Succulent plants offer something very special to the garden. The fleshy, evergreen leaves are often glaucous and as a group they add another completely different texture to a garden scene.
Discover how to grow succulent alpines in a pot.
Under the banner of ‘succulent’ plants are many different genera. Popular succulents include sedums, sempervivums, agaves and aeoniums. All are grown for their foliage rather than their flowers. Succulents are ideal for the container garden. Plants can be hardy or tender, but all enjoy a sunny spot and can cope with drought.
Succulents will thrive in a sunny spot in very well-drained soil. Their fleshy leaves are designed to store water, so they’re able to cope with periods of drought. Most prefer a very slightly acidic soil.
Succulents will struggle to grow in poorly drained, heavy soils. A cold and wet winter will often see the loss of many. It’s for this reason that they’re ideally suited to containers. When grown in pots, in autumn plants can simply be moved to a light, frost-free place until spring where watering can be controlled.
Agaves are stunning, but the larger types like Agave americana are best planted away from paths as the spiked leaves are very dangerous – especially to children, as they’re often then at eye level. When growing succulents as houseplants they’re content on a south or south-east facing windowsill.
Before planting into garden soil, improve the drainage by adding in horticultural grit. Avoid planting too deeply as fleshy leaves will rot if in contact with a wet soil.
When planting in containers go for unglazed terracotta pots with plenty of drainage holes in the bottom and add grit to the compost. Terracotta pots will warm up quickly in the sun, which suits these plants. The majority of succulents have fibrous roots so can be planted in fairly shallow pots. Don’t overpot plants – they can cope in quite small containers. However, top heavy plant displays are in danger of blowing over so choose a heavy container in this case.
Opt for a soil-based compost when planting large agaves as these plants need a heavier compost to anchor their roots. Wear gloves when handling spiked agaves as the leaves are incredibly sharp. Watch your eyes.
Many of the smaller, rosette- forming succulents such as alpine sedums and sempervivums readily produce small baby plants (offsets). These can simply be snipped off the plant and potted on. Discover how to take cutttings from cacti and succulents.
Vine weevils are a common problem when growing succulents in containers. It’s thought that by growing in a soil-based compost, rather than peat, the problem may be reduced. Adult vine weevils are grey/black beetles and can be seen feasting on the foliage in spring and summer. They remove notches out of leaves. It’s the grubs that work underground in autumn that cause the most damage, however. They’ll eat the roots and in some cases this will result in the death of the plant.
Repot in autumn and remove as much soil as you can. If you spot the grubs, either throw out very badly infested plants or quarantine them. Use a biological control in autumn, such as an application of nemotodes. Treat again in spring if necessary.
In summer, water succulents in containers no more than once a week. A good watering less often is more beneficial than a little-and-often technique. In autumn and winter, reduce the watering dramatically and place container grown, tender plants in a light and frost-free place. If this isn’t possible, move them under the shelter of the eaves of the house and cover with a protective garden fleece.
Repot potted specimens once a year in spring. You won’t necessarily need to pot them into a larger container but fresh compost will be appreciated. Succulents are not greedy plants but a light scattering of fish, blood and bone when potting on is often beneficial when growing large specimens.
Succulents don’t require pruning. If foliage is damaged or dead, carefully peel it from the plant or cut off with secateurs.
Aloe vera’s healing properties
Aloe vera is highly prized for its healing powers. Inside the leaves is a gel that’s used to sooth sunburn. Many medicinal products are made from this succulent house plant. Often grown on the kitchen windowsill so that it’s on hand to treat minor burns.
Succulent varieties to try
Agave americana ‘Mediopicta’ – a stemless, tender perennial. A large rosette of sharply pointed variegated leaves. Plants flower after about 30 years and then die. Mature height 1m
Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’ (pictured) – maroon rosettes of evergreen foliage. Tender perennial with a shrubby habit. Yellow flowers in spring. Reaches a height of 1m after many years
Echeveria secunda var. glauca ‘Compton Carousel’ – red and yellow flowers in summer over rosettes of two-toned foliage. Height 15cm
Hylotelephium ‘Purple Emperor’ – hardy perennial able to cope in a sunny, well-drained border all year round. Dark maroon foliage and pink clusters of summer flowers. Cut back stems the ground in autumn. Height 40cm
Aloe vera – tender perennial grown as a houseplant. A stemless plant with green leaves. Reaches 60cm