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Growing Succulents in Containers
by Jean Starr - posted 07/06/17










Mixed succulents “cool down” this beautiful red pot.

They can be hairy, tiny, fuzzy, striped or ghost-like. They can form rosettes of dusty slate blue, green or white edged in red, or blend in with their surroundings. These are just a few of the variations found in plants beneath the umbrella term “succulent.” They’re fairly new on the mainstream gardening scene, especially in the Midwest. Africa has the largest population and variety, with Mexico next, but succulent plants occur in nearly every country in the world. One thing succulents have in common is their ability to store moisture in their stems and leaves, allowing us more latitude in their watering schedule.

According to Allan Smessaert of Acorn Markets in the Chicago area, knowing where a plant grows best is important. “Do your research,” he said. “Will they do what you want them to do versus what it looks like they’ll do? If you’re putting it outside you’ve got to use a big enough pot to support the growth and hold enough moisture.”

Plants to Try

Here are a dozen readily available plants to consider for succulent combinations:

Aeonium spp.
Aloe spp.
Cotyledon spp.
Crassula spp.
Dudleya spp.
Echeveria spp.
Faucaria spp.
Hasteria spp.
Haworthia spp.
Kalanchoe spp.
Pachyphytum spp.
Sedum spp.

Left: Purple Crassula
Right: This jade plant relative, Crassula coccinea ‘Campfire’, has a great reddish color.

Control the Moisture and Sun
Yes, they do need moisture — just not too much. Leaving a newly-planted container out in a heavy downpour isn’t going to be good for it. Smessaert suggests covering it with a plastic bucket if you can’t put it under cover during the rain storm.

Contrary to common belief, succulents really don’t need full sun, even in the Midwest. Acclimating any plant to the outdoors should be a slow process. “Allow about two weeks to fully transition a plant,” said Smessaert. “Give them full shade for the first several days and gradually move it into more sun every couple of days.”

If you’re looking to fill a pot quickly for summer color outdoors, you’ll need to start with some fairly large plants. This is advantageous in two ways — the pot looks good from the beginning, and there is less chance of overwatering. Tiny plants combined in too large a pot can suffer from overwatering because it takes a long time for their roots to fill the pot sufficiently to prevent pockets of moist soil to lead to fungus and bacteria.

In his book, The Timber Press Guide to Succulent Plants of the World, author Fred Dortort recommends waiting from 36 to 72 hours after repotting succulents to water them, allowing time for any damaged root tips to heal.

This bowl of succulents shows the variability of plants in the Crassulaceae family, which includes Echeveria spp.

Succulent Topiary Idea
Ron Elardo instructs a class on planting succulents in a topiary frame for Hidden Lake Gardens in Tipton, Michigan. The frames are created with inexpensive 1-foot tomato cages that he anchors to a plastic pot bottom.

Elardo recommends forming a cone shape by tying the ends of the tomato cage together and either cutting them off or bending them so they are no longer a hazard. To keep the soil inside the cone, cover it with green plastic snow fencing. Before anchoring the cage to a plastic pot bottom, line it with moss and then stuff it with potting soil. Drill holes around the rim of the saucer as well as at the bottom for drainage. Anchor the filled cone to the saucer with zip ties. Use a bamboo stick to poke holes into the soil for small succulents, which are anchored with floral pins.

In a topiary like this one, which will be grown outdoors in summer, Elardo uses regular potting soil and is careful about watering it. “I use a watering can that has a sprinkler end on it,” he said. “The idea is to keep it moist. It doesn’t need to be soaked.”

This mixed pot is a great example of the many forms and colors of succulents now readily available throughout the Midwest.

Some Soil Science
Ask three succulent growers about soil and you’ll get at least three formulas for potting mixes. There are no hard and fast rules for which formula is best — it depends on the plant. For Crassula spp. and Echeveria spp., Smessaert recommends mixing a regular potting soil with pumice at a ratio of about 75 percent to 25 percent. You can use regular potting soil with perlite, but perlite has a tendency to break down, get mushy and float to the top of the surface. Sandbox sand works well but it is heavy.

“Pumice works like perlite but it is heavier so it doesn’t float or break down,” he said. “It’s hard to find but it’s much more effective (than sand or perlite).”

Coir fiber (which is a coconut-based fibrous medium) can be used in place of a more peat-heavy potting mix, and many growers also recommend lava fines or fired clay bits (Turface MVP), gravel and even chicken grit.

Cool Weather Care
Most succulents grow very slowly. If your mixed planter still looks good in the fall, you might want to try overwintering it indoors, but don’t bring it in too early. Smessaert says fall weather can bring out the color in many succulents. “Even non-hardy succulents can withstand a light frost,” he said. Kalanchoe ‘Flapjacks’ has a hint of red on the leaf margins in midsummer. Leave them out in October and even November and they turn a beautiful red.”

Succulents lend themselves well to growing in a clay strawberry pot.

Color Controversy
Speaking of color, there are some European growers that have released a number of succulents in all the shades of a rainbow. It’s incredibly controversial in the world of horticulture, and Dan Bernachi of Ted’s Greenhouse in Tinley Park, Ill., isn’t impressed. “The company doing it claims it is a ‘special’ paint but in my youth I made many a delivery to florists who had a plethora of ‘floral’ paints that they sprayed on open blooms to achieve various effects,” he said. “I would gather that if you can spray the delicate tissue of a rose, you could most certainly paint a succulent as well.”

While the paint seems to adhere well to the plant, Bernachi says that the new growth will be the original plant’s color. He also has noticed the growth tends to be somewhat soft-looking perhaps because the paint limits the plant’s ability to photosynthesize.

As the plant grows and sheds its leaves, it will outgrow its color, kind of like the roots of someone who colors their hair. “Perhaps they will start plant ‘salons’ where you can take your plants regularly to have their color touched up,” Bernachi jokes.


For More Info

The Complete Book of Cacti and Succulents by Terry Hewitt

Echeveria Cultivars by Lorraine Schulz and Attila Kapitany

The Timber Press Guide to Succulent Plants of the World by Fred Dortort



A version of this article appeared in Indiana Gardening Volume 3 Number 4.
Photography courtesy of Debra Lee Baldwin, Proven Winners, Walter’s Gardens, and Jean Starr.


Jean Starr is an award-winning writer whose articles have appeared in several national and regional publications. She’s the editor and secretary of the Midwest Peony Society, a former columnist in the Times of Northwest Indiana for nine years and currently writes a blog, Petal Talk.