.

Additionally, succulents are easy to propagate and can live for decades, making them an ideal, low-maintenance houseplant. Just be careful with certain species if you have pets and children. Some are toxic or, in the case of a cactus, can cause injury.

Common Varieties

There are thousands out there with different water, soil, heat and light requirements, so it's important to know which variety you have. Here are a few options to get you started.

Echeveria: You can get a whole lot of leaf shapes and colors from these rosette-forming plants. Round, curly, ruffled, or pointed, their leaf colors also change depending on the temperature throughout the year.

Sedum: Often called stonecrop, Sedum can present as a low-growing ground cover, a plant that shoots cascades over three feet long, and all sizes in between. Most are topped with bright, starry flowers.

Aloe vera: Need sunburn relief? Skip the green stuff in a bottle and opt to go directly to the source. Best known for its use as a cooling and moisturizing topical agent, aloe vera features long, light green leaves with small, sawtooth points.

Sempervivum: These rosette “hens and chicks” plants are known for reproducing offsets called “pups” (or in this case, “chicks”). They come in colors such as garnet red and spring green. Their pointy leaves are deer-resistant, yet considered nontoxic to people and animals.

Did you know?

The prickly bits of a cactus are actually modified leaves. Over millions of years, cactus spines evolved to deter predators—sometimes even wily coyotes.

Cactus: Some horticulturalists do not consider cacti to be succulents, and may categorize them separately in plant nurseries. However, every botanist will tell you that all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.

Senecio rowleyanus: Known as “string of pearls,” this trailing succulent is a creeper, but in a good way. It looks great in hanging pots and is easily propagated. The leaves are the size and shape of green peas, but the plant is toxic, so take care around children and pets.

Caring for them

Sunlight: In general, succulents thrive in bright, indirect sunlight. Some succulents, such as agave, crassula, kalanchoe and sedum, can handle a little direct sun. Sansevieria, aloe, euphorbia and others tend to scorch. When growing outdoors, select a garden spot that gets a few hours of direct sun but provides midday shade. Indoors, opt for a south-facing window with a sheer curtain.

Water: As a basic rule, wait for your soil to dry out completely between waterings, as too much water can cause your plant to rot. Give the soil a good soak and let the excess drain from the bottom. If the container doesn't have drainage holes, add a little water as needed or add rocks to the bottom of the pot to aid in drainage.

Soil: Succulents like well-drained soil that dries out quickly. You can buy premixed soil specialized for succulents and cacti or make your own out of equal parts 1/4-inch pieces of pine bark, turface and crushed granite (Perlite, coarse-grain horticultural-grade sand or other finely crushed grit, and coconut coir are also options)

Propagation

Not all succulents are propagated the same way, but the process itself isn't complicated. For example:

To propagate an entire echeveria, divide the plant into three parts.

1. Twist off broad leaves, from the bottom moving upward, as close to the stem as you can, taking care to keep the narrow base of each leaf intact.

2. With a sharp knife or shears, trim off the remaining top rosette. When you’re done, you’ll have leaves, a short rosette top and a stump.

3. Let your echeveria pieces dry out for a few days to a week. Do not water them. Once your leaves and cutting are visibly parched, proceed as follows:

Leaves: Place the leaves on some succulent soil mix for a few weeks. A tiny, new plant with or without roots will appear. Let them grow until your original leaf begins to wither, watering occasionally. Remove the baby plant and place in a pot.

Rosette cutting: Once dry, place into a pot. It will grow roots again.

Stump: This, too, will sprout new starts. Simply remove the little plants and treat like a cut rosette.