Growing succulents: A few rules of not-necessarily-green thumb

The right kind of pot and soil, a little water, a lot of sun, and you'll be fine.
The right kind of pot and soil, a little water, a lot of sun, and you'll be fine. (
  Enlarge Photo    
Thursday, May 20, 2010

The fleshy, thick-skinned leaves that make succulents so pretty function like a camel's hump for storing moisture. If you water them regularly or try to grow them in garden or potting soil, they will rot away. (Succulents, that is; we're not sure about the camels.)


A single large container will have more punch than several smaller ones, but if you plant and group pots together, vary the pot size and height to add interest and drama. Because succulents don't need a lot of root space, they flourish and look good in shallow dish gardens. Pots should be filled and planted in the spot where they will be placed. Containers are heavy once finished and are devils to move.

Whatever container you pick, it must drain freely. Drainage holes are a must, and pots that sit on solid surfaces, such as flagstone, should be raised for optimum drainage. Bricks will work, but container "feet" are more attractive.


You will need to make a special growing mix before planting succulents in containers. The blend, basically, is one part of a compost-based soil mixed with one-part gravel such as pea gravel or granite chips. Don't use sand, which can become too compact and be continuously moist. This would lead to root rot.

A one-inch mulch of pea gravel or other pebbles will give the container garden a finished look and keep the crowns of the plants particularly well drained. Handle the plants carefully; the leaf tips of agaves can be spiky and pierce the skin, and some of the succulent leaves will break off like grapes. If this happens, just position the stem end of the leaf in gravel, where it will root and form a new plant.


New plantings should be watered well, but just once, a step that will also settle the soil. In our part of the world, rainwater will take care of the rest, unless we enter a prolonged dry spell, when the occasional watering will be needed. If the plants are in terra cotta, which wicks moisture, or on a windy balcony or rooftop garden, they should be watered once a month. An initial weak, liquid feed with a balanced fertilizer will last all season. Don't use a slow-release granular fertilizer.


Succulents need sunlight; they are not plants for shade gardens. In shade, they will stretch and lose much of the vibrant color that makes them so attractive. "The more light you give them, the happier they will be," said Dan Benarcik of Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pa. He also advises placing the containers where they can get good air circulation.

-- Adrian Higgins

© 2010 The Washington Post Company