Succulents are the camels of the plant world. Strictly speaking, a succulent is any plant that stores water in its juicy leaves, stems, or roots in order to withstand periodic drought. Native to dry or semi-desert landscapes, they occasionally thrive on rocky, sunny slopes and ledges right here in Oregon, although Mexico and South Africa are more-favored habitats. In Lane County (and around the globe), they make great decorative plants either in the open ground or in containers. Additionally, they are good for filtering indoor air, removing formaldehyde, lacquer, and xylene introduced by carpeting, oil paints, upholstery, drapes, and blinds. A forgiving family of plants, succulents ask for only one thing: Don’t fuss over them, ever.
Create a desert-like setting for your potted succulent and it will survive happily; they tolerate low humidity and weeks of neglect well. Pots should be fairly shallow with good drainage so they don’t store an overabundance of water. Carefully select the right potting mix. A commercially prepared, soilless planting mix for cacti and succulents,available locally in garden supply stores, should contain a high percentage of sand and lightweight grit. This allows it to drain rapidly, just as it would in the desert after a rare seasonal rain shower.
Place your plant in the center of the chosen shallow pot with its good drainage, leaving room on top of the potting mix for about a 1/3-inch top dressing of sand, pebbles, or shells for your plant. Notice how shallow and brittle the stubby roots are. In general, succulents do best in bright, but indirect sunlight. They may grow slowly indoors, especially in the cooler, darker winter months, but they don’t need much, if any, fertilizer other than a light feeding in the spring or summer.
A garden dish for your front step or a tabletop is a great way to display succulents. Mix spiky plants with rosette-shaped globular and cylindrical forms. Hen and chicks are an easy variety to start with. Pair with a stonecrop or ice plant. A Christmas cactus will give ample blooms in November and December, while Kalanchoe flowers in lavender or coral for most of the winter. No kitchen windowsill should be without a pot of dependable aloe vera, one of the easiest and most useful succulents to grow. For burns, cuts, or abrasions, slit open the aloe leaf and apply the clean, cool, natural healing gel.
What could we love more than one succulent? Many succulents! Propagating them is almost as easy as keeping pots of them. With a sharp knife, cut a leaf with a bit of the stem or, without tearing, twist it gently to remove the entire leaf. Allow the cuttings to dry and callus over for a few days. Then fill a tray or plate with your planting mix and place the cuttings on top. Tiny rootlets will start to develop. The new plants will be delicate, so plant them carefully, possibly with the assistance of a pencil point. Once your starts are potted up, give the plants plenty of light and they will continue to root themselves in the new planter over the course of about four weeks.
Rather than giving your succulents sips of water here and there, give them a good soaking now and again. The water should run out of the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot. Be sure to empty the water that collects in the saucer below the pot, then let the soil dry out completely before watering again.
Give your succulents good, filtered light and don’t overwater, don’t overfeed, don’t worry.