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A Comprehensive Guide to Maintaining Succulent Gardens

Succulents, with their unique shapes and colours, have captivated the hearts of gardeners worldwide. These plants come from many unrelated families, but they often share characteristics such as hardiness and low maintenance requirements.

This article will guide you through their preferences, choosing the right ones for your garden, and how to maintain succulent gardens. Remember that every species, and even individual plants and varieties within each species, can behave differently than you might expect.

We’ll be making some sweeping generalisations, so it’s always best to know the individual plants you’re looking to install into your landscape.

Succulents Will Even Grow On Rocks
Succulents are survival experts. They’ll even grow on solid rocks, as long as they can get a grip with their roots.

The Allure of Succulent Gardens

The charm of succulent gardens lies in their distinct aesthetic. Succulents offer a wide array of shapes and sizes, from the rosette-forming echeveria to towering cacti. Succulent plants are incredibly diverse, boasting an array of species each with its unique characteristics. But what truly sets them apart is their resilience.

Adapted to survive in harsh environments, these plants generally require minimal care, making them perfect for busy gardeners or those new to the world of horticulture.

Understanding Succulents

Succulents are masters of survival. Their name comes from the Latin word ‘sucus’, meaning juice or sap, a nod to their water-storing capabilities. This unique adaptation allows them to thrive in arid environments where water is scarce.

Originating from various parts of the globe, ranging from the deserts of Africa to the mountains of South America, to the salty coastal environments of Australia, succulents have evolved to withstand harsh conditions.

Take, for example, the aloe vera plant. Native to the Arabian Peninsula, this plant has adapted to survive extreme heat and prolonged drought. Its thick, fleshy leaves store water, while its waxy coating reduces evaporation, allowing it to thrive in arid climates.

Sea Urchins
If you’re looking for a winter-flowering plant that looks awesome and supports wildlife, consider aloes. Sea Urchin™ Aloe hybrid ‘ANDsea’ PBR.

Choosing the Right Succulents

Choosing the right succulents for your garden entails considering several factors. Climate compatibility is crucial – some plants like echeveria prefer temperate climates, while others such as agave thrive in hotter conditions.

Consider the space available in your garden; smaller succulents like sempervivum might be better suited to compact spaces, while larger species like agave will need more room. Your personal aesthetic preference also plays a role in your choice of succulents.

Setting Up Your Succulent Garden

The key to a thriving succulent garden is recreating their natural habitat. Begin with well-draining soil, which is crucial to prevent waterlogged roots and subsequent root rot. Cactus mix or a blend of regular potting soil with coarse sand or fine gravel works well. Dragonfruit and crassula are exceptions to the rule, and thrive in clayey soils with less drainage.

Sunlight needs vary among succulents. While haworthia prefers indirect light, sedum adolphii requires full sun to bring out its vibrant colours. Too little light and your succulents may “etiolate,” meaning that they’ll stretch out to seek light.

Too much light, and you risk burning the leaves (although, this is a less common risk for succulents unless you alter the sunlight availability too quickly without hardening your plants off). When potting, ensure your pots have drainage holes to allow excess water to escape. Overwatering is a common mistake when caring for succulents – remember, they’re usually used in dry conditions!

Caring for Your Succulent Garden

Maintaining a succulent garden can be a gratifying experience. These hardy plants require minimal care, making them ideal even for the busiest of gardeners. However, understanding their specific needs is crucial to ensure they thrive.

Common mistakes to avoid include overwatering and providing inadequate sunlight, both of which can lead to a host of problems such as root rot and etiolation.

Watering Succulents

Succulents have distinct watering needs compared to other plants. Their ability to store water in their leaves, stems, or roots enables them to survive long periods without water. However, this doesn’t mean they don’t need water at all. The key lies in the frequency and quantity of watering.

Succulents usually prefer infrequent but thorough watering. Allow the soil to dry out completely before the next watering to mimic the dry conditions of its natural habitat.

Fertilising Succulents

While succulents aren’t heavy feeders, they do benefit from occasional fertilising. A fertiliser designed for cacti and succulents, typically with a higher ratio of phosphorus to nitrogen, is ideal.

But compost and manure also work great; just avoid over-feeding. It’s best to fertilise during the growing season, usually in spring and summer outdoors, while refraining in winter when most succulents go dormant in cooler climates.

Pruning and Propagating Succulents

Pruning succulents helps maintain or direct their shape and size. Use clean, sharp scissors or pruning shears to remove overgrown or dead leaves and stems. Pruning stems to a branching fork encourages plants to keep the same shape, while tip pruning or pruning to a non-specific point along a branch can encourage a bushier growth.

Just be careful to remove every leaf if you want to prevent unwanted plants sprouting up. Propagating succulents is a cost-effective way to expand your collection. Let’s take echeveria as an example.

To propagate, simply remove a healthy leaf, let it dry for a few days until a callus forms on the cut end, then place it on well-draining soil. With adequate warmth and light, you’ll soon notice new roots and leaves forming. Stems are also easily propagated if you allow fresh cuts to scab over for about a week before planting.

Dealing with Pests

Despite their hardiness, succulents can sometimes fall prey to pests. Mealybugs and aphids are common culprits, often leaving a sticky residue on the plants and causing distorted growth. Regular inspection of your plants can help catch an infestation early.

Pests can often be controlled with insecticidal soap or neem oil. In severe cases, you might need to resort to systemic insecticides. Root rot is the most common type of disease, and is usually caused by periods with wet feet.

Aussie Rambler
With the right approach, your succulents can look as amazing as this native Australian pigface. Aussie Rambler™ Carpobrotus glaucescens ‘CAR10’ PBR.

Daniel’s Wrap

Maintaining a succulent garden may seem daunting at first, but with the right knowledge, it’s a task any gardener can master. Remember, the key to thriving succulents lies in understanding their specific needs – well-draining soil, the right amount of sunlight, and careful watering.

Avoid common mistakes like overwatering and remember that each succulent species may have slightly different care requirements. By now, you should be equipped with the necessary knowledge to maintain a succulent garden successfully.

So why wait? Start your journey today and experience the joy of creating and caring for your very own succulent garden. Whether you’re an experienced home gardener or a professional landscape expert, the world of succulents offers endless possibilities and rewards.

Daniel is a writer and content creator for Ozbreed, one of Australia's leading native and exotic plant breeders.

Daniel has worked in various capacities within the horticulture industry. His roles have ranged from team leader at several companies, to creator of the Plants Grow Here podcast and Hort People job board, as well as his position on the National Council for the Australian Institute of Horticulture (AIH).

He's passionate about explaining how to care for different types of plants to ensure home gardeners and professional horticulturists alike can get the most out of the plant babies.

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