Star-shaped and otherworldly, succulents make stellar house guests. In fact, they’ll completely forgive you if you totally forget them… But best not to do that if you want them looking their most fetching. Below are five general rules for keeping them flourishing…
1 LET THERE BE LIGHT This may be easier said than done in Ireland, but best practice is to give these desert plants plenty of light. Make sure outdoor succulents are planted in a bright area of your garden and place indoor ones in south-facing windows – keep them out of direct midday sunlight to avoid scorching.
TOP TIP Under-lit succulents can suffer from etoliation, a stretching of the stem and spreading out of the leaves. A solution is to give the plant better light and prune it back to its original shape.
2 WATER WARILY Succulents are especially sensitive to the dreaded overwatering, which can lead to plant rot. Succulents should be watered well in spring and summer (their growing season), but soil should be allowed to dry out almost completely between waterings. During colder months, they should be watered minimally, if at all. Overwatered succulents may have puffy-looking stems or leaves and look soft and discoloured. They can also wilt, as if they need water, because roots have died from too-wet soil. Under watered succulents may stop growing, wilt, shed leaves, and/or develop a lacklustre colour or brown spots.
TOP TIP For overwatered succulents, unpot the plant and check the roots. If only limited rot has set in, you may be able to cut it away using a sharp knife until all that is left are healthy, white roots and repot in dry soil. Alternatively, take a cutting and propagate the parent plant.
3 DEFT DRAINAGE Key to avoiding overwatering is ensuring proper drainage. Make sure your succulents have well-draining sandy or loamy soil as opposed to general potting soil, and if your plant is in a container, make sure the pot has drainage holes at the bottom.
TOP TIP Unglazed terracotta pots are best for drainage, and specialised free-draining soil mixtures designed for succulents and cacti are available. Alternatively, see Jane Power’s soil mix advice below.
4 FERTILISE FRUGALLY Opinion is divided on whether to fertilise or not to fertilise, but a general rule of thumb is to proceed with caution, as too much fertiliser can be worse than none for succulents.
TOP TIP If you do decide to fertilise, use a low-nitrogen option and only during summer growing season.
5 WATCH FOR FROST As a general rule, most succulents can only survive down to temperatures of around 5°C and need to be taken indoors in winter to avoid frost damage. However, some are hardier than others – but best not to take any chances.
TOP TIP Some agaves will winter happily outdoors in Ireland. The gorgeous blue-green-grey Agave americana will take a few degrees of frost, but only if its feet are dry.
INDOORS Try aloe vera for burns and insect bites; jade plant (Crassula ovata) for good luck and prosperity; and burro’s tail (Sedum morganianum) for fun — kids love its dangling strings of bead-like leaves.
OUTDOORS (but offer protection in frosty weather). Try the South African Cotyledon orbiculata with spoon-shaped grey-green leaves and salmon-coloured bells; or try a combination of Echeveria elegans, E. secunda var. glauca, Crassula schmidtii and C. exilis subsp.cooperi: these four are combined in summer in the round beds at the entrance to the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin.
Succulents do best in a free-draining loamy compost. I use a mix of three parts John Innes number 3 and one part grit. Give a liquid feed between May and September about every month. Mulch with stones or coarse grit to keep the plants clean and to help drainage. If you fancy a ‘succulentscape’, add interesting rocks to the container.
Photography Nathalie Marquez Courtney.
Need a crash course in urban gardening? Check out these tips on balcony gardens from Mark Grehan.
Kate Phelan for @Image_Interiors