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Novel Tips for Growing Indoor Succulents

Finding the Perfect Greenery for Your Home

I love when people are excited or eager to get a plant for their home, especially if they didn’t have much luck the first time around. It means they’re willing to give it another go and maybe this time, they’ll be a bit more in tune to their quiet green companion.

If I’m having a passing conversation, I’ll ask a few quick questions: What kind of light do you have in your home or office? Are you relatively attentive to plants? And is your house drafty or really dry in the winter months? Based on that, I might suggest a relatively easy-to-care-for plant like a snake plant (Sansevieria sp.), a ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia), a golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum), or a corn plant (Dracaena fragrans). Many of those can thrive under benign neglect, which can ultimately inspire confidence in a newly minted plant owner.

If I have enough time for a longer conversation, I’ll take people through ten key elements to consider for growing plants indoors. And today, I’m excited to share those tips with you, with a special focus on the joys and challenges of cultivating indoor succulents.

Lighting: The Key to Succulent Success

Light is by far one of the most important elements for a plant. Those green leaves are like giant solar panels, positioning themselves strategically through phototaxis (movement in response to light) to capture as much sun as they need. Before choosing a succulent you’ve set your heart on, first consider the light conditions of your apartment, house, or room.

For example, a friend of mine, Dave, recently started populating his room and office with plants. He had one English ivy (Hedera helix), a sun-loving plant, trailing above his window, but none of the leaves were actually in the window. I asked him to think of the leaves as highly efficient solar panels – if he were placing them in his room, would he put them against the wall above the windows or in the windows themselves? He quickly realized his mistake. I explained that leaves of ivy that aren’t directly in light will often just drop, and the plant will put its effort into the end buds, which have more potential to grab and eat light. That can result in stems that look like they’re suffering from the plant equivalent of the mange.

Even if a succulent is deemed “low-light tolerant,” like a Calathea or Sansevieria, they still need light to survive. The word “tolerant” isn’t a synonym for “love.” If I said you were tolerant of Jill at the office, what would that imply? The same goes for most low-light tolerant plants – they can’t operate in the dark and will need some ambient light.

The good news is that many plants, including some succulents, can do well under artificial light like incandescent bulbs, fluorescent lights, and LEDs. In fact, more lighting companies are creating plant-friendly and human-friendly lights for the home and office. Some succulents that thrive in these conditions include Chinese evergreens (Aglaonema sp.), Dracaenas, Philodendrons, Sansevierias, African violets (Saintpaulia sp.), and Nephthytis. So even if you live in a cave, good lighting can be a game-changer for certain succulents.

The Importance of Proper Watering

Water is another vital component in plant survival, even for desert-loving succulents. They’ll eventually need to be watered, but we often don’t stop to think about why a plant needs water to survive. Water serves many essential physiological purposes in a plant’s life, including growth and metabolism. Just as rivers are a mode of transportation, so is water in a plant. Plants are able to convert nature’s inorganic elements into nutrients, which are then converted to organic compounds that we often eat to nourish ourselves. This is all done through the vehicle of water and changes in the osmotic pressure of cells.

Transpiration, the process by which water is transferred from the surface of a plant through evaporation via stomata (a plant’s pores), is not only an important part of our water cycle and climate stability but is also critical for photosynthesis. It allows for the diffusion of carbon dioxide gas from the air. Additionally, when a plant transpires, it cools the plant. In some cases, plants like Prayer plants (Marantaceae) will often fold up at night to prevent water loss or exhibit leaf curl during the day to protect themselves from too much light, which can increase transpiration.

You can generally follow some rules of thumb when it comes to watering your succulents, but that often changes given conditions like plant dormancy, seasonality, and light and humidity. If a succulent prefers humid conditions, like a Maidenhair fern (Adiantum sp.), but you experience winter dryness in your house, you may need to water or mist your plant more. Conversely, cacti may require more watering in the summer months, whereas in the winter months (from November to March), they may not require water at all.

I often share with friends that if they’re forgetful about watering, they’ll need a plant that doesn’t mind drying out. Or if they want a specific plant that requires more watering, they should set up a system where the plant can water itself for some time, like through plant spikes, plant nannies, or self-watering containers.

The Role of Air Flow and Humidity

Fresh air and ventilation are not often mentioned when growing plants, but I bring it up here for a couple of different reasons. My home is relatively well-ventilated, whether I want it to be or not. I can literally feel the airflow in the house, even when the windows are not open, particularly in the winter months. Brrrrrrrr.

