Garden Variety: Succulents reliable plants for gardeners at all skill levels

Succulent plants are hot in the gardening world right now and are a good option to grow indoors for people with all levels of gardening experience. They are easy to care for with a little guidance and come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors and textures.

Succulents are a group of plants with thick, fleshy stems. Within the group, there is great variability. Different species of succulents might have thick, teardrop-shaped stems; spiky stems that resemble the top of a pineapple; thin, elongated stems with tiny leaves; or other variations. Cactuses are succulents, but they are a segment of the larger group.

Succulents have gained popularity over the last few years because of improved production techniques in the industry, increased availability and social media. They are adorably photogenic.

The most popular succulents are small and sold individually in pots up to 6 inches in diameter. Sometimes succulents are grouped in larger pots to make succulent gardens. Their small size makes it easy for all kinds of retailers to find sales space for them, but local garden centers or retailers who work with local growers are the best bet to get fresh, well-cared-for plants.

The two keys to growing succulents are light and water. Too much or too little of either can lead to other problems.

Keep succulents in a location where they receive at least half a day of bright light. There is some variation with species, so if your home or office lacks bright windows, look for succulents that are labeled as being able to tolerate lower light levels or ask a garden center expert. There are many cute pictures of succulents in wall displays, on shelves and in other low-light conditions. They may survive briefly in this type of setting but need to be in a window regularly to sustain growth and plant health.

For water, the amount the plant needs depends on species, potting media (sometimes referred to as soil), type of container, and specific conditions in your home or other indoor setting. Always check soil moisture below the surface before watering, as the top may appear dry when there is still adequate moisture. Underwatering is better than overwatering.

The best method for watering succulents and other indoor plants is to apply water to the potting mix until it flows out the bottom of the pot. Put the plant in a sink or bathtub to avoid messes, or use saucers. Allow the plant to drain before returning it to its spot, or, if using saucers, dump the excess water from the saucer. This ensures even moisture levels throughout the potting mix and encourages root growth.

Water needs may change with changes in day length, temperature, humidity and the size of the plant relative to the pot.

Fertilizer is often unnecessary as long as plants are occasionally repotted, since most potting mixes contain fertilizer. If fertilization is desired, use it only when plants are actively growing in the spring and summer and follow label directions for rates.

Insect pests are rare on succulents. The most common one is an insect called scale that looks like a small shell or blob attached to the leaf or stem. They are often in groups and can be flaked off with a fingernail, but they need greater control measures if found. Identification of the species of scale is important to determine the best method for control.

— Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.


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