Succulents have become a staple in the houseplant world over the past several decades, and have grown especially trendy in the last few years. These lovely low-water plants can be used to create gorgeous landscapes and gardens with a modern desert feel, and fit perfectly into the flora of Austin. They come in almost every imaginable shape and color, making them one of the most versatile and interesting types of plants for designing gardens and planters. The options for containers abound, from colorful talavera to sleek, modern ceramic – even hollowed driftwood can make a beautiful, organic planter. Succulents’ tolerance for drought and neglect make them one of the best easy-care plants for everyone, whether you’re a complete beginner or a tried-and-true green thumb.
The key to successfully caring for any plant is to understand and mimic their natural environment. Succulents are a type of Xerophyte, or a plant that has adapted to survive in a mostly dry climate. Mostly native to the Americas and parts of Africa, they grow in arid, semi-desert and desert environments. During a drought, succulents will use the water stored in their leaves, starting with the oldest leaves first. If you find dry, withered leaves around the bottom of your plant, don’t be alarmed. It may be a good time for a watering, but death won’t set in quickly from dehydration.
The most common killer of succulents tends to be overwatering. Succulents store water in their leaves in order to survive drought, but too much water will cause rot. Your succulents will get squishy, yellow or black leaves as they become waterlogged. Always allow the soil to dry out completely, and then wait a few days before watering. Succulents should always be planted in fast-draining cactus soil over a layer of pea gravel or rocks, especially if the container itself does not have a drainage hole. Potting succulents directly in a glass or ceramic container poses an increased risk of water rot, so remember to always examine the bottom of the container to be sure that no moisture remains in the soil before watering. Adding rocks and gravel to the bottom of the container allows water to drain from the soil and pool around the rocks. As the soil dries out, this excess water will be drawn back up into the soil and prolong the time needed between waterings.
Succulents love a bright, sunny window, and will stretch towards the light as they grow. Every couple of weeks, try to give them a ¼ turn so that each side of the plant is getting a healthy dose of sunlight. When they aren’t getting enough sun, succulents will grow tall and skinny while putting off tiny, malnourished leaves. This is known as etiolation. If you find this happening to your succulents, try placing them closer to a source of light. If outdoors, don’t leave them in direct sunlight, or they can actually get sunburned! When shopping at some big-name retailers, you might occasionally see succulents that have been painted bright, artificial colors. While these colors might look catchy, the layer of paint on the succulents actually prevents the sun’s rays from reaching the leaves and stunts photosynthesis. These plants aren’t going to thrive in that condition, and nobody wants to buy a sick plant. You can find healthy, natural beauties in almost any color already, including red, orange, blue, and purple!
Lastly, we must touch on the subject of parasites. Any number of tiny vermin can come home with your new plants, so always be sure to examine the plants in your nursery before purchasing. The most common parasite we see attacking succulents are mealybugs. About the size of a sesame seed, the adults are covered in white fuzz and easy to spot. They suck the juices out of the leaves and stem of the plants, spread quickly, and are a pain to get rid of. The best tactic is to take a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol and dab at the parasites one by one. The alcohol will kill them instantly, but it will probably take several treatments to rid them completely because of infants and eggs that are too small to see. Keep infested plants in a quarantined area to keep the bugs from spreading, and only reunite them after you haven’t seen any signs of bugs for at least a week.
Now that we know how to take care of our succulent babies, let’s learn how to build the perfect home to help them thrive.
Our first step is to find the perfect container for our garden. We’ll walk through two examples of succulent gardens to explore different styles and possible designs. When selecting your ‘ingredients’, combine a few different colors of succulents to create your color palette. Use a variety of succulents with different heights, shapes, and textures to create visual interest.
For our first project, I’ve chosen a variety of succulents, a beautiful painted terracotta planter, and blue sea glass and glass beads.
Cover the bottom of your container with pea gravel or rocks about ¾” deep for terracotta or concrete containers, and about 1” deep for glass or ceramic. Remove succulents from their pots and break up the soil around the roots, letting excess dirt fall into the container. If the roots are stiff, roll between the palms of your hands to loosen; don’t be afraid of breaking the fine ends of the roots a little bit, as it will encourage new root growth.
Place your succulents one by one and add soil as you go. Once soil is all filled in, top with decorative rocks or moss. Rocks help will help stabilize the plants in their new soil, and also help prevent erosion from repetitive watering.
Our beautiful garden is ready to be a part of your home!
Our second container will be a shallow glass cylinder for a contemporary and sophisticated feel. I’ve chose some larger succulents in some very eye-catching colors. Start the same way by adding a thick layer of pea gravel to the bottom of the container and placing your succulents one by one. Because the glass will retain water better than the terracotta, it’s safest to use some extra rocks.
Fill in with soil and top with pea gravel and glass beads. The clear glass container will make it easier to see the moisture in the bottom of the container. This piece is perfect for a coffee table or dining room centerpiece!
By Grace McDonald