Success with Succulents

By Paul James

Twenty years ago, I spotted a sign on a variety of sedum called ‘Autumn Joy’ that claimed the plant would “thrive on neglect.” Convinced the phrase was nothing more than marketing blather, I took one home, stuck it in a one-gallon terra cotta pot, and vowed never to water it, fertilize it, or intervene in its life in any way. I figured it might last a year, maybe two. I was wrong.

Because today, that same sedum is still going strong, and if that isn’t testament to the toughness of the plant, I don’t know what is. After all, it’s been through every temperature extreme imaginable, including single-digit cold and triple-digit heat. It’s been covered in ice and snow again and again. It’s been rain soaked and sitting in soggy soil for days on end.

Guests have poured their drinks on it. Dogs have hiked their legs on it. And I’m pretty sure that one night, after partying a bit too hard, I also might have…well, never mind.

The point is succulents -- and sedum (also called stonecrop) is a type of succulent -- actually do thrive on neglect, and that includes all succulents, both indoor and outdoor varieties, as well as cacti. Of course, I’d never suggest you put them to the test the way I did, but I would suggest you not intervene too much in their lives, and follow these simple suggestions for succulent success.

DON’T OVERWATER. From late spring to late summer, water indoor succulents no more than once a week. From fall through early spring, water maybe once every three or four weeks. Except during extreme periods of drought, outdoor varieties rarely need to be watered. In fact, overwatering is the fastest way to kill them.

THINK TWICE BEFORE FERTILIZING. Truth is, succulents will be perfectly happy without any fertilizer, and if you feed them too much or too often, they’ll croak. At the most, fertilize once a month during spring and summer, and not at all during fall and winter.

GIVE THEM PLENTY OF LIGHT. Although most succulents are native to desert regions of the world, they actually do best outdoors in this area when protected from late afternoon sun. Too much light – combined with hot temps -- can lead to sunscald. Indoors, they need at least a half day of bright, indirect light.

REPOT ROUTINELY. Succulents respond well to annual repotting with a mix specifically blended for them. Espoma makes one that’s ideal. Best time to repot is spring.

Enjoy your succulents. Just remember not to kill them with kindness.