A Shopper's Guide to Buying Succulents
Here’s why: Succulents come in a wide range of shapes, colors, and textures. They look amazing planted in a group, but they are interesting enough to handle a solo performance in a pot.
And although they flower occasionally, their foliage is the main event. Their compact, tactile, fleshy leaves look fresh, full, and healthy. Squeezable, in fact.
And, best of all, succulents are easy to grow indoors and out!
In this Shopping Guide, we’ll tell you the following:
- What’s the Difference Between Succulents and Cacti?
- Meet the Family: Types of Succulents
- How to Shop for Succulents
- Caring for Succulents Indoors: Light, Water, Feeding, Repotting
- Caring for Succulents in Pebble Mulch
- Choosing Succulents for Outdoors
What’s the Difference Between Succulents and Cacti?
You hear these two plant terms thrown together a lot. And they are combined a lot in planting situations too (think succulent and cacti bowls). But here’s the difference between the two. All cacti are succulents. But not all succulents are cacti. All succulents have thick fleshy parts that store water. But cacti are different from succulents in that they always have external spines and they never have leaves. If it’s prickly, it’s probably cacti. If it’s smooth, fleshy, or furry, it’s probably a succulent.
Meet the Family: Types of Succulents
Succulents get their name from the Latin word sucus, which means to juice or sap. Snap a succulent leaf in half and you’ll see where this term comes from. Their fleshy leaves have water-storing abilities, which is why they are so easy to care for—they need little water because they store it in their leaves. Talk about a plant that nearly takes care of itself! Costa Farms sells a wide variety of unusual and easy-to-grow succulents so that you’ll have the most success indoors and out. Succulents come in many shapes, textures, and colors. Here are the most popular types:
The agave family offers plants for indoors and out, with a wide range of large and small varieties. Outdoors they offer beautiful additions with strong deliberate shapes to landscapes in warm climates. They come in variegated forms, such as Variegated Smooth Agave (Agave desmettiana 'Variegata'), which is a show stopper. As indoor plants, they are sculptural and modern (and very low maintenance). When grown indoors, most agave won't flower, but their shape and color are beautiful enough on their own. For indoors, try Butterfly Agave (Agave potatorum) or Twin Flower Agave (Agave geminiflora).
Although Aloe vera is the most common type of aloe, there are plenty of other varieties available. Many have variegated foliage, which adds to their visual appeal. They can also produce tall stems of brightly colored flowers if they get enough light.
There are more than 1400 different species of crassula. The most famous member of this family is the jade plant. The name crassula comes from the Latin word meaning “thick.” Take one look at this plant’s leaves and you’ll see why it got its name. The fleshy leaves of crassula come in many shapes, which is one of the appealing things about this plant. It is available in a variety of colors too.
The rose-shape leaf formation of echeveria makes it a favorite in the succulent world. Available in light green and light blue hues, this fleshy succulent has enough textural chutzpah to be planted singly or combined with other succulents in a bowl.
If you like treelike forms of succulents, you’ll love members of the talented euphorbia family. Sometimes mistaken for cacti, these columnar plants are also called stem succulents. Most of the tall thin euphorbia hail from desert areas. Use them as the “thriller” in mixed containers. Euphorbias are a diverse family: garden spurge and poinsettia are both in the family.
Natives of South Africa, most gasteria have thick, tonguelike leaves. Like all succulents, they love well-drained soil. Their flowers are stomach shaped, which is how they got their name: The Latin word for stomach is “gaster.”
These South African natives are related to aloe and gasteria. They form cute little rosettes and can grow singly or in clumps. Small and slow growing, haworthia are often called zebra cactus because of their cool stripes.
This plant sports lots of looks. Kalanchoe thyrsiflora has flat, pancakey leaves, so it also goes by the name flapjack. Kalanchoe blossfeldiana has green succulent leaves and boldly colored flowers; it’s a favorite gift plant. Kalanchoe tomentosa is soft and fuzzy.
