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Succulents: the wow factor

From tree-sized aloes to ground-hugging houseleeks no bigger than a coin, succulents are a real statement plant. Their striking forms and beautiful rosettes have a habit of stopping people in their tracks. And some, like the spiral aloe, have got to be the most pleasing embodiment of the Fibonacci sequence found in nature. 

They’re so versatile, too. Succulents look great grown together in pots on a patio, or as table-top decoration; they can give summer borders an exotic feel, or pique interest on a sunny windowsill. Featuring a whole range of colours and textures, from shiny dark leaves and furry greens to powdery silvers and crimson tints, there is a succulent to suit everyone. 

The good news is that they’re surprisingly easy to grow. Read on to find out how to care for succulents, which types to grow, and even how to propagate them… 

Top tips for succulent growing

A little preparation will go a long way to achieving success; get it right and succulents will provide you with a stunning display and minimal maintenance.

Indoors vs outdoors 

Many gardeners choose to grow succulents in pots in a conservatory or greenhouse, so they can be moved in and out as the seasons change, to avoid frost damage. However, succulents can also be grown outdoors all year where conditions – or dogged refusal to accept defeat – allow.

A south-facing wall with free-draining soil is ideal, and the use of shelters and horticultural fleece will allow many succulents to survive even hard UK winters. Many can cope with quite cold conditions, being used to extreme temperatures in their native ranges – but do take care to not let them get waterlogged in winter.

If you want to grow succulents indoors, you’ll need a really bright location, such as a windowsill. While some succulents grow leggy if grown indoors for long periods (Echeveria and Aeonium), others have evolved to thrive underneath other larger plants, so can deal with being inside in an airy spot. Succulents suitable as house plants include: Crassula ovata (jade plant), Aloe vera, Haworthia fasciata (zebra plant), Gasteria and Kalanchoe tomentosa (panda plant). 

Sun vs shade 

Despite being adapted to drought and high light levels, many succulents grow in quite shady spots in their native ranges. The ideal place for them at home would be a bright spot that gets sun for most of the day, but you should keep an eye on your plants on hot days. Some succulents can even scorch in strong sunlight, especially in conservatories or greenhouses, leading them to close up their rosettes for the summer and become dormant. Artificial shading can help prevent this heat stress. 

Watering succulents

Succulents’ tolerance for drought means they can be safely left while you go on your summer holiday. That said, they will appreciate regular watering in dry summer weather. The general rule is to allow the pot to get quite dry and then thoroughly re-soak the compost. With good watering and shading you should be able to extend the natural growing season of many succulents beyond the shoulder months of the summer.

The amounts of light and water that a succulent gets throughout the year can have dramatic effects on a succulent’s colour. In winter, they are quite green, but as light levels increase, coloured forms take on their darker tones. When stressed by lack of water, even green succulents take on red, pink and yellow tints. Often this is when they look most dazzling. That’ one of the delights of growing succulents, but can also make you wonder if your label is correct! 

Choosing a pot

As a rule of thumb, plants stay restricted to the root space given to them. Even an Echeveria or Sedum that would normally grow quite large will quite happily hold at a smaller size when planted into a smaller pot. But remember: for that exotic effect in borders you need big plants, and for this you need big pots!

Soil and compost 

In the wild, many succulents grow at high altitudes with heavy rainfall, but with rapid drainage too. Others have evolved to survive in very dry environments. Recreate this natural habitat when potting up by adding a third of coarse sand, grit or perlite to two-thirds of compost.

If keeping plants in a pot over winter, change the compost in spring. Do this by lifting the plant out of its pot, knock most of the old compost off the root ball and replant. This is especially important for plants in small pots. 

Maintenance and propagation

Where plants have become leggy, a length of stem can be buried and it will root easily. If a plant becomes too tall or you’d just like to propagate more, cut off a rosette with a 10cm stem, insert it into some gritty compost and it will root easily. This is best done in late spring or early autumn. Some succulents produce offsets or ‘pups’ by themselves, which develop into new plants. 

Eden Project’s top 10 succulents

1. Aeonium smithii

Aeonium smithii

Image: Opuntia

With attractive markings and an usual wavy leaf edge, this species is a bit hardier than some succulents, its native habitat being the mountains of Tenerife. Watch out for winter rotting in the UK. Full sun.

2. Aeonium ‘Cyclops’

Aeonium 'Cyclops'

This cultivar gets the ‘cyclops’ name from its one large rosette with a dark green centre. It can reach 50cm across on a stem up to around 1.5 metres tall. Full sun.

3. Aeonium tabuliforme 

Aeonium tabuliforme

Image: Opuntia

Perhaps the best known Aeonium with flat rosettes, those of the tabuliforme can grow up to 50cm in diameter in favourable conditions. Partial shade.

4. Echeveria pulvinata

Echeveria pulvinata

Image: Amante Darmanin

A hairy-leaved succulent with a silvery, shiny appearance featuring rosettes 20-30cm across, Echeveria pulvinata is available in many different cultivars. An easy succulent to propagate, as it offsets freely. Full sun.

5. Echeveria agavoides

Echeveria agavoides

Image: Stephen Boisvert

A structural Echeveria that can grow quite large (around 30cm diameter by 20cm height) and in certain cultivars has a beautiful red tone. Full sun/partial shade.

6. Sedum morganianum

Sedum morganianum

Image: Morningdew51

This trailing succulent is also known as burro’s tails and is really useful for pot displays. It trails indefinitely and offsets, and also grows new plants freely from its leaves. Full sun.

7. Aloe polyphylla

Aloe polyphylla

Image: Stan Shebs

With a stunning spiral leaf structure, this aloe is accustomed to cool, moist conditions from its native mountainous Lesotho, making it a great candidate for UK gardens. An endangered species, it is hard to obtain from seed, but is becoming more freely available through tissue culture carried out in labs. Full sun/partial shade.

8. Aloe plicatilis

Aloe plicatilis

Image: Esculapio

A fantastically structural succulent, the large fan aloe is ideal for potting up inside a conservatory or greenhouse, as it’s happy outside during the summer, but needs winter protection. Full sun.

9. Sempervivum calcareum

Sempervirum calcareum

Image: Bouba

A native of the southern Alps, this species is the only succulent that is fully hardy in the UK – although it will require good drainage. It also spreads easily, so can cover a lot of ground! Full sun/partial shade.

10. Crassula muscosa

Crassula muscosa

Image: Agnieszka Kwiecień

Commonly known as the rat-tail Crassula, this succulent is great fun. With its unusual structure it looks particularly good as a textural contrast when planted in pots with other succulents. Full sun/partial shade.

Succulents at the Eden Project

Come and see a wide variety of succulents here at the Eden Project, where they thrive all year in the Mediterranean Biome, and outdoors in the summer in our experimental climate change garden Plants for a changing climate.

Colin Skelly is an Outdoor Gardens Skilled Horticulturist – and succulent enthusiast – at the Eden Project.