Top Key Secrets To Growing a Fantastic Succulent Garden

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Top Key Secrets

TO GROWING A FANTASTIC

SUCCULENT GARDEN

Succulents are some of the trendiest plants around. Search for these charming plants on Instagram or Pinterest and your feed will instantly be filled with succulent garden inspiration.

But these vibrant plants are not as easy to grow as many online enthusiasts make them seem.

That is unless you know the "secrets" to nailing it.

person holding a plant

Succulents have adapted to the harsh conditions of deserts and tundras, making them some of the toughest plants on Earth.

But, at the same time, they don't do so well when taken out of these unique conditions. Instead of pampering, most succulents need a little tough love to truly thrive.

Growing a succulent garden is an excellent pastime, even if you don't consider yourself the owner of a green thumb.

But if you want to succeed, you'll need a crash course on how to plant and care for a succulent garden.

When it comes to unique colors and shapes in the plant world, succulents reign supreme.

But what exactly is a succulent? How do these stunning plants vary from more traditional flowers and greenery? And what makes these succulents so popular in home decor and even bridal bouquets?

woman thinking

We've got all the answers here:

First, the term "succulent" is not a scientific classification. Instead, it is a descriptive term for plants that share certain physical features.

For instance, the storing of water in their fleshy stems and leaves. As a result, succulents can fall under many different taxonomical genera (plural of genus) and families.

Also, the use of the term "succulent" is often subjective. Some plants, like those in the Haworthia or Aloe genera, are universally called succulents.

Others, like the Begonia plant with its notably fleshy stems pictured below, might earn the succulent label from some botanists but not from others.

Woman holding potted begonia plant, a less obvious option for your succulent garden
Image via Instagram

The most dominant defining feature of a succulent is its thick, fleshy structure. This distinct appearance is an adaptation to the succulent's traditionally harsh climates.

Unlike other plants that may require near-daily watering to survive, succulents have evolved to store excess water in their tissues.

Without this camel-like feature, succulents wouldn't dominate the world's deserts and arid climates like they do today.


Understanding Succulent Popularity

Everything in life is a popularity contest.

Debra Lee Baldwin, a succulent expert and published author, explains why these plants are winning that contest with our photo-obsessed culture.

Baldwin explains:

" They’re very photogenic. And we live in a visual world where everybody is taking a quick shot with their cellphone."

colorful succulent garden with several varieties of rosettes

Image via Instagram

After all, there's no doubt that the unique structure and vibrant colors of most succulents are extremely Instagram-worthy. 

Aside from their distinct water-saving trait, succulents come in all different sizes, shapes, and colors.

Some succulents, like those under the Echeveria genus, are instantly recognizable. But others, like the Zebra plant or Mother-in-Law's Tongue, are less obvious succulent examples.

The type and level of care needed by these different succulents also vary greatly.

Fun Fact:

Believe it or not, succulents are present in all climates (that's right, not just deserts). There are even several native succulents that survive harsh Minnesotan winters and come back each spring.


Cactus vs. Succulent: What You Need to Know

Many people believe that cacti and succulents are two distinct categories of plants. But, as you may have guessed from the description of what makes a succulent a succulent, cacti are 100-percent included.

While their spines may outwardly differentiate them from other succulents, inside, they share the same unique adaptations.

And, just like other succulents, cacti store excess water in their fleshy stems to survive desert droughts and arid conditions.

What we know as cacti are, taxonomically speaking, members of the Cactaceae family.

And just as the Persian breed is a type of domestic cat, plants in the Cactaceae family are a type of succulent.

Similarly, not all cats are Persians, and not all succulents are cacti.

But since cacti are such popular plants for home decor, they are often billed at the same level as the rest of the world's succulents when it comes to succulent-related products.


Choosing Plants for Your Succulent Garden

Perhaps the most exciting (but also the most overwhelming) part of creating a succulent garden is choosing what plants to include.

When shopping for succulents, it's quite easy to get swept up in the unique color and shape of each plant.

But you must also consider which varieties have light, water, and temperature needs that you can reasonably accommodate.

Rudyard Kipling:

"Gardens are not made by singing 'Oh, how beautiful,' and sitting in the shade." 

Not all succulents are created equal.