Some newer homes and apartments, however, are literally airtight, and in some situations, the glass boxes that tower above the cityscape below often don’t have windows that open, so people strictly rely on central air conditioning to get some fresh air. Plants love air flow, as that is critical for the plant to exhale and transpire. Like us, plants breathe. Additionally, air flow is important for wicking away excess moisture in plants. For instance, Tillandsia or air plants often require frequent misting or soaking, and if water is left on their leaves, they’ll often rot. Air flow is responsible for wicking away this moisture and keeping those plants happy and healthy.

I should note that in the winter months, I often move quite a few plants away from my drafty windows, as most plants do not do well in cold drafts. It’s important to do your research on which succulents can withstand cold drafts. I’ve found that my Hedera, Senecio, and even cacti are more than happy to be in drafty conditions without any gripes.

Humidity, or the amount of water vapor in the air, is another underappreciated component of plant health. And for those of us in the Northeastern United States, it’s only something we often think about during the winter months, particularly when our homes become equivalent to the Sahara Desert. Dryness in the air will often wick away water from plants, increasing plant transpiration, which means that water will need to be replaced either with more frequent watering or other means to increase humidity around a plant, like misting.

Keep in mind that many of the succulents we bring indoors are non-native tropical species that prefer to grow in warm, moist, humid environments – definitely not the type of environment that us humans live in, save for maybe 5-10 minutes while in a hot shower, which is why I’m such an advocate for showering or bathing with your plants!

If you’re indoors in the winter months, heating your home, you’ll typically have your temperature between 65-70°F or 18-21°C. When that’s the case, humidity often falls around 20-30%, which can cause respiratory irritation. An ideal range for people, as indicated in the graphic below, is around the 30-65% humidity range. Once you get more than that, you risk triggering mold and dust mites indoors. Luckily for us, most of our tropical plant varieties, including succulents, also prefer mid-range humidity, and with good humidifiers indoors, you can even set the percentage of humidity that you prefer for you and your plants.

Warmth and Rest: The Keys to Succulent Blooms

Warmth is also an undervalued component of plant health, and many plants often fall into “warm” or “cool” categories. Plants like Christmas or Thanksgiving cacti (Schlumbergera sp.), for instance, require a specific amount of cold and darkness in order to trigger flowering year-after-year, whereas others generally can’t tolerate lower temperatures, as photosynthesis can directly halt.

Additionally, warmth in most seedling growth is incredibly important. It’s warmth, moisture, and humidity that can trigger a seed to crack and ultimately allow a seedling to emerge, only then will it search out light. In most cases, plants prefer a drop in temperature in the evening hours – one of the reasons why I turn off or lower my heat at night, as it’s vital for the plant’s physiology as it enters a period of rest. If you think about any ecosystem, it often gets cold at night, even in deserts, so we need to help provide for that natural fluctuation for our indoor succulents.

Achieving the Perfect Soil Balance

In the beginning of my houseplant journey, I didn’t put much thought into my soil choice. Whatever potting soil I could grab seemed fine by me, and luckily for us, most plants will do with what they have, but it might not be an optimum choice in the long-run.

Soil is often used to 1) protect your plant’s roots, 2) keep your plant upright, 3) provide a nutritious medium for your plant, and 4) help convey air and water to your plant’s roots. Hydroponics, which forgo soil environments, is a whole other topic of discussion.

You can make your own soil with some trial and error, but for the most part, I buy soil from my local plant shop or garden center. Bagged soil is often sterilized to ensure no pests, fungi, or mold will grow, but I also get compost, which can often attract certain fungi and insects like fungus gnats – another topic for a future blog post.

You can often find soil labeled “Succulent Soil,” which is a light, well-draining soil for cacti and succulents. This is important because you don’t want a succulent or cactus sitting in moist conditions. Additionally, you’ll often find soil for orchids or bromeliads, which are soilless mixtures comprising of woody pieces, again allowing for quick drainage. Some tropical varieties may prefer to hold onto water, so if planting in quick-draining soil, their roots won’t have time to soak it up. Those potting mediums often contain topsoil and peat.

Occasionally, old soils can become too heavy and dense, which can mean there’s a lack of air in the soil, which is needed for plant roots. As such, growers and home gardeners alike will often till or poke the soil and even add some perlite or vermiculite to help increase aeration.

