How to grow succulents

Find out everything you need to know about how to grow succulents – outdoors and in – with our simple guide

How to grow succulents
(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Learning how to grow succulents is a useful skill for any gardener, particularly if you love modern garden design. They make a great addition to coastal gardens and add an exotic feel to contemporary schemes. While most succulents are draught-resistant, making them perfect for warmer climes, they do require extra protection come winter and can succumb to rot if overwatered. 

Treated right, though, succulents are a beautiful feature of a modern garden, and if you’re lucky enough to see one flower, you’re in for a treat. Read on to find out how to grow them.

How to grow succulents outdoors

Generally, succulents are grown in similar ways indoors and outdoors, so most of this guide applies to both – we’ll let you know when a piece of advice is more specific to one or the other.

First, you’ll need to decide on your plants to create the look you’re after. The colour of succulents ranges from a muted green through to dark purples and reds, and while they look great together, you might want a unified scheme. It’s also important to consider height and texture: do you want a flat, low-lying display, or one with tall and short plants? Are you looking for smooth, rounded glossy plants, or spiky or furry ones?

Once you’ve decided on your plants – see below for more information on how to choose them – it’s time to get growing. Planting or repotting is best done in late spring, when the temperature is rising and the plants are beginning their period of active growth.

Here’s how to grow succulents:

1. Find your spot. Most succulents like plenty of bright light, so plant them in a sunny spot in your garden for the best results. Tropical succulents like the Christmas cactus, however, come from rainforest environments, so they prefer semi-shade. You can plant succulents directly into the ground, but consider planting them in containers instead: that way, you have more control over the soil (see below) and can move them indoors in the colder months.

2. Choose the right soil. Crucially, succulents need good drainage to prevent them from being waterlogged – if they’re overwatered, they will rot. Choose a compost mix with a gritty texture – there are ready-made mixtures available, or make your own by mixing 70 per cent compost with 30 per cent grit or fine gravel.

3. Plant your succulents. If you’re planting into a pot, make sure the pot isn’t too big to avoid too much wet soil. Plant the succulent into the soil, in groups if you like, then top with grit, gravel or small stones.

4. In the summer, water your succulents based on how the soil feels. The surface of the compost should feel dry to the touch – insert a finger a few inches down to check how damp it is underneath. When you water, make sure the excess drains away completely rather than leaving the succulent standing in the water – that’s a surefire way to root rot.

5. In the colder months – from November to March – bring your succulents inside if they’re planted in a container. If they’re not, use a cover to protect them from heavy rainfall – bubblewrap or plastic will work, but make sure there are gaps for air circulation. Most succulents will need watering sparingly during this period, if at all – use your best judgement but as a guide, make sure you’re watering no more than once a month.

6. Succulents can benefit from plant food in the warmer months to encourage growth. Using a specialised cactus and succulent feed, feed once a month in place of watering – most food will require mixing with water.

7. Succulents don’t generally need pruning, though some varieties can be cut back to just above a leaf node – a tiny growth or marking on a stem – to encourage new growth.

Which succulents should I try growing?

Almost all types of succulents can be grown indoors, or outdoors in containers in the summer. For succulents you want to plant in the garden, you’ll need to choose a hardy or semi-hardy variety. Try Sempervivum or Sedum. Other types, like aeoniums and echeverias, might also survive the colder months, but they’ll fare better in containers than they will in the ground.

How to propagate succulents

Propagating a succulent is a fine art, but when it works, it feels like a huge achievement. Stem and leaf cuttings, taken using a sterilised knife, need to be left out for the cut ends to dry before they can be planted. Wait for a callus to form, then plant the cutting into the soil, using the mix of compost and grit above. Do not overwater: keep the soil only slightly moist to prevent rot.

Some succulents, like clump- and rosette-forming species, make little plants of their own, which can be detached and replanted easily once they’ve grown to a decent size.

How to grow succulents indoors

Growing succulents indoors is generally an easier task than out. Most of the above advice applies to both indoor and outdoor succulents, with a few extra points:

- Indoor succulents should be placed in a bright, sunny spot, like a windowsill.

- Move away from radiators in the winter, but keep the succulents fairly warm – a temperature of 8-10 degrees is best.

- Like outdoor succulents, those grown indoors don’t appreciate overwatering, especially during the winter – water very sparingly in the colder months.

- Succulents can be repotted when they’ve outgrown their current pot. Do it in spring, and make sure the new pot isn’t too big to avoid root rot.