In The Dirt: Succulents are an Easy Choice

Sedum and Succulents (All photos courtesy of Greenstreet Gardens)

By Ray Greenstreet

ALEXANDRIA,VA- It may come as no surprise that interest in succulents has tripled in the past five years. This popularity is driven by the perceived tolerance of these plants to abuse and neglect, which makes them an easy choice for those who are buying their first houseplant or are afraid of killing other “more difficult” plants.

Succulents can be easy, if they have the right environment and care: lots of light, good soil drainage, and infrequent watering. In this respect, almost all plants are easy if they have the right conditions met. Succulents just get by on less water than most and often will survive if occasionally neglected for weeks at a time.

A succulent assortment (All photos courtesy of Greenstreet Gardens)

The first step to being successful with any succulent is to choose one that’s right for you. Most succulents need fairly bright light from a sunny window. If you can’t provide that, there are still succulents that will work, but you may need to do some background research or seek knowledgeable advice for those that will work in your space.

A shortlist of succulents to consider for low light environments includes Bird’s Nest Snake Plant, ZZ plants, dog-tail cactus, Rhipsalis, and Christmas cactus. These low-light tolerant succulents often originate from dry, shady environments, like tree branches in tropical forests. Just as desert succulents need to save up every drop of water, so do epiphytic succulents living on tree branches far from the wet soil.

Cactus (All photos courtesy of Greenstreet Gardens)

What are succulents?

It’s a common misconception that succulents are a related group or plant family. This is not the case; succulent is a descriptive category based on physical appearance rather than ancestry, and succulents fall into 60 different plant families.

The plump plants with fleshy, water-storing leaves or stems usually known as succulents share many physical traits adapted to save water in dry environments. Thick, juicy leaves, like those of aloe vera, are common, but many other succulents have cactus-like stems. And cacti are succulents, although we tend to speak of “cacti and succulents” as if they are two different things.

There are, however, many succulents that are only distantly related to cacti and evolved their water-storing traits independently.

Succulent (All photos courtesy of Greenstreet Gardens)

Kindness that kills?

All succulents, even forest-dwelling succulents, grow best and show their best color in relatively bright light. Likewise, all succulents need occasional thorough watering to replenish their water reserves. Watering, however, should be spaced with dry periods (soak and dry) to avoid the risks of rot and infection. Beyond that, everything is up to you! Most succulents play well together and can be planted in endless combinations of textures and colors in garden-like arrangements, or grown separately to show off their unique geometries.

There isn’t room here to list all the popular types, but there are many amazing options to choose from. Just don’t kill them with kindness. If you sit back and provide the right amount of neglect, they will reward you for it.

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