I love having plants around the house. I wept tears of joy when my cactus, which I had nursed back to health after purchasing it from the grocery store clearance bin for a dollar, bloomed this year. My husband, who has vigilantly watched me for signs of postpartum depression, thought I needed to call my doctor ASAP when he found me shedding tears over a houseplant. While postpartum hormones probably did contribute to the crying, I was just so overjoyed to see my little plant thriving. Usually I bring home houseplants only to find them brown and droopy a week later despite my best efforts. But this time, my little cactus that could beat the odds! That’s what so great about succulents. Even if you’ve killed every houseplant you’ve ever had, odds are you can keep a succulent alive because they thrive with minimal care. What’s more—a study by NASA suggests that houseplants like succulents are beneficial for your health because they actually remove toxins like benzene (a chemical commonly found in household cleaners and building materials) from the air. In addition to improving indoor air quality, according to a 2015 study, interactions with indoor plants like succulents may reduce physical and mental stress. The study involved 24 subjects who completed a computer project, then transplanted an indoor plant. After working with plants, the subjects reported feeling soothed, less stressed, and more comfortable. The subjects didn’t just feel better after the transplant task; scientists noticed that participants’ blood pressure was also significantly lower after working with plants, proving that indoor plants can have a positive impact on both physical and mental health. Because of their size, succulent gardens are also ideal for small spaces. Even if you’ve only got a windowsill or small shelf to spare, you’ve got room for a succulent garden. Not sure where to start? Here’s a handy how-to guide for creating your very own succulent garden.
The word succulent comes from the Latin root word sucus, which means “juicy” and, everyone’s favorite word, “moist.” And that’s exactly what a succulent plant is. Succulents are plants with extra fleshy tissues that are able to retain large stores of moisture, making them well-suited for arid climates with little rain. Succulents are also usually pest-resistant, which is just another reason they’re so easy to care for. While succulents generally require little maintenance, you do need to know a little bit about succulent care to start your own succulent garden. I spoke to Justin Hancock, Horticulturalist and Garden Expert at Costa Farms, a house and garden plant company headquartered in Miami, about everything you need to know to grow your own succulent garden.
Dirt is dirt, right?
Au contraire, ma petite plante succulente. “Outdoors, any sandy or well-draining soil works well for succulents,” says Hancock. “If your ground is heavy clay, it’s best to grow succulents in raised beds or containers so the roots don’t stay too wet.” For indoor succulents, Hancock recommends getting a potting mix made specifically for cacti and succulents, like this custom-mixed soil from Farmbrook Designs, and using a pot with drainage holes at the bottom instead of a solid base.
So how much should I water my succulents?
“Outdoors, in general, you may not need to water your succulents at all if they’re in a spot that’s exposed to natural rainfall,” Hancock explains. “If they’re in pots or you’re going through a severe drought, water them on an as-needed basis.” Hancock goes on to say, “Indoor succulents may need watering once every 10 to 20 days or so, depending on conditions (the type of succulent, how big the pot is, how dry the air is, how warm it is, etc.).” So how can you tell if your succulent needs water? “One way that’s fairly straightforward to tell with indoor succulents is to insert a toothpick up a drainage hole at the bottom of the pot, says Hancock. “If the toothpick comes out clean, your succulent will probably appreciate a drink. If it comes out with little bits of potting mix sticking to it, there’s usually enough moisture in the potting mix.” Outdoors or indoors, if your succulents are thirsty, the leaves may turn a grayish color or develop purple tones around the edges. Just like your skin, if succulents get really, really thirsty, the leaves may start to wrinkle.
Help! My succulent is growing out of its pot!
“Most cacti and succulents have relatively small and tidy root systems, so they grow well in small pots,” Hancock explains. “As a general rule though, if the plant gets too big for the pot and wants to tip over, the pot is too small.” To successfully repot a succulent, you’ll need potting mix and a new pot with drainage holes that is between two and three inches larger than your succulent in diameter. Fill the new pot with potting mix and water until the soil is wet, but not saturated. When you see water leaking out of the drainage hole, it’s time to stop watering. Next, gently place your succulent in the new pot, taking care not to injure the roots as you take the succulent out of its current container. Cover the succulent with the dampened potting mix, but do not water it again. Wait about a week before watering to prevent the roots from rotting in the pot.
Succulents need vitamin D, too!
“If you’re growing succulents inside, the biggest thing to know is that they like lots and lots of light,” says Hancock. “If you have a succulent in a dim spot, it’s not going to be happy and thrive.” A good spot for an indoor succulent is a windowsill that gets indirect sunlight for most of the day. While succulents do like lots of sunshine, they can actually sunburn just like people do, especially if they’re planted in an outdoor garden. So how do you know if your succulent is sunburned? Look for white discoloration on the outer edges of its leaves or deep brown scar-like ridges on the parts of the plant that were in direct sunlight. If you notice your succulent is getting too much sun, move it to a shadier location immediately. If the sunburn is mild, moving it to a better location will help reverse the sunburn. If the sunburn is severe, the damage is permanent and the plant will just have to grow the damage out over time. “We say all the time how easy succulents are to grow, and it’s true from a watering standpoint,” Hancock says, “but only if they get the right amount of brightness.”
How does your (succulent) garden grow?
