What is a succulent plant?

Succulent is a general term that refers to plants that store water in their leaves, stems or roots.  They are able to survive on less water and maintenance than many other plants.   Most succulents come from areas where rainy seasons were followed by long dry periods. Most have leaves that gradually became fattened by water-storing tissues and their leaves became covered with a waxy covering that reduces evaporation of stored water.


Most succulents come from desert or semi-desert areas in warmer parts of the world (North and South America, South Africa). Although the deserts of the world have many succulents, not all succulents are desert plants. Some (sedums, sempervivums) come from colder climates where they grow on sunny, rocky slopes and ledges.  In the mountains, there are succulents that thrive despite bitter cold, strong winds and poor soil.  They exist on mountains, in jungles and near lakes and seas.
Succulents and their native lands include: Aeonium: Africa, Canary and Madeira Islands; Agave: the Americas; Aloe: Africa, the Mediterranean, Atlantic islands; Cotyledon: semi-arid regions of Africa; Crassula: mostly Africa; Dudleya: coastal California and Mexico; Echeveria: the Americas; Faucaria: South Africa; Gasteria: South Africa; Hawthoria: South Africa; Kalanchoe: tropical regions of America, Africa and Southeast Asia; Sanseveria: Africa and India; Sempervivum: Central and Southern Europe, Asia Minor, North Africa.

 

Is a cactus a succulent?

Yes. All cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti.

 

. "Cactus" comes from the word kaktos (spiny plant), used by ancient Greeks. Two thousand years later Linnaeus (the plant classifier) adopted the name Cactaceae to embrace a group of plants whose peculiar traits included fleshy stems that served to store water, prickly or hairy coverings and few, if any, leaves. They have stems modified into cylinders, pads or joints that store water in times of drought. . Accordian-like ribs can expand when moisture is plentiful and contract during times of drought.  Thick skin reduces evaporation. Most species have spines or bristles which evolved from leaves for protection against browsing animals.  There are cactus with long hair or a wooly covering that protects from cold in winter and sun in summer.  Flowers are usually large and brightly colored and fruit is sometimes edible.

 

The Cactus (Cactaceae) family ranges from Canada through Central America and the West Indies, and south to the cold areas of Chile and Patagonia (southern end of South America). Perhaps Mexico has the richest collection, but many are also found in the western deserts of the United States and high in the Cordilleras of Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.

 

How much should I water my plant?

While growing, cacti and succulents should be watered about once a week. Here at the nursery we water once per week in summer and once per month in winter. You may need to water more often than this depending on where the plant is growing (outside in full sun or in a very small pot with very little soil). Give the soil a good soaking, so that water runs out of thebottom of the pot. Succulents like a deep watering but need to dry out in between to prevent rotting from the roots.

 

Should I feed my plants?

Soil that is rich in nutrients will not need to be amended with fertilizer. Over time nutrients will be taken up by plants and be leached out of the soil by watering. During the growing season, a balanced fertilizer (diluted to 1/4 strength) can be added to the water periodically. (A balanced fertilizer is one that has roughly equal proportions of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium and is labeled as 10-10-10). Plants will grow faster if fertilized. We do not use plant hormone to increase rooting of new plants.

What is the best soil for my plants?

We have developed our own custom blend soil mix over a forty year period based on our plants needs and our unique greenhouse growing environment. A main ingredient of any potting mix for succulents will be organic matter. Peat moss, the main ingredient in most potting soils, is hard to wet and then dries out quickly. By adding a little finely ground bark, water will penetrate more quickly. For home-made mixes, a great substitute for peat moss is coir, which is fibrous shredded coconut husks and is very slow to decompose. Unlike peat, coir is easy to wet when it dries out. Compost can be used as well, though it decomposes very quickly. 

The other main ingredient is an inorganic substance that allows water to soak into and then drain out of soil quickly, keeping the mix crumbly and airy. There are several good choices, all better than coarse sand (must be washed), including perlite, crushed granite, scoria, pumice or chicken grit. We have tried them all and find that pumice is best for us as it does not increase the weight of the plants we have to move. Any of these will dramatically increase drainage and won’t break down as the organic material slowly decomposes.

How much light does my plant need?

Most owners have many sunny spots in their home or garden where succulent plants can live happily. But, there is a difference between light (sunshine) and heat. Despite widespread belief, most succulents do not thrive if blasted with the hottest temps and the fullest sun exposure. While they appreciate a lot of light (and very few survive in full shade), most succulents appreciate sun protection, especially if the temperature hits the 90-degree-mark, or if they’re small. Varieties that are solid green, pale, or variegated are most in danger of sun burn. If you are planning to blast your plants with the brightest sun possible, opt for plants that are red, gray, blue, or covered densely with spines (which help to reflect the sun’s rays). And know when the best time of year is to place your plants in the ground. Here in Southern California the best times are fall (giving plants time to develop a good root system before winter) and spring (when everything is fresh and temperatures are mild). We say, "your plants will be happy where you would be happy". We are happy sitting in the shade when temperatures climb higher.

Can I prune my succulent plants?

You may find that over time your plants can grow quite large or sprawl outwards and can outgrow their garden space or container, getting quite unruly and in need neatening up. Succulent plants often need pruning for size control, to shape them better, or to propagate them for more plants. And though most succulents can seal off damaged parts, it is always good to quickly remove broken, diseased, or dead leaves, stems and flower stalks. 
Clean cuts are less likely to decay.  Use clean clippers, a sharp knife, or a pair of scissors. If plants are diseased, avoid spreading the problem by swabbing or dipping blades in rubbing alcohol before starting or in between plants when cutting lots of plants.
When pruning succulents with spines or milky sap, wear gloves and eye protection, especially around members of the Euphorbia genus such as Firesticks (pencil cactus) or Crown of Thorns, whose milky sap is very irritating to some gardeners.  Immerse the cutting into water to stop the sap from running.
Echeveria, Graptopetalum, Crassula (such as Jade), Aeonium, Senecio, Yucca and other long-stem or multi-branched succulents can be kept compact with occasional pruning. Because new growth typically sprouts near the end of cut ends, simply prune stems to where you want new growth to emerge. You can train some to grow in different directions by cutting just above a small branch or bud that is pointing the right direction; this is often done by growers of succulent bonsai.

 

Help! I have pests on my plants!

The most common pests are aphids (look for an ant problem), scale, mealy bugs, slugs and snails. Less common pests include mites, rot and fungus gnats. Control of these pests is difficult because they are small and hide in places that make them hard to see, because they have a cottony or hard covering to protect them or because they have developed a resistance to insecticides.

We use all of the methods below (and more!) to control pests at the nursery:


-Wash mealybugs and spider mites off the plant with a strong stream of water. Cover the soil in the pot to prevent overwatering or to keep the soil from washing away.
-Remove mealybugs and scale using cotton swabs dipped in rubbing alcohol.   The solution may damage the epidermis of sensitive cacti and succulents so test a small area before treating the entire plant.
-Use sticky traps to control adult fungus gnats or aphids.
-Use insecticidal soap but be aware that it may damage some plants. Cacti have oils and waxes that may make them susceptible to damage from the soap. Be sure to read the product’s label to see if it is safe for your plant. It is a good idea to test a small area of the plant before spraying the entire plant.
-Use insecticides such as Neem or pyrethrins. Check the label to be sure it is safe for your plant.
- Use a systemic insecticide such as acephate to control pests that are not easily accessible to sprays.