Yes, these plants have evolved to survive in extremely harsh and arid climates, but outside of these specific conditions they often suffer.

Some are surprisingly hardy in a succulent garden, while others wilt at the mere mention of overwatering.

And if you plan to fill your succulent garden with a wide variety of plants, you'll want to find species with similar needs to each other.

Fortunately, there are many succulent varieties that thrive in average household conditions. And for gardeners who are looking for a bit more of a challenge, there are plenty of more difficult specimens to choose from.

Check out the chart below to find the right succulents for your skill level:

Aloe vera green icon

EASY:

  • Jade
  • Hen and Chicks
  • Panda Plant
  • Crown of Thorns
  • Aloe Vera
  • Mother of Thousands
  • Mother-in-Law's Tongue
Echeveria plant icon

INTERMEDIATE

  •  Echeveria
  • String of Pearls
  • Agave
  • Rhipsalis
  • Haworthia
succulents plant icon

DIFFICULT

  • Feather Cactus
  •  Psuedolithos
  • Lithops
  • Dorstenia

Where to Buy

Depending on your location, you may or may not have access to a succulent nursery.

While these businesses are an excellent resource, both for purchasing plants and for succulent garden advice, they are not the only place to buy succulents.

You can find unique, healthy succulents at a variety of brick-and-mortar retailers and even online.

With the rising popularity of this subset of plants, many large home and garden retailers now stock a variety of succulents.

In fact, chances are your local hardware or garden center sells several species of succulents year-round. However, remember that these plants are likely being shipped to your local store from across the country.

Not only is this a concern regarding sustainability, but it also means that your chosen succulent could have been exposed to all sorts of conditions along the way.

Succulent nursery with countless varieties for your own succulent garden.
Image via Instagram

On the other hand, it's always a great idea to support small, locally owned nurseries whenever possible. While not all of these retailers will carry succulents, many do.

At local nurseries, you are more likely to find varieties that thrive in your climate. Plus, succulents purchased from these smaller retailers have probably received better care than those at large retailers.


Can you really buy succulents online?

Many gardeners don't even think of turning to the Internet for their succulent needs.

Here's why they should:

There is a thriving online marketplace for these unique plants. Since succulents store excess water in their stems and leaves, they are much easier to ship than most other plants.

And since they can easily be cloned (we'll touch on this shortly) sellers don't have to wait for each plant to sprout from seed.

If you're looking for the rarest, most vibrant succulent specimens, the Internet is the best place to look.

sixteen potted succulents ready to be planted in a succulent garden.

Image via Instagram

Many online succulent retailers turn to Etsy to sell their wares. You can even find succulents on Amazon.

But there are also countless stand-alone retailers who ship a wide variety of succulents across the country.

Leaf & Clay and Mountain Crest Gardens are two of the most popular online resources for filling your succulent garden.

But do a quick search, and you're sure to find many more.

If you live outside of the United States (or live in the U.S. and are browsing an international seller's plants) keep in mind that plant life is often restricted from crossing international borders.

Double-check your country's regulations, as well as the plants' country-of-origin before making a purchase.


Picking the healthiest plants

Once you've found a quality retailer, it's time to choose which plants you're going to be taking home.

When it comes to ordering succulents online, you must trust that the seller is sending out healthy plants (don't be afraid to check out a retailer's return policy before purchasing).

But when shopping for succulents at a garden center or nursery, it's entirely up to you to weed out the poor specimens.

So how do you tell if a succulent is healthy or not?

diseased echeveria in a succulent garden

Image via Instagram

A high-quality succulent specimen doesn't have to be perfect. But you should keep an eye out for physical signs of illness or damage, including:

cactus icon with bruse

BRUISING

scarring resized

SCARRING

pest icon

PESTS

hand_touch

SOFT SPOT

three line

WRINKLING FLESH

falling green and orange leaves

FALLING LEAEVES

Another key thing to look for is bright and vibrant coloration.

A succulent's colors have a lot to do with the quality of light being received. If your chosen plant has been sitting under insufficient or the wrong type of light, it's colors will be dull and lackluster.

dry succulent plants

Some of these symptoms, like scarring or dull coloring, probably won't mean that your succulent is at the end of its life.

But they can indicate that your chosen succulent has been handled poorly in the past.

