Expanding your garden is easy when it comes to succulents. The fleshy, thick-leafed plants are remarkably accommodating about replicating themselves.
Some succulents push out new little plants, called offsets or pups, all on their own. Others take to beheading — lop off their tops and those tops will obligingly root out. Cut the stems of others into pieces, and new roots and leaves will form.
Succulents are typically sluggish over winter. The time to start propagating is spring, when temperatures warm up and active growth begins. In cooler years, you might have to wait until late March. But this year’s early sunshine has already prompted the annual awakening.
By Way of Background
Succulents have a canny ability to sprout new roots and leaves — in expected as well as unexpected places.
For instance, my Kiwi aeoniums send out aerial roots in the shady recesses beneath the leafy canopy created by clustering together a dozen or so.
Other succulents send out pups. For some, such as hen-and-chicks (Echeveria), there is a seemingly endless supply of newbies that can be harvested and transplanted.
For others, such as agaves, an increasing number of pups is a sign that the death of the mother plant is near. Those pups are a means of ensuring the survival of the species.
For succulents that form offsets or pups, such as aloe vera, snip what might be a tiny tether between the little ones and the mother, then gently pull out the pups and leave the mother in place.
For succulents that form rosettes or heads, such as aeoniums and taller hen-and-chicks, slice off the heads, along with about an inch of their stems.
For succulents that produce a series of leaves along long stems, such as jade (Crassula) and kleinia (Senecio mandraliscae), break off individual leaves at the stem, or cut off the tips of the stems into pieces that have at least two joints — one to send out roots and the other to send out leaves.
Regardless of how you harvest them, set the pieces in the shade for a few days to let calluses form over the cuts. The thin layers of cells will help protect the cuttings from rot.
Next, fill a shallow container with a light, fast-draining material. Some of the most popular mediums are pumice, perlite, and cactus and succulent potting mix. I prefer pumice — the lightweight, porous volcanic rock is easy to use, provides lots of air pockets and my succulents root out quickly in it.
Set your cuttings on top. There’s no need to bury them. If you’ve broken off leaves, lean them against the sides of the container so that their bases have contact with the material. Provide bright, indirect light and keep the mix moist but not wet. Once new roots have formed, transplant the succulents to their new homes.
That said, some succulents don’t need even that much help. I’ve left cuttings of three different aeoniums sitting on my potting bench and all three — Kiwi, Sunburst and large purple (Aeonium atropurpureum ‘Zwartkop’) — have rooted into thin air.
Likewise, you can stick a cutting straight into the ground. Still leave it out for a few days to let the cuts callus. And wait a week after planting before giving any water. A few tiny roots should form first. Otherwise, irrigated too early, the cutting may rot.
Also, the success rate of this method directly corresponds to your soil type. In heavy soil, your cuttings may be doomed, as they need lots of air to produce new roots. You’ll greatly increase the odds with loose, fast-draining soil. Even still, you may suffer a few casualties. But most of the cuttings should settle in, send out new roots and keep right on going.
In the meantime, if you’ve lopped off the rosettes of leggier succulents, leave the stems in place. It’s likely that the headless sticks will bear new tops. On the rebound, they often form multi-branched clusters of rosettes, rather than pushing up new, single-stem heads like the ones that they replaced.
Most smaller succulents are perfectly content to live out their lives in pots. But if you rooted your cuttings in pure pumice or perlite, switch over to a mix that contains at least some lightweight soil to provide nutrients for the long haul.
Larger agaves and the like should go in the ground. Again, excellent drainage is key. Their toes like to dry out on a regular basis.
Mulch around your new plants to help conserve water. Light-colored rock, pea gravel and decomposed granite all provide a nice contrast and will highlight interesting leaves and textures.
Succulents have a tendency to get lost in wood mulch. But if you do use it, keep the wood a few inches away from each plant. The wood holds moisture and extended, above-ground moisture contact with a succulent’s stem or leaves can lead to rot.
Most succulents like at least 3 to 4 hours a day of direct sun during spring, summer and fall. In hotter inland valleys, you may need to provide some protection from the most intense sun during noon and early afternoon.
Over winter, heed frost and freeze warnings. Many succulents tolerate temperatures a few degrees below freezing. But readings of 20, 15 or 10 degrees can cause significant damage.
That risk may be yet another reason to bulk up your succulent numbers during warm weather. You’ll have reserves to fall back on should colder temperatures strike.
And if not, you’ll have plenty of free plants to fill your garden or pass along to others.
As you build your collection of succulents, you may be tempted to tuck them everywhere there’s empty space in your garden. However, make sure that there’s ample sunlight, fast-draining soil and that the irrigation needs of neighboring plants match.
On the Central Coast, most succulents are happy with watering only two to three times a month during summer. Good companions include water-conserving California natives, Mediterranean plants and ornamental grasses.
Your succulents will be getting all the moisture they need as long as you don’t see their thick leaves shrivel. Even then, a quick soak can restore their health.
Seeds of Wisdom
All succulents prefer fast drainage. Even if you have sandy soil, it’s a good idea to plant your succulents on mounds at least 6 to 12 inches tall.
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