Even if you’re not the artsy-fartsy type, a succulent garden is the perfect way to really let your creativity show. Jess Riddle, who grows and designs gorgeous succulent gardens with her two assistants, rescue pups Eddie and June, and showcases her work on Instagram, shares her favorite succulent garden design tips: “Consider the color palette of your space and what colors would work best with your surroundings. If you have a warm space, try some succulents with orange, red, and golden tones. If you have a more tranquil relaxing space, then try a mixture of blue, pink, and purple tones,” says Riddle. “But, you can never go wrong with a classic green succulent in any environment!” Riddle also advises beginner succulent gardeners to choose a container carefully, making sure that any succulent container you choose has a way for water to drain away from the plant’s roots. “Think of your container as a canvas that helps the plants in the arrangement to really pop,” Riddles says. “Personally, I prefer a simple white ceramic pot with minimal design detail. I find that simpler pots tend to allow the succulents to shine instead of taking away any of the spotlight. Also, concrete and terra cotta pots are great for wicking away excess moisture from the soil. The aesthetics of these pots also lend themselves to either traditional or more modern spaces.” Riddle goes on to say, “Arranging succulents is dance between the mixture of color, texture, size and, most importantly, the succulent’s own individual needs.” You may need to experiment a bit to find which succulents work best together, but don’t be afraid to play around and find a combination that you love. “When I create a succulent arrangement I try to include a range of sizes from tall kalanchoe to chubby medium-small sized echeveria and sedums that drape over the edge of your container,” Riddle says. “Including a range of sizes and shapes creates a more dramatic and engaging arrangement.”
Succulent Garden Guide
Not sure what to plant in your succulent garden? Here’s a handy beginner’s guide to the best succulents for your space:
Single and NOT Ready to Mingle
These succulents don’t like to share. They grow best solo in a single pot.
Aloe vera is one of the most well-known succulent plants because it has been used medicinally for thousands of years. Aloe vera can grow quite large, so it’s best to plant aloe in its own pot and place it in a sunny spot. I keep my aloe plant in the kitchen, where I can easily reach it if I accidentally get a minor burn or scrape while cooking.
Sansevieria, more commonly known (in my opinion, a little harshly!) as mother-in-law’s tongue, is a hardy succulent great for gardening beginners. Sansevieria is also one of the best plants to grow for indoor air purification. According to the NASA air quality study, sansevieria removed benzene and formaldehyde from indoor environments in large quantities. Be careful, though: This succulent is toxic to dogs and cats, so if you have pets, keep it somewhere safe.
These succulents love the great outdoors.
Have a small outdoor garden spot? Consider planting stonecrops. These colorful succulents in the Sedum family are adorable, low-growing plants that come in several varieties and are perfect for mini gardens and ground cover. Three pretty stonecrops to put in your outdoor succulent garden are:
Sedum Makinoi (Ogon)
This bright green succulent is ideal for outdoor gardens in USDA gardening zones 6 through 9 (these zones are the gold standard for determining planting seasons, so get to know yours), which includes about two thirds of the U.S. Ogon is perfect if your garden is a little on the shady side, especially if you live in a hot, humid climate. This little succulent grows super fast and blooms with little yellow, star-like flowers in the summer months.
Blue Pearl Sedum
Blue Pearl Sedum is a charming little stonecrop that, as its name implies, has brilliant blue leaves and bright pink blooms in summer. If you’re doing your part to save the bees, Blue Pearl is a great addition to a backyard garden space designed to attract pollinators.
Also called broadleaf or Colorado stonecrop, Sedum spathulifolium grows in tiny little rosettes low to the ground. This succulent doesn’t need a whole lot of attention, which makes it ideal for spaces in your garden where you can’t get anything else to grow.
Everything’s better in miniature.
I can’t be the only only who loves tiny things. If you love adorable miniatures, Sempervivum are the perfect tiny succulents for a miniature indoor succulent garden. Also known as hen and chicks, Sempervivum is a family of cold-hardy succulents that grow in a variety of sizes and textures. These succulents are perfect for propagation, because they produce many little “chicks” from one “hen.” To propagate a Sempervivum, follow the same steps as repotting. Then, pluck a chick from near the bottom of the main Sempervivum and just press it into the top of the soil (no need to dig a hole). Water only when the soil feels completely dry. While there are hundreds of varieties, here are three of the most popular and easy-to-grow Sempervivum succulents for a miniature succulent garden:
Sempervivum Tectorum (Royanum)
Sempervivum tectorum, also known as Royanum, is what most people associate with a hen and chicks variety of succulent. This petite succulent’s leaves are bright green, with a deep red border, sort of like little red and green pine cones. These succulents multiply quickly, so you’ll need to snap off chicks or repot if your garden starts getting too full.
Sempervivum Calcareum (Sir William Lawrence)
A little succulent with a big name, Sempervivum calcareum, known more commonly as Sir William Lawrence, compliments Royanum in a small succulent garden because of its similar coloring. Sir William Lawrence rosettes are still the same brilliant green color, but only the tips are red, unlike Royanum.
Sempervivum Arachnoideum (Cobweb Hen and Chicks)
The only spooky thing about this succulent is its name! Cobweb hen and chicks gets its name from the wispy, white hairs that cover the small rosettes. This cute succulent is perfect for a rock garden because it requires very little water to thrive. Whatever succulents you choose for your garden, take Riddle’s advice: “As long as you are enjoying yourself, you’re doing it right!”