If you want the healthiest specimen possible for your succulent garden, then it might be a good idea to look elsewhere.


Planting Your Succulent Garden

Now that you have your new succulents in hand, it's time to start planting your succulent garden.

For some gardeners, this is the most exciting step. But for others, gathering all of the necessary supplies and choosing a design can be a headache.

woman looking at her succulent garden

Most gardeners opt for a container-based succulent garden because of their native climate or lack of garden space.

Since the most popular succulents are adapted to arid desert climates, this is the only way for many gardeners to grow certain species.

"Gardening is a humbling experience."

However, in the United States' Southwest and similar climates, succulents are often used for landscaping and outdoor gardening.

But even if you don't live in one of these areas, you might be surprised to learn that you can grow native, outdoor succulents of your own.


Container gardens

With the right soil and drainage, pretty much anything can be transformed into a container garden.

You can choose to plant your succulent garden in traditional terra cotta pots. Or you can turn an old fountain into a flowing succulent masterpiece.

Succulent garden planted in an old three-tier fountain.
Image via Instagram

Whichever route you choose for your new succulent garden, proper planting is essential. Without the right container, soil, or arrangement, your plants could succumb to root rot or another life-threatening disease.

Pots and planters

Succulents are notoriously shallow rooters. But what does this mean for your succulent garden?

To ensure proper drainage, you want to choose a planter that is fairly shallow. If you don't, your succulents' roots will become bogged down by excess soil and moisture.

The ideal succulent garden container won't be much deeper than your succulents' roots (normally only a couple inches).

pile of flower pots

Image via: mazzblog.com

Of course, some succulents are larger and require a bit more space. But even the behemoths of the succulent world, like overgrown Aloe Vera or Agave, keep their roots close to the surface.

When it comes to your succulent garden and container depth, it's normally best to err on the side of too shallow.

Drainage

The other key factor in a quality succulent container garden is a drainage hole.

Succulents' natural adaptations rely on quick bursts of water followed by almost complete dryness.

If your container's soil remains moist for days following a watering, your succulents can become overwhelmed by this excess moisture.

flower pot blue

Image via: aliexpress.com

When it comes to succulents, we only recommend considering a container without drainage holes if you are an expert gardener.

If you want to use a pot or planter without built-in drainage, you will need to drill a hole. Otherwise, you're better off choosing a different container altogether.

Some succulent growers put pebbles on the bottom of larger containers to help aid in drainage. While this can help in some situations, it is certainly not a replacement for a proper-sized container with drainage holes.

Soil

After finding the perfect pot or planter for your succulent garden, it's time to consider what type of soil you will use.

In most garden centers you'll find potting soil marketed for succulents (and cacti). While this soil is a convenient starting point for a beginner, it holds too much water for most succulent varieties.

Instead, many succulent enthusiasts choose to create their own soil blend.

Here's how:

To get started on a basic succulent garden soil recipe, you will need:

  • 3 parts all-purpose potting soil
  • 2 parts coarse sand (or poultry grit)
  • 1 part perlite or pumice
soil vector art transparent

Image via: vectorstock.com

Since optimal drainage is our goal, avoid using an all-purpose potting soil with added vermiculite or that advertises water retention or less-frequent watering.

These products will hold on to excess moisture and undo all of the efforts you've put into making your own potting mix.

Your chosen all-purpose potting soil can contain fertilizer, but it should remain light and airy to the touch.

The inclusion of coarse sand helps mimic most succulents' natural habitat. Unfortunately, though, small amounts of sand can be difficult to find.

poultry grit in a jar

Instead, poultry grit is an acceptable replacement and can be found in most farming retailers and even some pet stores.

But whatever you choose to use, don't take sand from a beach or other outdoor space. You want fresh, sterile sand for your succulent garden.

You can find perlite or pumice at most garden centers (typically with the potting soil). But if you can't find these products in-store, you can easily order them on Amazon or another online retailer.

Arrangements

Now comes the fun part: designing your potted succulent arrangement.

While there are no rules to what plants you use or how to position them within your succulent garden, you should try to group together plants with similar needs.

And if you're caring for a particularly difficult succulent, like the adorable Lithop, you might want to create an arrangement only using this variety of plant.

