The Top 4 Things About Growing Succulents I Wish I Knew Sooner

These are The Top 4 Things About Growing Succulents I wish I Knew Sooner – I hope this video helps you sooner!

1. Dormancy and growing seasons

When I first got into succulents, I didn’t know very much about dormancy, and I lost a lot of plants before I figured it out. 

It makes sense that when it starts to get cold, succulents will slow their growth and won’t need as much water. But I underestimated how long they could go without water and would sneak them a drink here and there on more mild days. The reason succulents are called ‘succulent’ is because of their amazing ability to store water in their leaves, stems, caudices, and even roots. They can depend on that stored water for several weeks, and even months in some cases. 

Since they were in a state of rest, the roots weren’t actively uptaking water as they would when ‘awake,’ and the plants weren’t photosynthesizing as they would during a growing season.

That led to a combination of problems, mostly roots rotting and other side effects of overwatering like stem rot, fungal issues, and edema, because I was forcing the plant to drink when not only was it not thirsty, it was physically unable to transpire and photosynthesize to use or release the excess water. 

I got the hang of resisting the urge to water when it was colder, but I had to learn the same thing when it would get really hot outside, because yes, many succulents also go heat dormant.

Our instinct when we’re hot is to chug a big glass of water, so it makes sense that instinct also tells us to water our plants more the hotter it is. Well, I learned the hard way that isn’t the case with a lot of succulents. 

Instead, when temperatures are reaching into the 90Fs (32C+), first we need to try to shade our plants so they’re not getting directly blasted by the sun. And we need to pay attention to how the plant looks and feels to understand if they’re going dormant.

Aloes for example will show their thirst in their leaves – they’ll feel thinner and more flexible, and maybe start to look concave. Aeoniums will often contract their leaves or even shed some. Leaf drop is also common in caudex plants that are dormant. 

Echeverias and other rosette succulents’ leaves become very soft and pliant to the touch and may even look a little wrinkly.  

Even though succulents are usually slow growing, it’s obvious when they are actively exhibiting new growth. The formation of new flowers and leaves are signs of growth. Lighter green coloration at the growth points of Euphorbias and cacti are signs as well. 

So get familiar with what your succulents look like when they’re hydrated and putting out new growth, as well as what they look and feel like when they’re due for a drink. This will help you detect what is happening within the plant during the hottest and colder months of the year. 

2. Good light is really really really important for keeping succulents healthy and in good shape. 

If I could go back in time, I would have stopped buying new plants after I spent my first 100 bucks or so and budgeted the next $100 for a nice grow light before buying anymore succulents. Not only would it have saved me a lot of stress, but it would have soon paid for itself in the plants I would have been able to keep in good shape year round.

My outdoor succulents get plenty of sunlight most of the year, but there are often long periods of overcast weather that can lead to etiolation (stretching) especially if the plants have recently been fertilized.

Flowers might not fully open, seed pods might not develop correctly, and new growth won’t be as robust. Seedlings will struggle to grow and stay compact, the soil won’t dry out as quickly… the list goes on. 

So having a reliable source of bright light from a fixture designed to produce quality light is essential in my opinion and in my particular growing situation. I discuss how to find a great grow light in the second edition of The Succulent Manual – available as a paperback with a plant journal section at the back, or as an interactive eBook. You can also read it online at sucsforyou.com

When researching grow lights, you may have seen terms like PAR (photosynthetic active radiation) and PPFD (photosynthetic photon flux density) and DLI (daily light integral), and I decipher all of that for you so you know what you’re shopping for when you’re reading the products’ details. You don’t want to wind up with a light that doesn’t provide the right color spectrum or that’s too weak to do any good for your succulents.

It is really hard to keep succulents happy indoors simply because it is really hard to provide them with enough natural light indoors. And a lot us also have to bring our plants inside at times, or keep them inside most of the year, or even year-round. A quality grow light might be one of your spendiest purchases, but you and your plants will be much better off with one (or more) and you will not regret for a moment the returns on your investment. 

3. Fast draining soil is worth the effort (and don’t use fluorescent aquarium gravel!) 

Friends, back in my early days when I really started getting into succulents, I had a very difficult time finding proper drainage materials locally, and no one was selling a fast draining soil mix that was truly made for someone with a lot of succulents in a very humid climate. I experimented with making my own mixes, and in the beginning I made a lot of mistakes. One of those mistakes was including some aquarium gravel in a batch – fluorescent orange gravel. 

First, the unnatural color itself was awful to see and it seemed I would never get rid of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if some still lurks at the bottom of one of my older potted plants. Second and most importantly, aquarium gravel isn’t porous. It doesn’t offer any absorption qualities, and actually prevents water from evaporating from the soil. 

