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Looking after Succulents

Succulents are very easy to look after

Succulents are very easy to look after (with some exceptions) once you know the golden rules of their requirements. Follow these and you should be fine.

Light

Most succulents come from the southern hemisphere and need lots of light to grow well. This can’t be emphasised enough. They don’t need full, direct sunshine around the clock, but they should be placed as close to a natural light source as possible such as on a window sill or patio – in the middle of a room that is 3 to 4ft away from the window or in a bathroom or in a windowless basement is far from ideal.

Plants that don’t receive enough light for their growth needs, will turn pale and spindly and stretch towards the light. This is called etiolation and is one of the most common problems seen with succulent plants. If you notice any of these signs, move your plant closer to the window. Beware that plants can also suffer from scorch if they are suddenly thrust into the direct glare of the sun, so think of how we humans gradually expose ourselves the sun to avoid sunburn and do it gradually until the plant has acclimatised.

Drainage

Succulents do best grown in soil that enables water to escape or drain quickly. Naturally these plants grow in areas where water is not abundant – mostly dry and stony areas, alpine conditions almost – and so if allowed to sit in water for long periods their roots will eventually rot and the plant will die. For success in growing any plant well, the best way is to try to recreate (as much as possible) the conditions that the plant grows in naturally – so use a compost that is not water retentive and gritty. Avoid compost that contains peat, and make sure that the container you use for your plant has a hole for drainage in the bottom so any excess water can escape.

We like to use unusual containers for our plants and arrangements, but always make a hole in the bottom if there’s not one there already. Even teacups (which have a saucer to catch the water) and enamelware holes drilled in the base. The exception is teapots and kettles as the spouts are generally positioned such that excess water can be tipped out.

Watering

Succulents have evolved their method of growing to cope with periods of drought. The clue to their care is contained in that last statement! They really don’t need to be cosseted and watered every day or even every week. They   manage neglect with ease and can sit happily in a hot conservatory all summer without water. Admittedly, your plant may not look its best and could be a little dry and wrinkled, but it will be alive and when you do water it, will quickly recover. Again, success will mean recreating the plant’s ideal living conditions. The best rule of thumb is to water only when the soil surrounding the plant is completely dry. You can also ‘heft’ the pot – feel or judge it’s weight. If the pot is light (and dry) you should give some water, and when the pot is heavy – leave for a week or two. When plants are actively growing, they can process more water through evaporation and transpiration so at the height of summer – weekly waterings (if the pots are dry) are fine. Plants grown outside in the summer can cope with excess water so don’t worry unless the pots are under water.

All plants require a resting period in any year and succulents ‘rest’ or become dormant during the winter months. During this resting phase, plants should generally not be watered at all otherwise they may rot and die. Cold combined with wet will kill succulents, particlularly if you over winter your plants in a cold greenhouse. However, if your plants are inside during the winter (October to March) and sit in a hot centrally heated house, an occasional dribble of water  every six weeks or so (ensuring the pot is completely dry in between) will stop the roots from shrivelling completely. The plants will start in active growth as the days lengthen, so from around mid-March gradually start watering again – leaving a gap of about 3 to 4 weeks and then watering fortnightly until summer. There is no need to have a strict rota for watering – when you remember will suffice, so long as you under rather than over water.

Another tip is to sit pots in a saucer or dish and pour water into the saucer rather than onto the plant or the pot. You can then observe the amount of water you apply and see how much the plant takes up. Never let a succulent sit in water for more than an hour. Note that watering the leaves of some of the fleshier leaved plants can cause rot – particularly with fleshy-leaved echeverias.