Doing so will help ensure your succulent garden is happy and thriving.

Succulent garden made entirely of Lithops.
Image via Instagram

For many home gardeners, the design process comes naturally.

But if you're feeling uninspired or need a little extra help creating your dream succulent planter, check out this video from Succulents and Sunshine for some tips:

Outdoor gardens

Outdoor succulent gardens are most popular in areas like Arizona, Colorado, and other desert climates.

Those of us in more temperate climates might be jealous of the ability to grow succulents outdoors. But for gardeners in these areas, succulents are often the only option.

Outdoor succulent garden bordering a tree.
Image via Instagram

However, as we briefly mentioned before, there are native succulents throughout North America and much of the rest of the world.

Canada even has three native cactus species to call its own.

So even if you can't grow giant Echeveria and Aloe in your backyard, there are certainly several varieties of succulents that you can.


Climate Success: Choosing Succulents

Finding out which succulents grow in your area is as easy as searching online.

Some of the most prevalent succulents are varieties of Hylotelephium (formerly categorized as Sedum, and often still sold under this name), which are extremely popular in residential and commercial landscaping.

Sempervivum, colloquially called Hen and Chicks, are also extremely common throughout the Midwest and other temperament or downright chilly climates.

Succulent garden greenhouse filled with Autumn Joy.
Image via Instagram

While these succulents are perennials in colder climates, meaning they'll come back year-after-year, you can often get away with planting non-native varieties as annuals.

Echeveria and other succulents won't last more than a season in the Midwest, but with proper care, they can certainly thrive for a single summer.

Propagation of Succulents: Send in the Clones!

Remember how we said you could effectively clone a succulent? Well, we're about to explain that concept a little more.

When we think of plant reproduction, we normally think of flowers, fruit, and seeds.

Most succulents do all of this as well — some have evolved to only reproduce vegetatively — but they can also be propagated (or reproduced by humans) through vegetative propagation.

progagation resized

Image via: pinterest.com

Vegetative propagation involves separating part of the plant and allowing it to develop an independent system of roots and become its own plant.

While you can perform this type of reproduction with a wide variety of plants, succulents are some of the easiest.

Plantlet removal

When learning about succulents, you may have come across the terms plantlet, pup, offset, baby, or chick.

Many succulents, most famously the Hen and Chicks, develop small versions of themselves around their perimeter.

These small plants are still attached to the "mother" plant, but they can be removed and replanted as their own entity.

person holding a small plant

Another common example is the Mother of Thousands, which produces countless tiny plantlets along the edges of its leaves (hence the name).

Removing and replanting plantlets is surprisingly easy.

First, you want to allow the plantlet to reach a decent size before removing it from the mother plant. As long as the plantlet remains attached, it will receive nutrients from its full-grown parent.

Then, you gently pull apart the plantlet from its parent. Most plantlets fall away extremely easily.

From here, you can place the plantlet somewhere else in your arrangement, move it to an entirely now pot, or give it away as a gift.

Cuttings

Propagating succulents through cuttings is a bit more involved, but fundamentally not much different than removing a plantlet.

Instead of taking small offspring from a plant, you simply cut off a leaf.

Since succulents have amazing adventitious rooting properties, the leaf will quickly develop roots of its own. Eventually, you'll have a whole new plant.

Cuttings being propagated from a succulent garden.
Image via Instagram

After removing your succulent leaves, you must allow the ends to callous, or dry up, before the rooting process can begin.

Then, you simply place your cuttings in a pot of soil and wait for the magic to happen.

If you're interested in learning more about growing succulents from cuttings, check out this video from Garden Answer:

Root separation

Root separation is pretty similar to plantlet removal, but your succulent doesn't need to be producing mini-me's for this to work.

Instead, you simply remove the entire plant from its soil and gently separate the roots at a natural splitting point.

Most succulents grow in segments, like the Haworthia below, so this is a fairly easy process.

Haworthia being propagated with root separation for a succulent garden.
Image via Instagram

Once you split your succulent into two, three, or even more separate plants, they can return to the soil.

Root separation is an excellent technique for plants that have overgrown their space or that you'd like to share with friends or family.

Caring for Your Succulent Garden

Now that you have your succulent garden, it's time to learn how to care for your new plants so that they live a long and happy life.

