With succulents gaining popularity more than ever before there are a lot of questions floating around about how to care for them. Succulents have a reputation for being hardy and able to live in poor soils but as many of us know, there are lots of succulents out there that are a bit more sensitive and need the right soil and growing conditions to survive. As a working succulent nursery that grows and propagates its own succulents, this is what we have learned about growing succulents in plain garden soil.
Succulents can most definitely grow in ordinary garden soil as opposed to potting mix, however, there are a few ‘buts’ and a lot depends on what climate you live in, what type of succulents you’re growing, where you’re growing them and how pretty and big do you want your succulents to grow.
Our nursery is based in the Blue Mountains, West of Sydney, Australia. The soil on the property is very poor with lots of sandstone and large bits of rocks. When it doesn’t rain this type of soil is rock hard and when it rains a lot it is like a thick, gluey mud. Yet the succulent gardens we have planted out over the years in this very poor soil are surviving quite well, even when it rains a lot.
One or two things need to be said about the succulents that grow in our gardens. Firstly, they don’t grow very fast and many varieties never reach their full size. On the plus side the colour is more intense, even during the warmer months when the majority of succulents loose their colours, and the growth is much more compact and chubby resulting in smaller and tighter plants. Also, the gardens are either raised or on a slope which helps with water draining away when the rainy days come along. To date we have not had a single succulent that would rot due to being in water soaked soil during rainy spells.
We believe that succulents that are planted in the ground will survive just about any soil type, but if the soil is poor, they will grow slow and small.
You can always help your succulents along by mixing in some good quality potting mix that will bring in nutrients and will make the soil easier for the root system to spread. I’ve read people claiming many a time that succulents do not have big or deep root systems and therefore they don’t need/ shouldn’t have a lot of space, but this is simply not true. If succulents have the space, they will always spread their roots in search of nutrients. This is also the reason why succulents planted in soil, in the ground are much more easier to maintain and hardier than plants grown in pots and also, they seem to be bothered less by nasty small pests such as the mealy bugs, aphids and scale. They can send their roots deep down to keep cool in summer and warm in winter and they have lots of space to source nutrients and minerals from.
But what about succulents planted in pots, in plain old garden soil? Well, that is not such a great idea, although, many succulents will survive (many will also die fairly quickly) they are unlikely to look very pretty, will be more susceptible to bugs and diseases and can die abruptly. In pots, plants do not have a lot of space for their root system to go searching for food and the temperature changes frequently. In summer a pot can become extremely hot, especially if its darker in colour, and pretty much cook your succulent alive. Heavy garden soil can suffocate the roots in a pot, especially small pots. In the ground there are all sorts of organisms and small animals that live in soil and make it a better, more airy environment for succulents, but in pots these same organisms are unlikely to survive. Succulents in pots need good, free draining potting mix to grow pretty and be happy.
Now that we have established that you can grow succulents in soil in the ground but shouldn’t in pots let’s have a look at the climate.
In moderate climates with mild winters, succulents will happily live in garden soil all year round. If frosts or a bit of snow is common in your area, you will need to protect succulents with a frost cloth or a small tunnel.
In tropical and subtropical climates succulents could suffer a bit during the rainy season, but should still survive planted in soil. Succulents will, however, need to be planted in a sunny spot and in a raised bed or on a slope so when it does rain a lot, they do not sit in stagnant water.
In cold climates, succulents in soil are unlikely to survive the frosts and snow that come in winter. Some Sedums and sempervivums will, but the majority of succulents are not suitable to be grown in soil in the ground and will need to be brought inside for winter.
So far we have only found one Cactus (The Bishop’s Cap) that have rotted in our garden due to too much rain. All other cacti have been ok so far. There are a few succulents that can be a bit vulnerable- some hybrid Echeverias such Romeo or Pink Champagne, Graptoveria Amethorum, Rosularias and some Aeoniums such as Aureum and Graptopetalum Rusbyi. These succulents may not survive for a long time in poor soil or in a garden with full sun exposure in summer.
If you’re a bit worried about killing the succulents you want to buy, the majority of plants in the below genera are very hardy and suitable for growing in soil
Sedum (varieties with very thin stalks may burn during heatwaves in full summer sun)
Sempervivum (some Sempervivums such as Arachnoideum dislike full sun in warm months and prefer a position with filtered light)
The main reason some succulents die in the soil is that they are simply in the wrong spot. Many succulents prefer filtered light or shaded position to grow happily and planting them in full sun can kill them.
Another reason may be that the succulent you’ve just bought has been raised in a greenhouse and it is not used to direct sun. This actually happens quite often. The majority of these greenhouse raised succulents will get burn marks on leaves which they will eventually grow out of but some may not recover and could die. We raise all our sun loving plants out in the open and as a result they are very hardy and have no problem growing in direct sunlight in the ground even in summer heatwaves.
Succulents can also die when they are not watered often enough during summer heatwaves and droughts. Although mature, large plants should survive, smaller succulents need to be watered when the soil is very dry. If you don’t wet your soil during extended dry spells your soil can become hydrophobic, meaning watering will not saturate the soil and the soil will loose the ability to hydrate. The surface will appear wet but if you scratch the top the soil underneath will be dust dry and your plants will not be getting any water at all. To fix this you can add some fresh potting mix to the dried out soil and mulch the top of your gardens. Mulching will not harm succulents.
If a succulent abruptly disappears from its spot without a trace you may have a pest problem. Large snails, slugs and caterpillars can polish off small succulents overnight. Deer, possums, kangaroos, mice and some birds (including chickens and ducks) also eat succulents.
As mentioned above, succulents planted in pots in nothing but garden soil are unlikely to do well and can die. Although the super hardy varieties such as Graptopetalum Paraguayense can survive, we recommend getting at least a general potting mix. If you want really nice plants in pots, succulent potting mix or good quality, all purpose well draining mix should do the trick.
In conclusion the great majority of succulents will be fine in plain garden soil, though if the soil is poor quality they may not grow very fast and might not reach their full size. We don’t think it’s a good idea to grow succulents in nothing but garden soil in pots.