This succulent has a shrubby growth with small leaves growing along long stems. Some stems can grow 2 feet long, making them ideal for mixed succulent containers as the “spiller.” Portulacaria also comes in variegated forms.
This beautiful succulent has fingerlike leaves and comes in soft colors such as gray-green and powder-blue. The narrow foliage and shrubby growth habit makes senecio a good mixer with other succulents.
How to Shop for Succulents
Here are some general guidelines for shopping for succulents.
Look for Dry Soil
You don’t want to buy a succulent that has been overwatered. The soil should be dry to the touch.
Look for Full Leaves
The leaves of succulent plants should not be withered or dried out looking. This is a sign that the plant has been underwatered.
Bring a Box for Transport
Bring a box to set the succulents in when driving it home. The soil is very dry and will come out of the pot easily. A box keeps the plant upright and from overturning on the way home.
Caring for Succulents Indoors: Light, Feeding, Water, Repotting
Succulent houseplants are happiest in your home when sitting in a sunny spot. Look for window sills, sunny dining room tables, or south-facing room locations. As houseplants, succulents look gorgeous in just about any container with excellent drainage. Succulents can stand on their own as single specimens in a pot or grouped together in a textural container planting. Succulents are fairly addictive—once you have one, more are sure to follow. Here are their rules for care.
Grow in Bright Light
Succulents need a bright, sunny spot inside your home. A south window is best. But most succulents are somewhat forgiving and can thrive in artificial light, the type of light that you might have in your office.
Most succulents are natives of dry areas and have adapted to little rainfall—that means they don’t need a lot of water. Water plants once every two or three weeks. It's best to water too little; succulents will rot if their soil is too moist.
Succulents grow slowly and don't require fertilizer the way faster-growing plants do. But if you want to feed your succulents, use a general-purple houseplant fertilizer in spring and summer. Follow the directions on the packaging and don’t overfeed.
Prune or Trim If Needed
Because they're slow growers, you typically don't have to worry about pruning succulents. You can remove any broken or withered leaves. Just snap them off the plant or clip with hand pruners.
Repot with Care
Succulents have small root systems so they don’t need repotting very often. Depending on the variety, once every three or four years may be enough. When is it time? When the roots tightly fill the inside of the container or if the plant has grown too large to stay stable in its container. Take care in repotting; succulent stems and leaves are water-filled but brittle and can be easily broken.
Caring for Containers with Pebble Mulch
You may buy a succulent in a container that has a layer of mulch to cover the potting mix. Pebbles are a stylish mulch option. They add a textural accent to cacti. In many of our pots, we glue the rocks in place so you can enjoy a more fuss-free plant. Learn more about watering and other care of pebble mulched plants.
Choosing Succulents for Outdoors
If you live in a warm-weather area, succulents make gorgeous landscape plantings. These perennials will get bigger and better every year. Gardeners in the North may choose to enjoy succulents in the landscape and bring them indoors when the weather turns cool. Choose a well-drained spot, such as the top of a sunny slope or a rock garden. Don't plant succulents where they'll be wet for extended periods.
Follow the same design rules when planting with succulents as you do when using regular plants. For example, add vertical interest with tall succulents, such as in the back of the border as a backdrop for other plants. Low-growing, mounding succulents add vertical interest to landscapes and can be combined with other cacti and succulents. Smaller plants make beautiful edgers.
Bowls and containers
Succulents with their interesting shapes and colors, are made to be mixed into bowls and containers. Display containers on sunny decks, patios, or balconies. Use the sculptural shapes of succulents like you do other plants in containers. Use tall plants such as euphorbias, as the horizontal or “thriller” element in a container. Add mounding or mid-height succulents, such as echeverias, as the “filler.” Use trailing succulents, such as portulacaria, as the “spiller.” Succulent pots love hot sunny spots in your yard. Just make sure containers have drainage holes. If you live in a climate where temperatures drop, you can enjoy pots of succulents outdoors for the summer, then bring them indoors for the winter. Learn how to plant succulents outdoors.