A good drainage amendment will be more spendy and probably harder to source depending on where you’re located. But it’s worth it if you want to keep your plants alive. 

I have a list of materials I tried simply because they were what was available in large quantities at the big box stores. From that list, only a couple did any good – perlite and decomposed granite – but neither were ideal.

Perlite is messy stuff and it breaks down over time because it’s so light-weight. And you can’t use it as a top dressing. While it does offer some drainage properties that will help your soil dry out faster, it really should be used along with other amendments.  

Decomposed granite from big box stores is very inconsistent in size of the rocks, and it is usually really moist due to the clay residue. So you should at least rinse it and wait for it to dry before using it. While it can offer some drainage properties, it’s also known to compact over time so it shouldn’t be used as the main amendment.

Sand: Not all sand is created equal and not all sand can be used to help drainage in potting soil. The sands you buy as play sand, all purpose sand,  paver sand, even most pool filter sand, is too fine and will compact around the roots of your plants, and they will not be pleased. If you can find a nice coarse sand, something sold as sharp sand or torpedo sand, you can use it in your soil mix, but again, it should be one of a few different drainage materials in your recipe. 

Pea gravel seems like it would help but it doesn’t. Like the aquarium gravel, it’s not porous and will trap moisture in the soil. And it really weighs down your pots so they’re harder to move if you need to. 

Pebbles aren’t any better than pea gravel.

Gravel like Black Staris too large and non-porous. 

Landscaping lava stones are too big and very difficult to crush even with a sledge hammer, if you were considering trying that like I did. I’ve seen other people ask about this as well, and the answer is don’t even try. Just trust me. 

The good news is I was finally able to source some great, affordable amendments locally. The first two I could get ahold of were Turface and expanded shale. I did have to buy 40 pound bags but I knew I would use it eventually. Both are porous and pretty easy to find if you call around. I’ve bought both at Southwest Fertilizer in Houston. They sell a lot of different soils, fertilizers, soil amendments, bird seed, vegetable seeds, and fun stuff like that. 

I can also find it at a place called Quality Feed and Garden who sells similar products along with poultry and livestock feed. 

I wound up mail ordering pumice for a while until one day I asked one more time at Quality Feed if they sold pumice and the owner said yes! And it was the same brand and size I had been ordering for years, General Pumice Products, 3/16 fines. And the mark up was very fair. Score! 

More and more local nurseries have begun offering better drainage materials, and I’m certain us asking for them has a direct influence on what they stock. So keep asking! 

One more thing to note – since no amount of drainage materials will do you any good without good drainage holes in your pots, get a power drill and a couple diamond hole saw bits. A quarter inch bit is good for smaller holes in smaller pots and a half inch bit works great for knocking out bigger holes. 

I started out using the carbide spade bits but they are too small in my opinion, and they wear out really fast. Diamond hole saw bits are the way to go.   

4. Try growing from seed sooner

Some of the first seeds I remember starting were from my Aloe maculata my grandmother gave me after it flowered. I can’t begin to tell you how painfully slow they seemed to take to germinate but once that little bit of green poked through the soil, I was so thrilled! And I was hooked. 

The reason I wish I had started sooner comes back to how long succulents take to grow compared to say tomatoes or flowers. It can take a few years for a lot of succulents to reach maturity before they flower and give you more seeds, but the process of starting them and watching them progress is very rewarding in itself.

You just need to have a nice warm, bright spot for them to do their thing, and they pretty much do the rest. 

Yes, there will be some failures along the way but this happens in just about every part of life. And you will learn SO much from the losses – so don’t be afraid to try!

I’ve made several videos and written about starting seeds in The Succulent Manual along with other propagation methods. Currently, I have over 200 Astrophytums growing along with all of the other seedlings I started over the years like Euphorbias, cacti, Faucaria, Desert Rose and Haworthias. And Lithops. They’re all really special to me and I want you to experience the same satisfaction I feel from watching them grow.

I hope all of this information is helpful – thanks for watching! And read my book ‘The Succulent Manual: A guide to care and repair for all climates’ 

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✿ About Sucs For You! Featuring demonstrations of how to propagate and care for succulents and cacti, and other tips on working with these beautiful plants in challenging climates. With Andrea Afra, based out of Houston, Texas, Garden Zone 9A.

✿ The Succulent Manual: A Guide to Care and Repair for All Climates – Now available as a paperback on Amazon!

✿ The Succulent Manual: A Guide to Care and Repair for All Climates – available as an interactive web guide and an eBook – learn more about it

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