Growing a succulent container garden is easy and immensely satisfying. Having evolved in some of the world's harshest conditions, succulents are vigorous plants with low moisture needs. The biggest challenge when learning how to grow succulents is to avoid excessive nurturing. These plants don't do well if they are overwatered and overfed. This makes them perfect for the gardener who doesn't have a lot of time to spend on tending plants.
Equipment / Tools
- Soft-bristle brush (optional)
- Container with drainage holes
- Plastic window screening or landscape fabric
- Succulent plants
- Cactus or succulent potting mix
- Stones, gravel, sea glass, or marbles (optional)
Gather Your Supplies
Planting and maintaining a succulent container garden is easy. The key is to select the right container, soil, and plants.
- Choosing containers: Succulent roots can thrive in a shallow, wide container. Just make sure your pot has good drainage, which might mean drilling holes in the bottom. Standing water in a container can kill a succulent.
- Choosing soil: You can use any potting mix designed for succulents. Look for words such as "cactus mix" or "succulent mix" on the packaging. You can also make your own succulent potting mix. Blend equal parts regular potting soil, coarse sand, and perlite or pumice for an ideal mix.
- Selecting plants: When choosing your plants, be aware they might have varying light and care requirements. Check the plant tags for specifics to group succulents with similar needs in a container.
Cover the Drainage Holes
Cut a piece of plastic window screening big enough to cover your pot's drainage holes. This will keep your soil in the pot while letting excess water drain. Alternatively, you can use a piece of landscape fabric or a commercial pot screen to block the holes.
Add the Potting Mix
Cover the bottom of the container with enough potting mix so that when the plants are in place, the soil line will remain about a half inch below the rim of the container. This will make it easier to water the plants without overflowing the sides of the container.
Test Fit the Plants
Place your plants, still in their nursery pots, into the container to get a general idea of spacing. Move the plants until you are satisfied with the container arrangement.
Plant the Container
Take the succulents out of their nursery pots, and place them back into your container one by one. Then, gently pack additional potting soil around each plant. Keep the soil at the same level at which the plants were growing in their nursery pots. Confirm that you have filled in all the spaces between the plants. If you leave air gaps, the roots might dry out and kill the plants.
The soil in the nursery pots might be coarse and loose, so be careful when removing the plants. Hold each succulent gently at the top with the stem between two fingers. Turn the pot on its side, and gently tap the bottom to ease out the plant.
Add the Finishing Touches
Gently remove any soil that is covering the leaves and stems of the plants. You can do this with a soft-bristle brush or even by gently blowing on the plants. To give your container a finished look, one option is to cover the surface of the potting soil with a topdressing of coarse material, such as gravel, pebbles, sea glass, or marbles. The topdressing material can be brightly colored or neutral, depending on the look you want to achieve.
Working With Succulents in Containers
Although most succulents are not typically grown for their blooms, they come in an amazing array of colors and leaf textures. And combining succulents in creative ways is part of the fun. The plants you choose and how you arrange them is a personal choice. However, it is important to choose plants that are in scale to one another and to the container in which you plant them. For instance, small containers call for miniature varieties while huge pots can take very tall specimens.
Most garden centers have entire sections devoted to succulents, and the plants are often organized by size. Sample planters might be available for you to find arrangement ideas.
Tips for Growing a Succulent Container Garden
To grow healthy succulents, mimic the conditions they would experience naturally. During spring and summer—the growing season for most succulents—keep the soil moist but not wet. It's better to let the soil get a little dry between watering than it is to overwater. During winter, when succulent plants are normally dormant, water less frequently. Keep the soil on the dry side, but don't let it dry out completely.
Fertilization should be fairly minimal with succulent plants, and it might not be necessary at all. This depends largely on the type of succulent you are growing. If feeding is called for, do so only during the active growing season using a diluted liquid fertilizer designed for succulents.
Although virtually all succulents do well in hot, dry conditions, that doesn't mean they thrive in direct sun all day. Many succulents do best when they are in direct sun for only a few hours a day, and they might need protection from getting scorched in the strong mid-day sun. If your succulents came from a nursery where they didn't get much sun, it's best to gradually expose them to increasingly longer periods of direct sunlight.
It's important to take into consideration the mature size of your succulents when spacing plants in your container. Plants in an overcrowded container will likely grow more slowly than normal. And they might not be as healthy, as there will be a lot of competition for moisture and nutrients.
Plus, air circulation will be poor in a crowded container, and light won't be able to hit all parts of the plants. This can lead to mold growth and other fungal issues, as some spots of the container might become too dark and moist—conditions in which fungi thrive.
Choosing the Right Species
Some succulent species will remain fairly healthy, even if you don't provide exactly the growing conditions they prefer. And other species are very sensitive to their conditions. So it's important to do your research before settling on species for your container. Make sure they all will work with the light conditions, temperatures, and level of care you can provide.
For instance, some succulents are hardy while others are tender. The hardy succulents can withstand cooler temperatures while the tender succulents will quickly succumb to cold weather. So if you select tender succulents, they will need to be grown indoors when conditions outside are too cold. And they also must be protected from drafts and even air conditioners.
Some notoriously easy-to-grow succulents include aloe (Aloe spp.), jade (Crassula ovata), zebra cactus (Haworthia spp.), and hens and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum). Some trickier succulents to grow include living stones (Lithops spp.), string of pearls (Senecio rowleyanus), and donkey's tail (Sedum morganianum).
Pruning and Repotting
In general, succulents are pretty slow growers. But eventually your succulent container will begin to look crowded and untidy. That's when pruning and repotting come into play.
Always be on the lookout for lower leaves of your succulents that have naturally dried up and died. Remove these leaves by gently twisting them off the stem to prevent them from littering the soil and causing it to retain excess moisture.
Succulents that have become too tall or leggy will need more severe pruning, also known as beheading. The best time to do this for most succulents is in the spring as they are coming out of dormancy. Simply snip off the top portion of your succulent, leaving at least an inch or two of stem that can be planted once you remove the leaves. The remaining bottom portion will continue to grow, so you can leave it in place if you'd like.
Furthermore, if the succulents in your container have simply gotten too big but they're not suitable for pruning, you can gently dig them up and repot them. Follow the same method you did when initially planting your container, aiming to jostle the succulent leaves and roots as little as possible.