A simple start to growing succulents

In April 2016, I said in an instagram post that “I’m still not sure I love succulents”. I read that now and laugh, given my succulent collection count is at 15 and I’m propagating more. This is the wonder and also the annoyance of social media. If you post with some degree of honesty, your thoughts at a particular point in time are forever out there in the public domain. This is great for reflecting on progress, but also a tad embarrassing if your thoughts have evolved over time and your perspective has changed. 

Why was I so indifferent to succulents a year ago and what has changed since then?

It all comes down to assumptions and experience. I had a lot of the former, and very little of the latter, which is a bad combination for pretty much anything in life. I’m not sure I would have even considered growing succulents, had I not started painting small sized pots and wanted something to pair them with. What a lucky thing then that I tried my hand at both! I can say hands down that the little pots are my favourite to paint, and succulents are my favourite plants to grow. (Let’s caveat though that this may very well change by June 2018, if the beginning of this post is anything to go by).

When you find something you love, it’s very hard to keep it to yourself. So I thought I would share with you just a couple of things I have learned about growing succulents, which I have found to be helpful when starting out.

I’m focusing only on indoor container succulent growing at this stage, rather than ones that are grown outside in gardens. Of course, there are many different species of succulents, each with their own unique requirements, but as a beginner, I find that too much information can be overwhelming and just knowing the basics is good enough to start.

1. Let there be light.

Sedum succulent in small sized Amelie pot
This sedum was plump and healthy, until I left it in the dark for two weeks

When people ask about how to care for a plant, the first question is usually ‘how often do I have to water it?’ I guess it’s because water is assumed to be the thing that plants need the most of in order to survive – and watering typically takes up most of your time as a plant parent.

However, for succulents, I would say that light conditions are more important to consider and should be priority number one.

I learned this the hard way when I went on an extended holiday last year. I had left my sedum1 in the dining room, with all the curtains drawn shut to keep out the heat. The room was therefore completely dark 24/7 for two and a half weeks. When I came home, the poor sedum was on its last legs. It had gone from being plump and juicy (as you can see in the photo), to having shed most of its leaves, leaving bare, gangly stems, desperately reaching up and out looking for sunlight. I didn’t think to take a photo at the time so I can’t show you what it looked like post-holiday, but it was pretty dismal. It actually stayed alive after I realised my horrible mistake and gave it lots of light and love, but the damage had been done. I decided it was too miserable an existence so we parted ways.

Takeaway: whatever you do, don’t put your succulent in a dark space.

Even succulents that manage well in low-light areas still need some kind of light. Indoors, a succulent will thrive best if it gets a lot of natural light. I leave most of my succulents on a south-west facing windowsill. They receive filtered light most of the day (i.e. light through a pane of glass), and in the afternoon the light intensifies for about 4 hours when the sun shines in that direction.

If you work in a brightly lit office, your succulent should be fine, and you can always supplement with a desk lamp if needed (though that’s a whole other topic on grow lights which I haven’t needed to use yet).

2. Drought is better than flood

Now let’s circle back to the water question.

Where do you typically find succulents in the wild? The desert.

And what does a desert typically lack? Water.

Remember this and your succulents will do well. That’s not to say they don’t need a good drink every now and then, as deserts still receive some rainfall during the year. But in my experience, it’s better to err on the side of less than more water. I have been able to recover thirsty succulents, but never soggy ones where their roots have started to rot. This happens when the soil stays moist for too long.

The type of soil your succulent sits in plays a large part as to whether the roots stay damp, or if they dry out as needed between watering. You want to have well draining soil, which means the water runs through it quite quickly rather than pooling and staying wet for a long time. If your succulent is in a pot that has a drainage hole, you should see the water draining out when you water it. If there is no hole, put a layer of rocks / gravel in the bottom before the soil layer so that the water can still run off and the soil doesn’t stay moist for too long.

I’m hesitant to say how often you should be watering your succulent, as this really depends on how much light it gets, the air temperature and humidity, and the type of soil it’s planted in. But as a general guide, with the succulents I have that sit on the SW windowsill, they’re being watered about once every two weeks. I always feel the soil before giving them a drink, and won’t water them until the soil is completely dry to the touch. You can insert a toothpick deeper into the soil to check whether it really is dry. I don’t have a strict watering schedule, and I don’t water them all at the same time.

Takeaway: water less often and with less water than your first instinct. Your succulent will give you plenty of warning that it needs water, and the dying process from thirst is a long one. It won’t happen overnight and chances are you will catch it in time and be able to recover it.

So that’s it, just two important points to remember with growing succulents as a beginner. More light, less water. I hope this will inspire some of you to give it a go, as they’re low maintenance and very fun to figure out. A large part of gardening is experimentation, and succulents really communicate well with you once you know what to look for. They’re also inexpensive, so even if your first few don’t last very long, you can always get more to hone your green thumb skills.

Two small succulents in Hanami and Josan pots

– END –

1. Sedum is a type of succulent, which has many species in its family. I’m not great with succulent identification, but I assume my succulent was a type of sedum due to its very fleshy, jelly bean-like leaves. Very sadly, this type of sedum loves full sun, so it seems I killed it in the cruelest way possible.

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