Succulents come in all shapes and sizes and are generally grouped into two categories: winter hardy and annual (NOT winter hardy).
The world of hardy succulents is full of weird and wonderful choices, from Hens and Chicks (Sempervivum) to the ever-popular Sedum ‘Angelina’ and Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, but most of them have smaller leaves and lower profiles than the non-hardy varieties. On the other hand, the larger foliage and somewhat bulkier profile of the annual types provides dramatic contrasts of textures, shapes, and colors. However, these are not considered to be winter hardy outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.
One reason succulents are so popular is their versatility of uses due to their low water needs and ease of care. I’ve planted them in a retired pair of high-heeled shoes (I hated those shoes), on top of birdhouses, in living wreaths, and on chicken coop roofs. I have even used tiny cuttings planted into wine corks and glued them to magnets for my refrigerator. I’ve seen succulent cuttings used in bridal bouquets and boutonnieres just like flowers. An infinite amount of project ideas and inspiration can be found on Pinterest, Instagram, etc.
Succulents grow at a slow to moderate pace, but generally, the less hardy types grow faster. As they grow, they may spill over the sides of the container, intermingle, and lean on each other. Each one has a bloom that is short-lived, but adds a delicate beauty to the planting while it lasts. Most succulent flowers are attractive to pollinators and butterflies.
Just like other annuals, they can be pinched and trimmed to shape and contain. What’s best about trimming them is that each piece can be easily rooted to create more of its kind (cuttings will root best if done before the end of September). Each leaf, in fact, can be used to grow an entirely new plant—this will never cease to delight and amaze me).
Seasonal succulents will begin to slow their growth as fall weather arrives and will die completely after the first frost, while the hardy ones just go dormant for winter. The entire plant or even pieces can be saved by bringing indoors by mid-October and grown inside throughout winter. Examples include Aeoneum, Echeveria, Crassula, Kalanchoe, and more.
Types of Succulents
Hen and chicks (Sempervivum) are fleshy, rosette-shaped plants that grow slowly into colonies with one larger “parent” plant (the hen) surrounded by several smaller plants (chicks). They range in textures and colors, from shades of green to red with striped patterns, and they can sometimes have a fuzzy appearance. As the parent plant matures, it slowly blooms and then begins to die, leaving new space for the “chicks” to grow into. Many species are evergreen and hardy to below zero degrees! Small plants can be removed from the parent plant by severing the stem that connects them; allow the detached plants a day or two to sit while the stem portion dries up before replanting. Replant new pieces by setting them on top of moist soil; do not bury.
Sedum a.k.a. Stonecrop (Crassulaceae) is a collective term that describes a large group of succulent plants with fleshy leaves. They prefer full sun or light/dappled shade and are drought-tolerant and shallow rooted. They have a wide range of leaf shapes, foliage colors, growth habits, flower colors, and textures. Some are considered tropical, while others are evergreen and hardy to -40 degrees! Many of the hardy, evergreen varieties have colors that intensify to red, orange, or copper in the winter, and most of their flowers are attractive to bees and butterflies. Small pots of sedums can often be broken into smaller plants; they will survive and continue to grow as long as each piece has roots when planted. Plants can be brittle and break while handling; if pieces break from the main plant, try rooting them in a shallow tray of soil to save them.
Native to the Pacific Northwest:
- Oregon stonecrop (Sedum oreganum),
- Broadleaf stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium)
- Roseflower (Sedum laxum)
Indoor succulents: Using shallow containers filled with cactus mix (or potting soil mixed with pumice, pearlite, and sand) provides the best indoor planting environment. It is best to have drainage holes, but if using a container with no holes, diligent and watchful watering with restraint will be your path to success.
Outdoor succulents: Succulents planted outdoors in the ground should be in well-draining soil and never in areas of seasonal standing water. Rock walls and dry slopes are great planting conditions with natural drainage.
Almost all succulents prefer full sun, so be sure they are placed in an area with at least six hours of direct sun each day. If growing indoors, a south- or west-facing windowsill is best, with supplemental lighting in winter to keep plants stocky and colorful (the more colorful the plant, the brighter the light it requires). Once planted, a natural or brightly hued decorative rock layer as a top-dressing covers the soil for a clean, finished look.
Although succulents are considered to be drought-tolerant once established, it is important to learn how to water them properly to keep them looking their best. New plantings may need to be watered more frequently until they are better-rooted, but more established succulents do not need to be watered daily and should not be covered by an in-ground irrigation system. Regular watering with chances to dry out in between is ideal for optimum health and appearance of indoor or outdoor succulents. Outdoor plantings will benefit if given some shelter from excessive winter moisture and indoor plants should be watered less when dormant during winter.
It is better to underwater than overwater! Avoid misting or frequently wetting the foliage to prevent potential rot problems. Bottom-watering can often be a useful method to avoid getting foliage wet—String of Pearls especially benefits from bottom-watering. To bottom-water, place potted plant(s) into a shallow container (or tray filled with pebbles) with one inch of water for at least ten minutes, allowing soil to soak up water from the holes in the bottom of the pot(s).
Signs of overwatering or underwatering: Get to know how your leaves should look and feel—a thick, sturdy leaf may turn slighty puckered or shriveled if plant becomes too dry, and it will be mushy and soft if too wet.
Pests (Scale, Spider Mites, Mealy Bugs)
When bringing plants indoors from outside, assume there are pests coming along. Either spray the plant with neem oil or a soap spray or keep it in quarantine (away from other plants for a week or two) until you can be sure it is pest-free or the problem is under control. Keep in mind that some types of foliage may discolor when sprayed with oil—always check your plant’s reaction by spraying a small leaf or portion before treating the entire plant. Succulents with blue-grey foliage or a powdery surface may turn green when sprayed with neem or other oils.