I often use terracotta clay pots for my plants for a variety of reasons, namely because they are affordable and also help wick away moisture and aerate the soil. This is a shot from my workspace:

Terracotta clay pots

Honing Your Potting and Feeding Techniques

Choosing the right kind of pot for your succulent is fairly important, but not always necessary to start. For instance, a plant will grow in its original black plastic pot for quite some time, and most people choose to do that or to just put the black plastic growing pot into a nice wicker basket or the like. The one thing I always encourage newly-minted plant owners to do is make sure they have a pot with a hole in the bottom to encourage drainage into a saucer.

I prefer terracotta planters for a variety of reasons. Firstly, terracotta, unlike plastic, is breathable, so both water and air can be absorbed through the walls. Secondly, you’ll be able to tell if your plant needs flushing by seeing the white chalky build-up that happens on the outside of your terracotta pot. Most people like the look of this, as it’s “shabby chic” in a way, but what that indicates is that salts like calcium deposits from hard water or fertilizers may be building up in the soil, and that plant should be flushed with distilled water. Thirdly, terracotta clay pots are very good at regulating temperatures. If temperatures drop at night, the porous clay slows down heat transfer gradually. And finally, and most importantly for those of us on a budget, terracotta is quite inexpensive compared to other planters.

If you don’t want to get terracotta planters, then just consider the limitations of the other pots so that you can adjust watering and temperature regimes accordingly. Additionally, if you are repotting a plant into another pot, be sure to thoroughly wash out the older pot with a dilute bleach or soap solution to ensure no disease agents are in or on the pot.

Soil can provide much-needed nutrients for a plant, but given that most of our succulents are in closed conditions (i.e., in a planter), that means they aren’t getting a hell of a lot of resource exchange like they would if they were outdoors. That means the soil will often need to be refreshed, and this is most often done through fertilizing a plant. However, the biggest mistake anyone can make is to give a plant too much fertilizer or, in some cases, not enough.

One would think that giving more fertilizer would help a plant grow, but in some cases, it may inhibit specific kinds of nutrient uptake, like phosphorus, which is important for protein synthesis, cell division, and growth. Plants do not often need to be fertilized in the non-growing season, but it’s important to know how plants like to be fertilized and that, in most cases, it’s done as a very dilute medium. Admittedly, I still need to master my home fertilizing schedule. Part of that comes with setting up a calendar and documenting every plant’s needs, which again will come in a subsequent post.

Keeping Your Succulents Healthy and Happy

Every Sunday, I’ll spend an hour to several hours pruning, grooming, pinching, thinning, turning, and propagating my plants. If a plant is left up to its own devices, it can often get shaggy, leggy, unsymmetrical, or sparse. Keeping a plant kempt is more a matter of preference, and admittedly, I don’t mind long-limbed pothos or leggy succulents most times. However, in some cases, like the pothos and philodendrons above my sofa in the living room, I prefer to trim them back, which encourages a fuller, bushier growth structure. Additionally, taking cuttings of your plants also means that you can propagate new clones, which means more plants for you!

Another important tactic to keep plants looking great in the home is turning a plant. Most often, a plant will lean a certain way to maximize light intake, so I’ll just rotate a planter pot so the plant gets light on its other side. It’s the equivalent to you flipping over on the beach so you get sun on both sides, except in the instance of the plant, it helps correct a crooked growth habit, which can be charming but sometimes problematic.

A Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera sp.), for instance, will often bloom without fail year-over-year at the same time every year if it’s given the right conditions when it’s dormant. When blooming, it’s also important to give it conditions that it prefers, which is often moister conditions.

Like humans, plants require rest over the course of 24 hours, but most plants also require a dormant state where growth nearly comes to a halt. This varies from plant to plant and typically occurs after a plant has bloomed, but not always. Additionally, for a plant to bloom again year-after-year, it often requires a dormant state, like in the case of some bulbs, which literally need no light, water, fertilizer, or even warmth. Even succulents – a topic for a future post – go through dormancy, and in some genera, they go through a summer vs. winter dormancy. When you get a succulent, read up on when it goes dormant, as that will help you better care for it.

Bringing it All Together

Cultivating indoor succulents may seem daunting, but with the right knowledge and a bit of trial and error, you can create a thriving oasis of greenery in your home. Remember to consider the key elements of lighting, watering, air flow, humidity, warmth, soil, and proper potting and feeding techniques. And don’t forget to primp and prune your plants regularly to keep them looking their best.

Whether you’re a seasoned plant parent or just starting your indoor gardening journey, I hope these novel tips for growing indoor succulents will help you unlock the true joy of living with these resilient and beautiful plants. Happy planting!

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