Succulents are nicer and better behaved than cactus

Duane Campbell

The column today is not about cactus; itís about succulents. There is a lot of confusion between these two terms, and by the end of my allotted space I hope to add considerably to it.

I have three different books titled ďCactus and Succulents.Ē They should be titled ďCactus and otherSucculents.Ē Cactus ó which Iím not talking about here ó is the name of a specific plant family. The cactus family. Most members have nasty spines and all members are (pay attention now) succulent.

Succulents are not nearly so well defined. A succulent is any plant that has fleshy leaves or stems. Cactus are all succulents, but so are some members of many other plant families. Haworthia, the hedgehog plant, is a member of the lily family. Hoyas are related to milkweed and the jade tree is a cousin of our Christmas poinsettia.

I donít like cactus. Thatís why Iím not going to write about them. They are largely uninteresting plants, and for a klutz like me, they are dangerous. Iíve had a few, and any time I got my hand within two feet of them, they would leap out and attack me.

Succulents are a different matter. Theyíre more interesting and better mannered. In fact, the smaller succulents are a perfect plant for casual gardeners with a bright windowsill. Given the right soil and decent light, they will survive the most inept care.

The reason they are grouped together is that they require similar care. Thatís not surprising, since they are all succulents.

With few exceptions, these plants all grow in arid regions, so the first rule is that they cannot tolerate constant moisture. To assure this, you need two things: a pot with a hole in the bottom and very open soil. For the novice, I would suggest that you buy soil specifically labeled for cactus even if you have non-cactus succulents. More experienced gardeners can mix their own using a lot of sand in the recipe. I make a blend of half pure compost and half sand. To be absolutely safe, I top dress with a layer of aquarium stones; it looks nice and keeps the water away from the base of the plant.

With the right pot and the right soil, itís hard to overwater succulents during their growing season. In summer you can treat them like any other house plant.

In winter it gets just a little more dicey, but nothing a rookie canít handle. You just need to exercise some discipline. Water every three or four weeks, no more, maybe less.

That sounds a lot like a rule, so let me fudge just a bit. As much as neophytes would have it so, there are no hard and fast rules on watering intervals. Ultimately one who would call himself a Gardener must learn to water a plant when the plant needs it, and there is no better place to start learning than with succulents. So start by watering them in winter ... oh, say once a month. But watch them carefully. If you see the first faint signs of shriveling, water them. Eventually you will begin to see the early signs of water need with more subtle, less forgiving plants.

Along with dry, succulents like it cool and bright in winter. There are some that may appreciate the relief of some shade in July, but our January sun is no threat to any plant.

Simple. Put Ďem in the right pot, the right soil, the right place. Do that and you donít even have to worry whether theyíre cactus or succulents.

Duane Campbell is a nationally known agricultural expert. He can be reacher at R6, Box 6029, Towanda, PA 18848 or e-mail at

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