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Inside information: how to choose your succulents

How to choose succulents, which have become a houseplant trend, including the best varieties and ways to display them, spotting problems and how to keep them alive and healthy .
Greener succulents tend to thrive indoors, while orange and purple ones prefer an outdoor setting. iStockphoto.com
Greener succulents tend to thrive indoors, while orange and purple ones prefer an outdoor setting. iStockphoto.com

Compact, strikingly symmetrical and currently dominating Pinterest, succulents are the latest green home interiors ­micro-trend to capture our hearts. From the ruffled topsy turvy to the trailing string of pearls and the alien-esque jelly beans, these strangely attractive desert plants are as tough as they are beautiful. But they aren’t indestructible. While it’s true that succulents can be neglected for longer than your average houseplant – making them ideal for people who travel a lot – it’s still all too easy to kill them if you don’t follow a few basic rules.

Choosing the best type

The first thing to consider if you’re buying plants for within the home is whether they’ll actually be happy indoors. Some succulents prefer to remain in the garden, while others – such as Haworthias and Gasteraloes – are perfectly happy inside, so long as there’s plenty of light. A general rule of thumb is that the greener varieties are most likely to thrive indoors, while orange and purple ones tend to prefer an outdoor setting.

The rest is mostly to do with personal taste, but do check the label before you buy to see if there are any specific requirements with regards to preferred conditions, such as whether it prefers full direct sunlight or not. Talk to the experts at the garden centre, too, who may be able to give you a heads-up on what will suit you – the burro’s tail (Sedum morganianum), for example, has very sensitive leaves that fall off easily, so it wouldn’t be ideal for a high-traffic area where it might get knocked.

Size is another important issue to think about. Miniature arrangements are very pretty (and popular), but if you include the pencil cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli), which can grow up to almost two metres high, in your collection, you’ll soon find it towering above everything else, while varieties of Sempervivum, which literally means “live ­forever”, grow and spread quickly and can end up taking over.

Creating your display

Many of the beautifully shot images you’ll have seen of succulents on Pinterest show them planted in unusual vessels such as teacups and old casserole dishes, or grouped in fashionable metal and glass terrariums. These look great, but often ignore one important factor – drainage.

Succulents, being desert plants, prefer dry conditions, which means their leaves and soil must be aerated. That means not encouraging a build-up of humidity in the air or water in the soil. Ideally, choose an open pot with a drainage hole at the bottom, but if you really want to use something a bit more funky, be sure to put a layer of ­medium-sized grit or gravel at the base to allow the soil to drain just a bit – and be extra careful not to over water.

Talking of soil, it’s no use choosing a standard indoor plant compost – as we’ve already mentioned, succulents are desert plants and are therefore used to gritty, sandy soil. If you have compost you want to use up, at the very least be sure to mix in some drier elements, such as sand or fine gravel (one part of each works well, although there are lots of different recipes available if you have a quick search online). A much simpler option is to buy a dedicated cactus-and-succulent potting mix at your local garden centre.

A final word about your display – don’t assume it will stay looking like it does now forever. They may not grow as quickly as some other houseplants, but your succulents will need to be repotted eventually. Do this when they begin to look crowded, and remember to leave them a few days after moving them before you water, to give the roots time to heal.

Get the conditions right

You might assume succulents like it blazing hot all the time, but remember that desert temperatures can get very cold, too. In general, they prefer it warm in summer and cool in winter, so long as there’s plenty of light. Without it, they can etiolate (in other words stretch, with leggy stalks and few leaves), something that Echeverias in particular are prone to. This doesn’t, however, mean they want to be in a window that gets direct midday sun – this could burn the leaves, making them turn brown or white.

When it comes to watering, succulents are great for forgetful types who can’t stick to a daily schedule. Letting them dry out completely between watering is ideal. After all, this is what would happen in a desert. They’ll need a little more water during the summer growing season and less during the dormant winter phase, but in general, wait for the soil to be completely dry to the touch before topping up.

Spot and combat problems

If the soil is too wet, you will probably notice the leaves going soft and discoloured, and you may even get problems with fungal rot, bugs or diseases. If it’s too dry, your plant may stop growing, shed leaves or go brown. Some shedding is quite natural – nothing lives forever. If it’s the bottom leaves (closest to the soil) that are dying back, then there’s no need to worry, so long as those at the top are still healthy.

Other problems to look out for are bugs (or eggs in the soil), fungal rot and mould. If your plant becomes infected, it’s important to quarantine it so that the problem doesn’t spread, then treat appropriately, for example by spraying or wiping the leaves, or renewing the soil. Your local garden centre should have advice about specific issues.

If this is all starting to sound a little too scary, don’t panic. Succulents may not be entirely indestructible, but they are hardier than many houseplants, and they’ll always show you when they aren’t happy. Keep an eye on your plants and get to know them, and you’ll soon be able to tell when something’s not right.

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Published: June 11, 2015 04:00 AM

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