Why You Don’t Have to Suck at Succulents!
We hear this a lot every week at the Farmers Market, “oh I’m terrible with plants and they don’t like me” while they’re looking at our cacti, succulents and vegetable starts. Here are ten things I’ve learned while raising and selling cacti that might be helpful for those of you who’ve gotten the growing bug:
1. Pick the right variety and specimen.
Most all succulents are in the cacti family, but not all cacti are succulents. Makes sense? No, not to us either except, generally, those cacti with spines are not succulents. Think of a prickly pear cactus vs. a jade plant. It is extremely difficult and time consuming to grow cacti from seeds, though you’re welcome to try. I’ve found it’s much easier to propagate my own from parents that I’ll raise from babies to hopefully grandparents and spreading their spines, er seeds to other generations. If you’re starting out or for kiddos, the easiest to take care of, in my opinion are Hens and Chicks (echeveria) or Joseph’s Coat (opuntia). Both of which are very drought resistant and will grow new limbs that you can replant yourselves, which is super-satisfying. The harder ones are those succulents that look delicate, because they probably are, or even common ones like Christmas or Easter Cactus (sclumbergera), as they are more sensitive to light and moisture and container and soil. But if you get the right specimen and take care of it, you might find it lasting for years and giving birth to many beautiful flowers and offspring!
2. You Too Can Propagate!
Propagation is the easy method of making many more succulents out of just one or several. Just follow the below in terms of container and soil and you too can create new life. Basically, you take the biggest “limbs” from much bigger succulents and gently break them off at the base of the main plant or use a pair of sharp scissors and kind of bend if back and forth till it comes off. Each cacti or succulent will be a little bit different in terms of roots or not (Hens and Chicks e.g.), but the main principle I’ve learned is that the planting hole needs to be deep enough to take a sizable portion of the transplant and so that it can take root. Creating a hole with a round instrument slightly larger than the plant and then pressing lightly around till you feel it to kind of “bind” to the soil around – it’s definitely a feel-thing and after watering, you may need to reposition or make sure the little guy is fully engaged in their new pot.
3. The Container Matters
If you’re propagating or replanting, there are a few things to know about where your cacti is going. You want to use an appropriate size container, not too big or too small – and it’s ok to take a bigger container and plant several different varieties together, they don’t mind being with their friends and you can use your imagination. Always make sure the pot or can has several holes in the bottom for drainage, otherwise the roots will be sitting in water, and they hate that. It’s easy to drill holes in metal cans or wood; glass or ceramic should already come with drainage holes. (Pro-tip, I shop at Dollar Tree for interesting containers for both kids, holidays, and imaginative potting’s, all for a fraction of the cost). If I’m replanting into a more permanent pot, I’ll put some rocks at the bottom before I put the soil in for extra drainage. Speaking of which, don’t forget to get a drip-pan or something for the bottom or you’ll have water spilling on your windowsills (like I’ve done!).
4. Make Your Own Soil Recipe
We’ve tried to learn as much as we can from veteran farmers and growers and we’ve found that everyone has their own “recipe” for potting starts or cacti, though there are some basics that most all follow. We use organic Cactus and Succulent soil, vermiculite (perlite), and potting soil in a by-feel recipe. We always buy soil and supplements and additions from the local community store that specializes in growers (e.g., not Home Depot or Wal-Mart). The cactus soil is very rocky and feels a lot like desert sand (which it includes). For most of what we grow, it needs supplements to help the plants “bind” to the soil and take root, so we add high-quality potting or raised-bed organic soil and mix those two with a generous helping of vermiculite (which you can buy in bulk) and use exceedingly as it helps drainage and provides minerals for both veggie starts and succulents and indoor plants. The consistency should be that you can stick a round object a little bigger than the transplant and have the hole stay open and go not quite to bottom of pot, so the roots have room to spread out. If you have to shove the roots into the pot, it’s not big enough. I’ll then add a generous amount of the mixture on top and tap it all down to a little below the edge and make sure that it feels like it will take root. (Some people like the soil less firm, but I like to press down a bit). The finishing touch is that the little guy needs a sort of blanky on top of the soil to keep them moist and not to dry out too much and provide some resistance to the watering. Again, I use decorative rocks, shells or stones from Dollar Tree that come in bags and provide interesting color or design while serving the main attraction well!
5. Location, Location, Location
Where you grow your cacti is important here in the PNW. In the winter, or year-round if you wish, pick a windowsill or table-top that gets either morning or afternoon sun facing east or west. After early May here, it’s usually safe to move them outdoors for the spring, summer and fall and let them breathe in some fresh air and stretch their limbs.
6. Decorate to Your Heart’s Content
One of the fun things we’ve found is to personalize and customize many of our succulents which may include rocks or shells, decorative pieces or even matchbox cars or mini-pixies. We also like using pots that have a holiday theme like Easter or Halloween and accessories that go with it also. Finding the right color combination and trying different themes can be really fun.
7. Name Your Child
We don’t have any hard-data to quantify, but we think about 75% of our customers say they intend to name their cactus-baby. We see this a lot in both kids and young-people as well as those who just have a caring heart and like to name their plants and critters. Be imaginative and have fun – remember you’ll be talking to them and have to have a name!
8. Care and Feeding
Literally one of the only things you can do wrong with cacti and succulents is over-watering. It’s really simple actually; just lift the pot and if it feels light (comparatively), it needs water. The trick is to water deeply (to the roots until some of it drains out the bottom), but not too often, say once a week, depending on the heat and where they’re located. In the heat of the summer, it might be more and winter less, but under-watering is always better. They can also do with a little fertilizer feeding when they are growing but no-need in the winter more-dormant months.
9. Winter in the PNW
Speaking of which; here in Western Washington and the Pacific Northwest, we cannot leave our cacti outside once the temperatures start going below freezing. For us, we’ll start moving inside in later October, early November since the greenhouse keeps them warm(er) even in the late autumn sun. Again, any sunny windowsill will work, or if you’re ambitious and have the room – get some inexpensive quality grow lights and start your own full-scale cactus operation – or just enjoy them in the chilly winter months.
10. Admire and Enjoy!
Lastly, the best thing about adopting succulents or cacti is that they need extraordinarily little attention and the less you give, the happier they are, as long as you remember to talk to them and repot every year with new fresh soil and a bigger pot. The enjoyment of seeing the cacti grow bigger with new shoots and turning them into offshoots of the mother plants into new parents of themselves is incredibly satisfying!
We love to learn from others so please feel free to share your own tips and tricks!