Ensuring that your container or outdoor succulent has a good base, like proper soil and drainage, will help make maintenance a little easier.

But you still need to keep a diligent care schedule if you want your succulents to thrive.

"The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul."

Just like any other plant, your succulent garden needs proper watering, light, and nutrition to survive. Without these things, your garden will be incredibly short-lived.

Water

If you followed our recommendations regarding your succulents' pot and soil, then watering should be a no-brainer.

Since most succulents live in desert-like conditions, you want to try and emulate the natural rainfall in these climates.

Water your succulent garden until water runs freely from the drainage holes, then allow it to sit over a drain or cup until no more water drains out.

Avoid placing your succulent container in a saucer or other standing water that will prevent draining.

Watering a tiny succulent garden with a squeeze bottle.
Image via Instagram

After you thoroughly water your succulent garden, it's time to let everything dry out. You want the soil to be completely dry before watering your succulents again.

Depending on your climate, this might take several days.

But if you've used the right soil mixture and a properly draining container, your succulents should dry out easily.

This is really important:

When it comes to watering succulents, it's better to water too little than too much.

Sunlight

Most succulents need at least six hours of bright, indirect sunlight per day.

While succulents come from deserts and other uncovered climates, they can experience burns and other sun damage if exposed to direct light.

However, most light that comes through a window is already significantly filtered.

Remember that the wavelengths needed for a healthy plant aren't visible to the naked eye.

person hand blocking the sun wavelengths

Even if your home is filled with visible light, the wavelengths that your succulent garden needs to survive gradually disappear just a few feet away from the window.

Many succulents have a waxy coating on their leaves that helps protect them from sun damage.

When watering your succulents, its best to avoid getting any water on the plant itself. That will help ensure that the coating remains intact and can continue to protect your succulents from the sun.

Fertilizer

Since many succulents live in such a naturally barren climate, most gardeners don't think to fertilize their succulent garden.

But fertilizer is a great way to give your succulents the nutrients they need to grow strong and vibrant.

The growing season, typically late spring to early fall, is the key time to add fertilizer to your succulent care routine.

The ideal fertilizer for most succulents is a basic 10-10-10 fertilizer.

fertilizer pour in the water jag

This blend has equal parts Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium, all essential nutrients for plant life. You should be able to find this type of fertilizer at any garden center.

You should dilute this fertilizer with one part for every four parts water and use it during your normal watering routine.

During the dormant season, you can stop fertilizing and back off on watering until the next growing season begins.

Pruning

Just like roses and daylilies, your succulents will do best with regular pruning.

Not only will pruning help keep your succulent garden looking clean and tidy, but it will also offer structural integrity to your plants.

Pruning is also a great way to remove damaged or diseased sections of a plant so that you can preserve the rest of the specimen.

pruning succulents

The most common reason for pruning succulents is that they've just become too large or overgrown for their space.

Many succulents grow outwards, becoming spindly and leggy. While some gardeners prefer this look, larger succulents can quickly overtake other plants sharing the same container.

Succulent pruning is a quick and easy process, but you might not know where to start with your own succulent garden.

This video from Laura Eubanks is a great guide for how and where to prune your succulents for the best results:


It's Time to Start Your Own Succulent Garden

Now that you've learned the ins-and-outs of creating your own succulent garden, are you ready to get started?

Growing and caring for succulents is an extremely rewarding hobby for anyone: young, old, male, or female. And if you've ever wanted to dip your toes into the world of gardening, now is the time to do it.

Gardening of any kind requires some trial and error.

Before investing in rare specimens for your succulent garden, consider caring for a run-of-the-mill Echeveria or Hen and Chicks first.

succulent garden in red

Once you've mastered the art of caring for these, you can jump into the exciting world of collecting plants for your succulent garden.

And if you live in a region with native succulent varieties, consider adding these gems to your own succulent garden.

You can help keep these native varieties alive and thriving in the area by giving them a home in your backyard. Plus, your climate will already have everything these varieties need.

Whether you're a beginner to owning a succulent garden or just looking to refresh your knowledge, there are countless gardening resources online for you to check out.

person searching online

If you ever have a question about caring for your succulent garden, don't hesitate to search for an answer online.

Kendrick Hulse
 

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