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Succulents get a bit of a raw deal when it comes to house plant guides. They’re one of those plants that is SO easy going IF (big if) they’re grown in the right conditions.
What are succulents?
There are a lot of succulents out there. Succulent refers to properties of the plant, not a family or genus. To confuse matters further, there are entire families and even genuses of plants that have species that are succulents and species that aren’t.
Not all succulents are cacti, but (almost) all cacti are succulents. Christmas cacti come from the rainforest, so have different care needs to ‘proper’ cacti.
Succulent comes from the Latin word ‘sucus’ which means juice or sap, so succulents are characterised by having fleshy leaves that are, er, juicy.
Due to the diversity of succulents, there will be differences in care requirements, BUT they all tend to originate from dry, arid, exposed areas, so general care is similar.
Are succulents easy to care for?
If you have a LOT of bright, direct light, then succulents are extremely easy to care for. If you don’t, I wouldn’t even bother. There are few things sadder than etiolated succulents (when they get all stretched and droopy) – pick another plant.
If you have great light, the battle is basically won when it comes to succulents. They don’t like high humidity and they won’t thank you for overwatering them, but they can put up with a LOT if the light is right.
How much light do succulents need?
ALL OF IT.
Don’t compromise here. You’ll just make them sad. Grow lights are a great option if your windows are lacking, with the added bonus of a bit of heat.
This isn’t like, ‘nice to have’. Giving succulents a tonne of light is the only way to grow them to their true potential. If you don’t have the light, you’ll end up with sad little plants that will (not might, will) getting infested with thrips and/or mealybugs, which will then spread throughout your whole collection.
Another option is to throw them outside when the risk of frost is gone, and then hope that 6 months of light/six months of dark is enough (6/6 is a bit ambitious in the UK actually).
Although, I (and I’m not proud of this) *accidentally* left my succulents outside all winter. In minus temperatures. One rotted away, one has half rotted away, but will many thriving babies, and the other (jade plant) is…fine. She lost a branch (just snapped off) but is growing again.
I don’t recommend this by the way, but I had no room for them indoors and my garden is south-facing so I thought, why not try?
Do succulents like high humidity?
High humidity is the opposite to the conditions in which they’ve evolved to thrive.
They can manage in high humidity if the temperatures are high and the light is bright, but cold, dark, damp rooms will quickly zap their health.
How often should I water succulents?
A lot of people think they need watering less often than other plants, and that…may be true, but also not.
To grow succulents big quickly, professional growers put them in very well-draining soil (often just grit) and water them very thoroughly as soon as the substrate is thoroughly dry. If your succulent is in a very free-draining soil, and kept in a hot, dry, bright room, you may be able to water it weekly without harming the roots.
If the substrate is dry and the plant is growing then feel free to water. A lot of water too, you don’t need to scrimp.
If the substrate is dry but you can’t see any growth, check to see that the roots aren’t damaged.
As for water quality, they’re not fussed. In the wild succulents will have limited access to water. I mean, don’t water them with brine or anything, but tap water (or even grey water, from bath/dish water) is fine. This is not the place to be wasting your fancy water.
What temperature should I keep my succulent at?
Succulents are pretty chill about temperature, as long as they’re not exposed to frost. Their natural environment can reach freezing temperatures at night so don’t worry about them getting to cold.
What type of soil does my succulent need?
You can buy cactus mix from stores, or add sand/grit to your own potting mix. I actually just put them in my normal chunky aroid mix – as long as they have good light and aren’t overwatered, they’re not that fussy.
What type of pot does my succulent need?
If you’re worried about overwatering, terracotta is a great option for you. It’s porous, so air can flow through the sides of the pot and help dry the soil out.
Succulents in general tend to be quite shallow-rooted, so you don’t need a very big pot for them.
Do not put succulents in terrariums. you can do it, but you’re basically putting it it exactly the opposite conditions of what it needs.
When people ask why putting succulents in terrariums is so normalised I don’t know what to say. Some kind of cruel joke, I assume, OR a genius marketing plan from Big Succulent.
Are succulents toxic to humans/dogs/cats/rabbits?
Some are, some aren’t. Some aren’t but are spiky.
Cactus spines get EVERYWHERE. I washed a pair of oven gloves I’d used to move a cactus with other clothes and we were getting stuck for MONTHS. Do not recommend.
If you google ‘are succulents toxic’ it will say that most aren’t but some are.
Technically true, but the few succulents that could poison your pet include the families Euphoria, Crassula (jade plants), and Kalanchoe. That’s probably about 50% of all succulents sold*.
*Ok, I have no idea if that’s true in like garden centres or online, but most of the succulents you can buy in supermarkets and decor shops are one of those three.
Keep your pets and kids away from your plants.
Do succulents flower?
Yes, in a range of beautiful ways. Some grow one big ass flower, others grow little flower crowns. Some bloom all summer, others bloom once a year for two hours at 3am on an undisclosed date. I’m not actually entirely joking. Look up Epiphyllum oxypetalum – though it does bloom more often than once a year, and is pollinated by bats.
There is a cactus that only blooms once a year at night, but they’re actually really rare, and you’re most likely being sold an epiphyllum.
How to propagate succulents
I was going to do a whole section on this, but actually, it varies depending on the species. There’s so much diversity in succulents that there’s no one way to propagate them.
You can often propagate succulents from leaf cuttings, but look up your species first before you mutilate it. Lay the leaf on some barely damp soil and, er, wait.
You don’t want the soil to dry out, but you also don’t want it to be wet, so mist it when it gets totally dry. I actually remove the succulent when I’m misting the soil because a wet leaf will quickly rot.
A new little plantlet will grow from the base of the leaf, and over time, the old leaf will have its essence drained from it by the child and drop off.
If you have good light and are into flowers, succulents can be a very interesting hobby. They’re also cheap for beginners (but not for experts – there are a LOT of fancy ones!) and you can buy tiny specimens. They typically grow quite slowly, so they won’t take over your home for a good few years!