Succulents are some of the most versatile plants around. They get their name from their fleshy, succulent leaves, stems and roots that can store water in their tissue for long periods of time. Their native habitats are sunny, dry locations such as deserts, steppes, or in the nooks of craggy rocks, where many other plants could not survive. This natural drought tolerance is what make succulents excellent choices for similar situations in your landscape.
Outdoor succulents are great for filling in small nooks and tucking in rocky slopes. Because they can tolerate dry conditions, they’re perfect for sunny spaces that are difficult to reach with water. Individual potted plants make nice centerpieces on patio or end tables. An arrangement of pots terraced down the side of the stairs creates an interesting and welcoming entrance. Planters filled with succulents can also be placed in the landscape to add height and interest.
Whether you are planting succulents in the ground or in containers, you will need to provide them with four basic requirements to keep them at their best:
In general succulents need 6 or more hours of direct sunlight. Most can handle full sun all day long, however there are a handful that have more sensitive foliage. They can show symptoms of sunburn during long periods of high heat (over 90°F) and humidity. If you notice that your potted succulent plant is getting sunburned (spots developing or a bleached-out look to the foliage), move it where it will still receive 6 hours of direct light but shade for the rest of the day. Plants in the ground might have to be lifted and moved, or if it suits the layout of your landscape, you could install a decorative screen, lattice, tall plant, or a shrub to create shade from the afternoon sun.
If you are watering plants from overhead, using a hose or watering can, try to water early in the day so that the foliage has time to dry well before the cooler evening temperatures set in. Water sitting in the tight nooks found between the foliage of many succulent plants can create a perfect climate for rot to develop.
You may need to water containers more frequently during hot, sunny weather. Water less during rainy periods or during a long stretch of overcast skies. Feel the soil to check for moisture. If the top two inches of soil are dry, then it’s time to water.
If you are planting directly into the ground and your soil isn’t already a mix of organic and gritty materials, then you may need to amend it. Try to create a mix of half to two-thirds soil and the remainder some type of gritty material that will enhance good drainage. Things like fine grade pumice, crushed gravel, or pea gravel are good choices. Mix the soil to a depth of six to eight inches.
The easiest way to ensure that your outdoor potted succulents have the right kind of soil is to purchase a potting mix specifically formulated for cacti and succulents. If you want to mix your own, a 1:1 blend of potting soil and perlite will do the job. Crushed pumice or gravel can be used instead of perlite, but perlite is lightest in weight. In case you want to move your containers around, a light-weight soil will make it easier. Pure sand is not a good potting medium. It doesn’t provide any nutrition to the plant, it’s heavy, and sand can become so compacted over time that it blocks water drainage.
Many succulent plants won’t survive the winter in areas where the temperatures reach freezing or below. In those areas you can grow tender succulent plants as annuals in the garden or in containers. Succulents grown in containers can be brought indoors for the winter and returned outside the following spring.
Succulents hardy to -10°F
Succulents hardy to 40°F
Choosing the Right Container
When it comes to containers, all the same rules apply to growing potted succulents outdoors, as they do for growing them as houseplants. Whatever container you choose needs to have good drainage. If there are no holes in the base of the container then you will need to drill a drainage hole in the base (multiple holes if the container is large). Unglazed terracotta planters are especially good for succulents because of the porous nature of fired clay. Moisture can permeate the pot and evaporate away; reducing the risk of overwatering your succulent.
Looking for other plants that would make good companions to your succulents? Click here for a list of drought-tolerant plants.