Succulent Care Simplified
Winter is approaching. Can you believe it? It seems almost surreal, especially considering that I think July was last week, and we somehow skipped all the way to almost November. Wow! I love the harvest, I love gardening, and I love being outside. It was kind of a new concept for me this year, and while I was busy diving head first into growing plants outside in the ground, I kind of neglected to write anything about my houseplants, the ones that started this entire journey to begin with. Writing a blog, running social media accounts (that are basically mini blogs), and everything in between is such a strange job sometimes, in the fact that I forget that there are new people coming into this space constantly! I also never forget it, but you start to think, I bet that my buried posts about houseplants from almost two years ago have not even been seen by the new people around here. And I am honestly feeling a bit of resurgence coming through lately about revisiting older blog posts that were not photographed well and do not contain all of the best information, tips, tricks, and lessons that they could. That's why I am becoming a master gardener! I love plants, and I love sharing correct information with you about how to properly grow them.
As someone who has been growing houseplants, mostly succulents and cacti, for almost two years I have a growing love for these little buddies. They're cute, easy to take care of, and can be a really amazing mood booster on grey days. As we enter winter, and the growing season outdoors is coming to a close, putting some attention on your houseplants is a great way to keep your green thumb active even when there is snow on the ground. They're also a great way to get your green thumb started, especially if you don't have space to garden at all! There are so many questions and bad answers floating about the internet when it comes taking care of succulents, and I am hoping that we can cover the basics in this post and learn more about how to properly take care of these plant babies!
Succulents and cacti are a common houseplant to find at most greenhouses and nurseries. Even more commercialized home improvement stores are beginning to carry succulent transplants year round, which is something I hadn't really seen in the Midwest until this past year. They have fleshy leaves or stems and and are known more for their foliage than their flowers, which some do produce! They prefer a dry environment, unlike many other houseplants that flower, which prefer a humid, tropical environment. After learning more about improving your plant's humidity, I was happy to realize that they don't need as much humidity as I originally thought!
Houseplants need light but not necessarily direct sunlight from outdoors, at least not for succulents. I've experimented with this all summer! As most of you know, we have a 3 season greenhouse. It is not heated and therefore is not a great place for growing warm season plants in the winter. When we first built the greenhouse, and I really was still just learning about how to care for my succulents, I figured that I could just bring them outside into the greenhouse, and they would be fine! I was also competing for room on top of my dresser, where they had been living, and my collection was growing. Now I have over 20 different potted succulents and one cactus. The truth is, they were fine, but they weren't thriving. One surefire reason of knowing was that most of succulents turned brown or a dark red color. They were becoming sunburnt in my greenhouse!
I had a handful of succulents, like the small aloe pictured above, indoors on my kitchen windowsill which were doing really well. Their flesh was bright and green, the perfect sign of a healthy plant, and I couldn't figure out what had happened. Every plant handles light differently and most need at least 12 hours of sunlight a day. This can be provided by being placed near a sunny window; a south-facing window is usually preferred as they receive the most direct sunlight throughout the day, whereas a north-facing window would have hardly any sunlight, especially in winter.
The best way to determine how much light your plant needs and how close to the window it needs to be (they can become burnt indoors as well!) is by determining which type of succulent/cactus it is and learning its light sensitivities by variety. If a plant is receiving too light of light, it will often become spindly and light green. If it has too much light, they'll turn dark and look burnt.
Of all things that can go wrong with houseplants, water is typically where most issues arise, and this can be so difficult to determine. My best suggestion is to listen to your plants and don't forget about them. Whether that means you place them somewhere where you have to see them everyday in a common area of your home, make a watering schedule, or put a reminder alarm on your phone, just don't forget that they are there! There is no general rule to determine how much water your particular and unique plant might need. For me, sometimes I water only once a month, and other times I will water every other week. Every other week is usually a good rule of thumb, but you just have to check out how your plant is doing to know for sure.
Determining the type of succulent you have is really helpful. For instance, my cactus only needs to be watered about once a month, maybe a little more, and my aloe can take a lot of water within the same amount of time. Plants in clay or terracotta pots usually need more water than if you use a plastic or ceramic pot. The water evaporates from the topsoil and sides of the pot much faster in a clay pot. Also, if your plant has outgrown its pot, it might require more water because it is using its fill a lot faster than usual. That just means you need to repot it, which I'll talk about below.
You'll know your succulent needs water if you stick your finger in the first inch of topsoil and it feels dry. If it is damp, then it doesn't need water yet. Just be patient! If you have a succulent in a larger pot (I have a giant aloe that is in a huge pot!) then check the top 2 inches of soil. When watering, use the deep water method, which means pouring a steady stream of water near the edge of the pot and waiting until any drainage comes out. You don't want your plants to be sitting in water in their dish, so I usually do this over the sink until all of the drainage is finished and then set them back in their dishes. I believe another thing that some people don't realize is that your tap water may be affecting your plant's growth. You want to use room temperature or slightly warmer water as ice cold water can shock them. Also, if you have a high amount of chlorine and fluoride in your water (this happens if you use a water softener), then you may be causing some harm. Let tap water sit overnight (if you just use city water without a softener, you should be okay) or use distilled water. Collected rainwater is a great source as well!
