Words: Janelle Agee
Images: Becca Simonds
I have a black thumb. Somehow it is impossible for me to keep any type of houseplant alive. From housewarming gifts and orchids, to hearty succulents and bamboo, yes, I ashamedly have killed my fair share of them all. My one exception is wheatgrass, which only needs to stay alive for two weeks before I juice it. In fact, I was talking to a friend recently who asked if I could keep any living thing alive. To that I say: I will with Leo Chance’s help! So here’s to me turning over a new leaf, and finally finding success with a succulent garden.
Leo Chance is the author of Cacti and Succulents for Cold Climates and has been dubbed the “Succulent and Cactus Master” by fellow gardening experts. He was gracious enough to walk me through the steps for setting up a successful succulent garden. Follow these seven steps to create a masterpiece of your own.
Decorative pot of your choosing
Assortment of Succulent and cactus plants
Lava rock (or other decorative rock)
Step 1. The pot selection...
This seems like no big deal, right? Wrong. In our excitement, COCO photographer Becca Simonds and I went thrift store prowling in search of the perfect pot. We finally found the one: nice and shallow, cool iridescent glass and awesome peg-legs. Sadly, when we showed Leo our prize he laughed and educated us on how shallow is not better, and pots without holes take more skill to thrive. Our rookie move allowed us to make an even more comprehensive guide; Leo gave us instructions for pots with and without holes.
A succulent garden can thrive in any type of pot, but according to Leo, the instructions are very different for pots with holes and solid pots. Either way, look for a pot that is relatively deep and wide enough to accommodate your desired garden size. Solid pots will need to be deep enough to plant the succulents while still in the plastic trays they are purchased in.
Between the shoot here and setting up my succulent garden after the shoot, I realized looks are deceiving and it sometimes takes quite a few more plants than expected to fill a space. It’s easy to want a huge, glorious garden, but sometimes starting small can be beneficial – and your wallet may thank you, too!
Step 2. Select plants.
When selecting plants, try to start with one tall plant as a focal point. Choose different shapes, textures, colors and sizes to complement each other. If you can, source the plants from a gardening center that specializes in succulents and cacti. Typically the species sold at large-scale grocers or hardware centers are whatever grows fastest, not necessarily the ones that are of the highest quality. Pick plants without dark spots or scars on the leaves. Try to stay away from tiny plants if you are using a solid pot; you’ll want ones that clear the top of the tray.
Step 3. Remove plants from current tray.
If you go the route of a solid pot, you can skip this step. Otherwise, take the plants out to look at the roots. If they are entirely encased in dirt you can leave them be, but some are strictly root systems filled with lava rock or fillers. With those, the rock can be gently removed to get a good idea of how large the root system is.
Tip – if you are removing a cactus: fold and twist an old newspaper, wrap it around the base of the spines and gently pull to remove the cactus from its tray. You can also use the newspaper to readjust while planting.
Step 4. Prepare the pot.
This step is the most different based on your selected pot.
Pot with holes
Start by placing small rocks over the holes at the bottom. This allows water through but not soil. Check the depth of your plants and add soil enough to have the base of the plant about even with the top of the pot. Develop a general idea of where you want your plants, keeping in mind the base level will be different depending on the root systems.
Without drainage, things start to get tricky. There are many instructions saying you can simply fill the bottom of the pot with rocks to allow for drainage, but this can cause salt/mineral buildup, mold, disease and other plant-killing problems. Leo recommends keeping the plants in their original trays. Set up a bottom layer of lava rock or gravel based on the height of the trays. You’ll want the top of the trays slightly lower than the top of the pot. As mentioned in Step 2, this also limits plant selection a bit since the whole pant should still be visible.
Step 5. Add Plants.
Pretty self-explanatory. Start by adding your focal point (the tallest one) toward the middle but somewhere off-center. Let your creative juices flow and add the remaining plants.
Step 6. Fill in the blank spaces.
This part isn’t rocket science. Soil for pots with holes, rocks for the solid.
Step 7. Top it.
This step could be considered optional for pots with holes, but it adds a nice aesthetic touch to the garden and reduces splashing while watering. With a solid pot, this is an absolute. Make sure there is enough to cover the tops of the plastic trays.
Tip – be careful when top-rocking a dense garden. While creating my garden, I clumsily knocked a few leaves off most of my plants. Fortunately, they can be replanted.
You now have your very-own 100% unique succulent garden. Now on to the real adventure: keeping it alive!
Wait a couple hours after planting before you water. This allows the roots time to settle in.
Water when the soil is mostly dry in the summer, but don’t overwater. About once a week should be good.
In the winter, wait until the soil is completely dry to water. This could end up being every other week or so.
Water the plants enough to drain through, wait 20 minutes, then water again – see Myth #2.
Succulents love sun! Keep them in a location with as much direct sunlight as possible. Leo’s rule of thumb is to keep them somewhere bright enough to cast shadows for at least four hours a day. A word of caution: glass can magnify the sun, so make sure the garden doesn’t get fried (i.e. sitting in a south-facing window).
Myth #1: Low, shallow pots are best for succulents. Leo said those are the best pots to sell succulents and cacti in, but they actually have deep root systems and need a deeper pot to thrive.
Myth #2: Don’t water after it rains. Soil is like a sponge. It expands and accepts more water once it is already wet. For both indoor and outdoor plants, Leo recommended watering once, waiting 20 minutes, and watering again. This allows the plants and soil to retain water better, meaning you can water less saving water, time and money.
Myth #3: More spines = dryer climate. There is an old wives’ tale giving the idea that if a cactus has more spines it must be from a dryer climate. There is no general rule of thumb or correlation to climate when it comes to spine density. Each cactus is unique.
Myth #4: All cacti come from deserts. This perhaps stems from the fact that cacti are only found in the Americas. Different species can be found throughout many climates and terrains, from Alberta Canada to Patagonia.
Tips & Tricks
- Succulents planted in a solid pot will need to be re-potted after about two years as the root systems outgrow the trays.
- The toothpick test isn’t just for baking! Same concept - If the toothpick comes out clean the soil is completely dry. Any moisture will stick to the toothpick. This comes in handy for knowing when to water.
- Each succulent leaf or stalk can be broken off to form a new plant! Break the piece off and let it sit for about a day to dry out and heal itself. Then, one end can be tucked into soil where it forms a new root system. Who knew!
- If you think a plant might be dying, pull it out of the pot and check the roots. If there’s rot or disease, trim back unhealthy root tissue, allow it to dry a bit and replant in new soil.
Leo was pretty awesome and gave me a few plants to take home. I followed his instructions and here is my final product. Fingers crossed to finding success with my newfound green(er) thumb!