Good to Grow: Succulents can be trickier than they say

Succulents are tricky little plants. They look easy to grow, everyone says they are, yet somehow I struggle to keep them alive.

Oh, I’ve had success with a few container gardens and small pots, even managing to keep them alive for several years, but I sure have lost/killed more than my share.

You know one when you see it: small, pretty irresistible, compact, green, pillow-like plants with swollen leaves.

The word “succulent” comes from the Latin word sucus, meaning juice or sap. Appropriate because that is exactly what the puffy leaves and stems do: store moisture for the plant and help it survive in drought-like conditions. The leaves are often waxy or hairy, again creating a humid microclimate around the plant. This helps reduce air movement near the surface of the plant, meaning it has less water loss.

The roots are shallow, allowing moisture from dew and brief showers to be easily absorbed. Although I do mist my plants, most directions say to water underneath the leaves. Watering, is something that doesn’t need to happen often. This is the most common reason succulents die. Well, at least at my house.

I try to water my indoor plants once a week, and a select few twice a week. But I’m learning with succulents and orchids, the less water the better.

Succulents do need sun. Ideally six hours a day. During the summer months, I leave them outdoors to soak up sunshine.

Now that the weather has changed, they are indoors and gathered on a corner of my dining room table near a sunny window. This makes dinner time a bit crowded, and I really need a better solution; but for now they seem happy, and I’ll do anything to keep them happy and alive.

Speaking of sun, a reminder: rotate your plants. They will reach and grow toward the sun, so occasionally twist the position of the pots to allow all sides the chance to have sun exposure. This will help your plants to grow straight and not lean toward the sun.

Indoor plants living with pets, furnaces, blankets and such will collect dust. Keep your plants healthy and able to absorb air by very gently dusting their leaves, maybe even using a small paint brush to reach the tiny and hard to reach spots.

Cacti are considered succulents by the serious folks, but most causal gardeners don’t include them when talking about succulents. Other succulents include jade plants, hens & chicks, aloe vera plants and the season-appropriate Christmas cactus. I don’t have a Christmas cactus, but this time of year Facebook is loaded with photos of friends showing theirs in full bloom.

I have hens & chicks planted in a rock garden off my back deck. They are new and have flourished there this year, but I’m wondering what will happen during the winter. I won’t move them. Research tells me the snow will help protect them from the winter winds. Time will tell, and hopefully they will survive and continue to grow in the spring.

I’m not sure of the names of the succulents in my dish gardens and planters, but I call one Shrek, because of the tube-shaped spikes that remind me of the gentle ogre. Another I think of as a waterfall because it cascades over the edge of a desk. All the other varieties I just speak to as a group and thank them for continuing to survive.

During an unexpected night in Chicago due to a flight delay, I was so happy when checking into the hotel to see a small succulent on the registration desk. Such a tiny gesture gave this weary traveler a little boost, and yet was a cruel reminder that everyone seems have a knack for succulents — everyone but me.