Trott column: Under the spell of succulents

Succulents store water to ensure survival during dry times.

Containers of a variety of succulent plants.
A variety of succulent plants.

Houseplant enthusiasts are always looking for unusual and exotic plants to add to their collections. Beginners and experts alike can find many interesting choices among the succulents. Succulents fall into a loose category of plants, including cacti, which have developed thick fleshy leaves or stems. These serve as water storage organs to ensure survival under dry conditions.

Succulents are found worldwide. Besides cacti, they include many familiar plants, including: jade plant (Crassula arborescens), snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata), medicine plant (Aloe barbadensis), century plant (Agave americana), flowering Kalanchoes (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana), sedums (Sedum sp.) and hens and chicks (Sempervivum sp.).


Succulents require only modest amounts of water and fertilizer, but do need lots of light.

  • Place succulents in a bright, sunny window.
  • Artificial lighting can make up for insufficient natural light.
  • A cool white fluorescent tube, or a combination of daylight and natural white fluorescent tubes will give good results.
  • Position them 6-12 inches above the plants, and keep them on for 14-16 hours each day.

Potting mix

In nature, succulents grow in well-drained sandy soil. Duplicate these conditions indoors.

  • Use a porous potting mix that does not retain too much moisture.
  • A good test is to moisten the mixture and squeeze it in your hand. On release, the soil should fall apart.
  • Both pot and growing medium should be sterile.
  • Grow these plants in pots with drainage holes because excess water trapped in the soil will result in rotting and decay in a very short time.


During the low-light winter months, water cacti and succulents only enough to prevent shrinking and withering.


  • When watering, do it thoroughly.
  • Water should flow through the drain holes. Discard excess water after a few minutes.
  • A series of repeated shallow sprinklings often results in distorted growth.
  • As the amount of light increases in the spring, so does the plant's need for water.
  • Always allow the soil to dry out completely between waterings.


Succulents have relatively low nutrient requirements.

  • Cacti need fertilizer only once or twice a year during the late spring or summer when they are actively growing.
  • Use a houseplant food that is higher in phosphorus than nitrogen, diluted to half the recommended rate.
  • Fertilize other succulents in the same manner three or four times during the brighter months.

For more information about succulents, visit: .

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Until next time, see you in the garden!


“A cactus is just a really aggressive cucumber.” – Unknown

Robin Trott is a horticulture educator with University of Minnesota Extension. Contact her at 320-762-3890, or at

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