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Caring For and Cultivating Succulents

by Matt


These special little plants have been oft ignored in the gardening scene but are slowly rising in popularity due to their charm, beauty, ease of caring for, and hardiness. Succulents come in a ton of varieties, including miniature-sized, which are extremely popular right now.

Obviously, there’s still a lot to know if you want to properly take care of your succulent – you can’t just buy one, plop it on a window sill, and abandon it. Like any plant, they need attention, just a different kind of attention. As is often the case, there is a spectrum of needs for every variety of succulent. Some need more attention than others, but we’ll be covering some common ground and basic tips for cultivating these quirky plants successfully right in your own home.

Succulents Make Perfect House Plants

It’s not always the case, but for the most part, succulents are quite hardy plants that don’t mind a little neglect. After all, their natural habitat is often rather harsh, if not inhospitable. They’ve evolved for thousands of years thriving in conditions with very little rain, and very depleted, sandy soil. Many of them don’t even mind a bit of cold or shade. This makes them perfect candidates for house plants when the owner might lead a busy life.

More than this, succulents come in many shapes and sizes, and are often less unwieldy than typical flowers, ferns, and vines. Anyone who owns a spider plant, for example, knows that they need quite a bit of pruning and attention otherwise they have a tendency to get out of control. Succulents rarely outgrow their welcome – though many breeds do grow like any other plant, you’ll never have to worry about them getting too messy.

Examples of great succulent house plants include:

  • Aloe Vera
  • Crown of Thorns
  • Jade Plant
  • Zebra Cactus
  • Lithops
  • Snake Plant
  • Pincushion Cactus

With just this small selection we have a huge variety in terms of look and feel, as well as practical purposes, for which we’ll get into later. One thing is definitely clear: succulents can make any space more lively and refreshing.

Basic Succulent Needs

So what does a succulent need to be happy? They have needs like any plant, but if you are only familiar with growing vegetables and flowers, you might be surprised to know that succulents would die if given the same treatment as these plants. Why? Because they evolved in a different biome, or geographic climate. Moist loamy soil and over-watering can kill a cactus much faster than any amount of neglect would.

Most succulents need a sandy soil, which is why many home and garden stores sell a succulent mix that is different than typical potting soil. You should also make sure that your succulent’s soil is well drained. They need to have soil that will drain properly on its own in tandem with a pot that lets draining occur. Prolonged wet roots will rot a succulent, as they have not adapted to long periods of moisture.

They also prefer to be watered differently than most other kinds of plants. Instead of daily watering or spritzing, most succulents thrive when watered about once a week, with a good soaking. You want to make sure the soil is saturated to the point where water leaks out of the pot’s holes in the bottom. This practice of infrequent deep saturation mimics what would be more likely to occur in nature, where infrequent but intense rain storms are the norm in desert and arid climates.

Not every succulent is the same though, so you should be sure to read up on your plant’s specific needs. Some need to be watered somewhat more frequently, and some prefer somewhat less. what you want to remember is do NOT spritz your succulent! It’s common practice for people to give their house plants and even some of their outdoor plants a “morning spritz,” but succulents do not do well being misted. Not enough water reaches their roots, and without intense sunlight, water that lingers on a succulent’s leaves can damage it and lead to mold and rot.

You want to water your succulent by using a watering can and applying the water directly to the soil. Even if your plant’s leaves look somewhat off or wilted, resist the urge to apply water directly to the plant. You want to make sure that the soil is saturated, that’s the only thing your succulent wants out of a good watering. Leave the rest up to the plant!

The other major need for succulents is direct lighting. While many can tolerate indirect light, you’re going to want your succulents to be able to enjoy as much direct sunlight as possible. They evolved to take advantage of intense sunlight for many hours a day. Depriving them of sunlight is counter to their natural habitat. While some succulents like the snake plant and the panda plant do okay in shade, you’ll see your plants thrive in a sunnier environment.

Medicinal and Health Benefits of Succulents

These interesting little plants don’t just make for great decoration, they actually have a very real practical purpose. People should take an interest in cultivating them because they are simply amazing, and more research is being done every day that reveals many of them to be a boon to the herbal medicine industry. Exotic plants go extinct every year on this planet because of the neglect and destruction caused by human agricultural and societal practices, which is tragic. Cultivating these plants means not only propagating their species, but bringing so much to the table that could one day provide amazing natural cures for people around the world. You wouldn’t believe the healing power that rests in a single plant!

