I am quite new at growing succulents. It's only been two (2) years, and while I am beginning to feel confident about growing my little fat plants, I am still learning a lot. I don't even know their proper names yet. But I have been asked by friends how I take care of my succulents and cacti so I'm listing down every useful tip I've learned from experts and hobbyists I've watched and read about online, and from my own experience.
How I take care of my succulents & cacti
Select a healthy plant
It is easier to be successful in growing them if you start with a healthy plant. When getting plants from your local garden centre, swap meets or friends, pick a plant that has a nice shape and color. Ensure the plant is not mushy and that there are not too much dead leaves or foliage collecting at the bottom.
You obviously don't want plants infested with bugs either (they will also infect your other plants at home) so check the underside of the leaves.
Pots with holes
Although these plants can thrive in terrariums without any proper drainage holes for months, succulents and cacti prefer a proper drainage system. Try to mimic Mother Nature where the soil on the ground, sand, or the side of the rock (where the plants grow) allow for water to flow freely. Planting them in containers with holes will prevent excess water from collecting at the bottom. Otherwise, the soil will keep too much moisture causing the root to rot and for the plants to eventually wither and die.
As you can see, I have had my plants in recycled glass containers, too. Two (2) of my echeverias unfortunately died in my first year, while the rest were okay. I have re-potted all of my plants in containers with proper drainage ever since.
Usually when you get your succulents, they have most likely outgrown their pots from the nursery. Remember to re-pot only from dry soil to dry soil. This will prevent the disturbed or slightly-damaged root system to rot.
Importantly, if you can get a pre-mixed cactus soil (which is great for palms, cacti, succulents and citrus plants), get a bag. These plants prefer a light and airy, fast-draining soil. You can also create your own mix as well with: soil, coconut fiber (or coir), perlite, small horticultural grit, and compost.
These are dessert plants so they don't grow well in dense soil. Regular potting soil types are usually too heavy, compact, sometimes shrink up from the sides (like peat moss). Consequently, the water will only bead at the top and it's difficult to get the water in the root ball and for the plant to grow its root system. These types of dense, compact soil are very much like the kind we have back home in the Philippines; on the plus side, we have coconut fiber all year round.
Rule of Thumb: It's better to underwater than to overwater so I only water once every 1-2 weeks. In fact, I went home to the Philippines and stayed in Singapore for about three (3) weeks before getting home, and they were all fine. Watering will also depend on how humid the weather is. Remember, overwatering is one of the fastest way to kill the plants. When in doubt, wait a little bit until you are absolutely sure.
You can actually look at the plants themselves to see if they're ready to be watered. If they look thinner and droopier than normal, they are underwatered. But if it's yellowing, a bit transparent and mushy, it's most likely overwatered. I also check the soil if it's dry by sticking a toothpick or a finger in. This is also where a moisture meter would come handy especially when the weather is changing. However, it might be a big spend for a beginner like me so I'll just stick to checking my plants and soil "manually".
When following your watering schedule, ensure the root ball of the plant is thoroughly moistened (not necessarily drenched). You also don't want any extra water so drain your saucers as succulents and cacti do not like soggy, wet feet.
4-6 hours of morning light is what most of these plants prefer. It is best to check what type of plant you are growing as some of them prefer direct sunlight outdoors (but not too much in the summer when they can also get sunburned) or ambient light by a patio or indoors by a window; and the length of exposure can also vary.
If the aesthetic look of the plant is important to you, it's also a good idea to turn them every now and then so they hold upright and not lean towards the direction of the sun and look a bit wonky.
Grooming & bugs
You can always use a top dressing like sand, decorative aquarium gravel (like the ones below), repurposed glass, crystals, or pebbles. I actually like to see the soil, but I use a top dressing for succulents if I intend to keep them on my table or when I give them as gifts to friends.
Let's talk about the nasty little critters. Bugs like to cling on to plants that have decaying foliage, so make sure to groom your plants by removing dead leaves. They would look so much better, too. Leaves dying at the bottom is normal as the plants grow more at the top.
Regularly check the underside of your pot as well as sometimes bugs or mold will hide under there. Some of the most common bugs that feed on succulents are mealy bugs (which look like they're covered in cotton). To get rid of them, just use a cotton bud or a tissue dipped in rubbing alcohol (or neem oil) to wipe the nasty bugs off. Do not use insecticides. Your succulents will not thank you for it.
If you can get fertilizers or plant food, get them. It's like us taking vitamins to supplement where the food nutrients we get may be lacking.
Most plant food for cacti is simply incorporated in the watering can. This does not require extra watering schedules.
It may seem like a lot to consider when growing succulents and cacti. However, when you know the basic rules, it is easier to enjoy your plants, because you're doing the right thing for them and they will return the favor.
To reiterate, I have had a few unsuccessful attempts. Until today as I write this, I find echeverias and kalanchoe still a bit tricky to grow indoors. And that's okay. You just have to keep trying.
My question to you is: Who's your favorite green thumb?
I have two:
My mother, of course. She is an inspiration as a gardener, because she doesn't spend a lot when growing her plants; she recycles her materials, she doesn't even buy gardening tools, and she makes her own compost. Even before swap meets became a thing, she used to talk to her fellow green thumbs in our community and exchange plants and cuttings with them (she still does). She never missed a day in her life to take care of them. I didn't understand why she lights up when she talks about her plants back then, but now I certainly do. #oldlady :)
Laura of Garden Answer. Most of the things I know about growing succulents I have learned from watching so many YouTubers and reading blogs. But I love her the most. Go check her out and thank me later.