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Southwest Succulent Garden: Planting Time For Desert Succulents

Southwest Succulent Garden: Planting Time For Desert Succulents


By: Becca Badgett, Co-author of How to Grow an EMERGENCY Garden

Growing succulents in the Southwest U.S. should be easy, as these are the conditions that most closely resemble their native conditions. But succulents have been hybridized and changed so much it is likely they’d be forced to re-adapt to even their native habitat. It is sometimes difficult to set a definite planting date with the fluctuating weather patterns we’ve experienced in recent years. But a few guidelines apply and we should use when them when planting a Southwest succulent garden.

Southwestern Succulents in the Garden

The Southwest has a wide range of temperatures and precipitation. Remember, that while succulents are low-maintenance, there are still limits to when they will grow. Planting time for desert succulents and for those in the Colorado Mountains differs. Soil temperatures have a large effect on when to plant succulents in the Southwest.

As in other areas, a soil temp of 45 degrees F. (7 C.) accommodates many succulent plants in the Southwest. However, when it is combined with snow or rain (or moisture in any fashion), it can turn deadly for young succulents that aren’t established in a deep, fast draining soil.

When freezing temperatures are no longer a factor, usually in late winter to early spring, this is the time to get southwestern succulents in the ground. This allows time for a good root system to develop before summer heat becomes an issue. When possible, plant succulents in a morning sun area so you won’t have to provide protection from damaging afternoon rays in summer. Choose a rain-free time to plant in amended soil and don’t water for at least a week.

Most information about planting succulents in the Southwest indicates late winter and spring planting is best in most areas of California, Arizona, New Mexico and other states in the southwest. Those in more northern states, such as Utah and Colorado, may need an additional week or two before the soil warms and temperatures cooperate. Late fall and early winter are also appropriate planting times when growing succulents in the Southwest, but not in the heat of summer.

Jump start your plantings by growing them in containers until outdoor conditions are right for planting in the ground. This allows for the development of a healthy root system prior to planting in the outdoor garden. You may also choose to grow your succulents in containers where they can be overwintered inside.

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How to Plant Succulents

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Popular succulent plants come in a wide range of sizes, leaf shapes and colors, flowers, and unique features. Native to seasonally-arid climates such as deserts, mountainsides, or high limbs of tropical jungle trees, they developed fleshy leaves or stems capable of storing moisture.

In mild-winter climates, these tough plants are used as landscape specimen, foundation plantings, groundcovers, and lawn substitutes. But in nearly any part of the country they can be planted in all sorts of containers, indoors or out, including wreaths and wall hangings.

How to Grow Succulents

These tough plants are easy to grow, with minimum care. Though they need occasional watering, they will quickly rot if not planted in a well-drained garden or potting soil. Heavy garden soils need to be fluffed up with organic matter such as compost or bark however, these usually break down as they decompose.

Whether planting in garden soil or containers, seasoned growers also add coarse sand, crushed granite, pumice, chicken grit, or the heat-expanded clay used to improve aeration and compaction in turf fields. Any of these will dramatically increase drainage and won’t break down as the organic material slowly decomposes.

Some need protection from hot mid-day sun, but all thrive with at least a few hours of sun either in the garden or near an east, west, or south-facing window or with very bright artificial light. Many are frost-tender, while others can tolerate light freezes or even very deep freezes.

Growing succulents from seed requires patience, and can take six months or a year or longer just to sprout. Press lightly into well-drained potting soil and cover barely with sand cover with clear food wrap to conserve moisture and humidity (remove temporarily if the wrap gets too steamy), and place the container in bright but indirect light. Avoid displacing seeds by placing the container in a tray of water to soak water from the bottom as needed until seedlings sprout.

Most gardeners start with mature plants, but you can easily grow some such as Aeoniums and Crassulas from stem cuttings that are allowed to dry a few days before planting, or by cutting or twisting off leaves of Graptopetalum and many Crassulas and placing them stem-side down in potting mix. Sempervivum, Agave, Aloe, Yucca, and others can be propagated from offsets called “pups” growing from their base.

How to Plant Succulents

Most succulents have fragile, shallow roots that are easy to damage, so be very careful when digging or removing from containers. Gently shake off excess soil, or use your fingers to loosen potting soil.

When planting succulents, set them into prepared soil (using gloves for spiny types), and sift soil around their bases, gently tamping down as you go. Cover the soil surface with coarse sand, gravel, or other inorganic mulch, and water very gently to settle soil around roots and plant bases.

Allow plants to dry between soakings. Fertilize lightly with an all-purpose slow-release plant food once a year, allowing plants to rest in the winter.


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