Some of the amazing health benefits of succulents include:

  • Treatment for burns and cuts. Plants like agave and aloe vera have long been used as powerful means of healing sun-damaged skin, and even as a topical ointment for cuts.
  • They purify the air. Many plants in the succulent category do an amazing job of taking impurities out of the air. This is because they absorb what is around them, and that means anything unnatural or harmful too. Plants have evolved to be quite adept at separating noxious molecules from the good stuff, which is one of the plant kingdom’s most unspoken of traits.
  • In tandem with this, succulents are great at releasing oxygen into the air. While this is certainly an ability all plants share, succulents are one of the only plant species that do this during the night as well as the day. Many plants typically “sleep” in some form or fashion during the night hours, which means their process for converting carbon dioxide into oxygen is lessened. Succulents on the other hand often work around the clock, so you can reap the benefits of their biological processes even while sleeping.
  • Many studies have proven that house plants have a beneficial affect on mood and energy. Of course, in the wild we would be around plants all of the time – this is after all what we evolved to around and is our natural state. Plants and animals have a millions-year-old symbiotic relationship. We literally breathe in their waste and they breath in ours, and this is how we sustain each other. Mentally, plants have a positive affect on us. Succulents in particular seem to evoke a quiet calm or primal, peaceful response from us. They are often used for balanced and aesthetic decoration meant to calm the mind and ground whoever is present.

Choosing a Home and Repotting

It’s important that your succulent be given a pot that will accommodate it properly. Even mini cacti need room to spread their roots!

First, unless the pot is large, give your succulent its own pot. You don’t want its root system to get caught up with another plant in case you need to move it, and succulents in general tend to do better when given enough space. If the succulent is a small variety, there are numerous “mini” planters available that are a perfect fit, just be sure they have the required hole in the bottom for drainage. You must have a pot or container that will allow proper soil drainage, since prolonged exposure to moisture can kill a succulent’s root system.

It helps to include some small pebbles or rocks at the bottom of the planter, as this not only aids in drainage, it discourages roots from wanting to grow outside of the container while they seek nutrients. A common practice with succulents is to also add a dressing of pebbles on top of the soil as well. This is completely optional, but acts sort of like mulch for a tree. It merely provides a clean, safe environment for the plant, and if your succulent happens to be outside, removes any chance of stray seeds getting into the planter. The last thing you want is a bit of clover to spring up alongside your succulent!

When moving your plant from its nursery pot to its new home, be sure to loosen as much of the old dirt off of it as possible. Gently brush the excess off, and place the plant onto the soil about 3/4 of the way up. Cover the plant’s roots the rest of the way and place the dressing stones on top, and you’ll have yourself a happy succulent. Resist the urge to water it immediately, and allow the roots time to settle and adjust. Water after a day or two. The transition should go off without any problems – as long as you follow these steps, repotting succulents is simple.

These affordable owl planters are perfect for mini cacti and succulents.

How to Grow Succulents From a Cutting

It’s actually quite easy to propagate succulents, which means more awesome plant friends for your home and garden. Just make sure you have the necessary pots and soil beforehand so you can give any new plants a proper home!

It is best to propagate from a plant that already has an excess of leaves. If you notice one of your succulents looks a bit too bushy or out of sorts, clip its bottom leaves (at the base of the leaf) and place the cuttings someplace safe so they can dry out. You can’t properly propagate if the leaf in question is still “weeping.” At this time you can also snip the top of the rosette from the original plant and wait for its stem to scab over as well. Repot the original plant (so its stem is now back to being closer to the soil), and place the leaves on top of some succulent soil in their own pot as well. Water very sparingly, and over time you will notice little spouts begin forming on the tips of the leaves.

Sometimes you will have to gently remove the withering mother leaf from the new baby plant. If you notice the leaf begin to wither, gently and methodically remove the leaf from the baby. Note that many succulents propagate in different ways, but this is a general guide that works with most species. A rule of thumb is, if it has leaves, you can gently remove the leaf and create another plant from it. If you are dealing with a larger, more traditional cactus, you can take a “cutting” from one of its limbs, let it scab over after about a week, and plant it much like the leaf of a smaller succulent.

Always remember when growing plants, especially succulents, in smaller containers that you have to be mindful of their excess growth and prune them from time to time to keep them in optimal health. In nature this would happen as a matter of course, or they would have the room to spread around. Also keep track of the size of your succulent in case it needs to be repotted someplace with more room. Many species retain their smaller size, making them ideal for “mini” planters, but others will outgrow their original homes and need careful relocation in order to thrive.

Taking care of succulents is extremely rewarding however. They are much more low maintenance than many other kinds of plants, and will make any space feel more balanced and cheery. Plus, caring for them will give you a deeper understanding of nature and the symbiotic relationship between plants and animals, including us.

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