Although there probably is no such thing as a “bulletproof” plant, succulents come awfully close! Succulents (which include cacti) come in a unique variety of size shape, color, and texture. Some have plump, smooth surfaces, while others have surfaces that are curved or straight, sometimes with colorful spines or a covering of silky hair. Their forms range from the symmetrical rosettes of Echeveria to the squat, globe-shaped Echinocactus and the columns and candelabra-like shapes of some desert cacti.
Many bloom only briefly, bearing large, brightly colored flowers, while others flower for a longer period of time, and produce a mass of lovely blooms. In cool-temperate climates, most cacti and other succulents are typically grown in the greenhouse or as houseplants, but the hardier species can also be grown outdoors. In warmer climates, creating an outdoor desert garden is a definite possibility. Whether grown as single specimens or grouped in a special design, the sheer diversity of cacti and other succulents, combined with their amazing tolerance of dry conditions, make them ideal for containers, both indoors and out.
The distinguishing feature that is common to all succulents is the presence of water-storing, fleshy tissue in the stems, leaves, or roots. It is this tissue that allows succulent plants to withstand long periods of drought.
Succulents frequently produce gorgeous blooms and will flower regularly once they reach maturity, which can take anywhere from 1 to 40 years. Most succulents bloom during the day, with individual blossoms that sometimes last for several days.
However, others bloom only briefly, with flowers that sometimes appear soon after sunset and fade as evening progresses. Many of the large, columnar cacti have buds that gradually open during the evening and then fade in the early morning hours.
The flowers of succulents are often delicate and silky, and are usually particularly large in comparison to the size of the plants, and their color range is mainly at the warm end of the spectrum with an abundance of vivid yellows and reds. A few succulents, frequently from the Mesembryanthemaceae family) even have sweetly scented blooms.
Choosing Your Succulents for Outdoors & Indoors
With careful selection and skillful arrangement, pleasing collections of cacti and other succulents can be grown outdoors even in relatively cool conditions. However, few succulents will tolerate excess moisture; even the hardy ones require good drainage. These grow well in raised beds where water drains away freely. Among the hardiest are Opuntia humifusa, Sedum, Sempervivum, Crassula sarcocaulis, and Maihuenia poeppigii.
The most popular type of indoor succulent is probably the Echeveria genus. Echeveria can grow anywhere between an inch to 20 inches in height/spread, although most tend to max out at about 12 inches. There are about 150 cultivated varieties of Echeveria alone, which account for the numerous types of sometimes unreal-looking colors and forms seen out there. In common with many succulents, they grow best in good sunlight, and well-drained soil, and can be easily kept indoors. Echeveria reproduce by producing offsets which can then be separated and replanted elsewhere.
A number of desert cacti, notably some Lampranthus and Opuntia species, can handle marked drainage and high temperatures in summer, as well as surprisingly low temperatures in winter, although they won’t tolerate the combination of cold and wet.
In mild areas that have few frosts, the range of succulents can be widened to include the dazzling rosettes of Agave Americana and its cultivars, A. Filifera, and Beschorneria yuccoides. These half-hardy species need a site with unobstructed drainage, along with the shelter of a warm, sunny wall for additional protection. Where temperatures are unlikely to fall far below 45-50° F (7-10° C), such as in the southern and southwestern US and the more southern portions of Europe, there are hardly any restrictions when choosing succulents for the outdoor garden.
Last but not least, you cannot go wrong with Aloes. The most famous is of course, Aloe vera, but there are many other Aloes that thrive in both indoor and outdoor environments. Aloes grow well in pots, and Dwarf Aloes like Gonialoe variegata, Aloe aristata, Aloe humilis and Aloe bowiea are perfect for any succulent garden.
General Succulent Care Tips
The vast majority of succulents need a lot of light (at least 6-8 hours per day), warmth, and good ventilation to thrive, although some of the leafy ones might need protection from direct sun to prevent leaf scorch. However, one group of succulents need shade or at least filtered light. This group includes many of the profusely flowering succulents, of which the best-known example is Schlumbergera bridgesii (Christmas cactus).
Many succulents are hardy and can tolerate mild frost, but not freezing conditions. To protect your outdoor succulents from winter conditions, you can cover them with a thick cloth, or transport them to an indoor environment such as a cold frame.
For potted succulents, the easiest solution is to get a commercial “cactus/succulent soil mix” as the base soil. But if you prefer to DIY, mix equal parts of sand, garden loam, and leaf mold to create your own “succulent potting mix”. For outdoor succulents, mulching around the base of the succulent with gravel/rough sand can help prevent weeds and reduce moisture loss through evaporation. If your soil is too clayey, add perlite, pumice, or crushed lava stones to the soil.
Succulents grown outdoors usually don’t need extra fertilization as they originate from harsh environments, but for potted succulents, the easiest solution is to give them an NPK fertilizer diluted to ¼ strength (10-10-10 or 8-8-8 strength). In simple terms, this means making a batch up at normal strength, then dilute with 2-3 times the amount of water.
An occasional issue afflicting succulents are mealybugs. These sap sucking scale insects can seriously diminish the health of your succulent, if allowed to get too many. They are more of a problem outdoors than indoors, though.
The most important thing to ensure your succulents thrive for a long time, is to remember to never overwater them. Even in hot, dry climates or seasons, moderate watering is best (enough to moisten the soil). Succulents draw on stored water from their leaves and thus should be left alone for their roots to dry out completely before any watering; failing to do that typically results in root rot. Remember to use containers with bottom holes that allow water drainage.
A rough rule of thumb is to water sparingly every 3 or 4 days. One way to find out if your soil has good drainage qualities is to wet it, then squeeze it in your hand. If the wet soil falls apart, your soil has good drainage qualities that succulents love. That said, if you want to be perfect – get a hydrometer to measure your soil moisture level.
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