Humidity + Temperature
Like I said at the beginning of this post, most succulents and cacti prefer dry environments and don't need a lot of humidity to stay healthy and happy. If you fear that your plant may need a humidity boost, there are several ways that you can do this. I was fascinated to discover that misting plants does virtually nothing in the humidity department. What?! Really all it is good for is cleaning dust off of foliage, which is a good thing to do as it can prevent beneficial sunlight from reaching the leaves. But really?! Misting does not add enough moisture back into the air for the plants to receive the benefits of humidity, but it's really fun to spray them, so maybe that's just worth it for your own enjoyment?! A great way to add some humidity to the air is to invest in a humidifier (I just hang drying laundry near them), group plants together, or you can even set them on a shallow tray filled with pebbles and water. They sit on the pebbles and drink in the condensation. Really, though, they don't need much of it and probably only in the winter!
If you're like me and you brought your houseplants outdoors for the summer (I probably will not do that again, though), then it's about that time of year when they should be brought back inside. Most houseplants prefer temperatures about 50 degrees at night; we are just now heading into the low 40s for nighttime temperatures in eastern Iowa! The temperature of your home is usually fine for most succulents; they prefer somewhere in the 70s during the day and in the 50s-60s at night.
This is something that I have never really done, but I am thinking I might after learning that houseplants need fertilization after so many years of living in the same soil! It makes sense; you plant houseplants in potting soil that provides nutrients, but there is never anything to rebuild those nutrients they they use up except, well, you. I am really interested in making my own potting soil mix in the future and sharing it with you! For now, I need to start thinking about what I can feed my houseplants so that their nutrient supply can be replenished. Honestly, I probably won't do this until next spring. Why? Most houseplants become dormant and don't flower over the winter! I had a lot of succulents start to flower (some that I didn't know even could flower like one of my aloe plants - so weird!) over the summer, and I was shocked to learn that I missed my opportunity to fertilize them! The best time to fertilize is as soon as they start to form buds for flowers. Some succulents don't do this or they never will for you, and that's okay. Usually, it's a good idea to fertilize once in the spring and maybe again in the late summer, when plants are actively growing whether they flower or not. I really don't believe in a feeding a plant every week. That's way too much; if you feel that once a month is best, then you go for it. What do you fertilize them with? I am pro-organic and don't really like to purchase anything from the store, especially if it has something synthetic in it. A few options that you can easily get your hands on are compost tea, worm tea (diluted worm castings), or Bokashi juice.
For the most part, succulents and cacti don't really need to be groomed. Pinching of new growth in certain areas can be beneficial to prevent strange shapes and growth and create a more controlled plant. I had a few of succulents bolt in the greenhouse and send up really tall stalks filled with flowers that I need to trim back. It's just strange looking and not necessarily beneficial to the plant's health. When it comes to grooming back leaves on succulents that are used for our health, like an aloe plant, then just break off the leaves as close to the base of the plant as possible (make sure you take off the outer leaves and not the ones in the center, which is where new growth comes from) and it will just form a callus. It doesn't harm the plant at all.
I have never really had insect issues with my plants, and we have a lot of insects that get inside the house because we are constantly going in and outside; I think living in a farming community doesn't help either! There are a lot of flies around here. For the most part, if you are growing organically, you stay away from sprays or insecticidal soaps. Just look out for signs of any insect infestations like insect fecal matter, larva, or little bugs hanging around your plants. If anything, they're just annoying and won't harm them. Hand picking is really the best way to say goodbye!
It's also fairly rare for a houseplant to get a disease. A lot of people who have issues with yellowing leaves or leaves that fall off are due to a care problem, like over or under-watering, amount of light, or temperature control. If you notice something like a lesion, pustule, cankers, or mushy areas then your plant might have a disease. A few ways to help this is by preventing it from happening at all by making sure to not get the leaves too wet or using soilless potting mixes. Using soil from outside can also be detrimental because it's too compact and can have pathogens in amongst it. Most diseases only affect portions of the plant and can be removed by trimming off the diseased area.
As for my own succulents, I've brought them all into the house and am figuring out places for them to live out the rest of their days. Some of my plants are almost three-years-old now. That's older than Tad! That seems a little insane to me. If you remember, one of the first ones I had was a tiny paddle plant, and it's outgrown two pots already. I love that thing. Houseplants are a great way to get started with gardening. I don't think I would have taken my gardening journey any other way, especially with an infant around. I grew to love my plants inside the house, and when we moved to spending more time outside, I grew them there as well. Since I have so many, and we don't have a lot of ideal light space for them to grow in various areas of our house, I have them housed in our mudroom. We've been talking about building some sort of hanging shelf structure for them, and I hope it works out! Excited to share if that does happen.
What questions do you have about succulents? Are you going to try them out? I'd love to hear which kind is your favorite! I really love my Ripple Jade and Echeveria "Doris Taylor" - the fuzzy one! They actually can be a source of nectar for hummingbirds. Pretty cool! I am beginning to become interested in a trying a Bonsai Tree next.