I am an eternal optimist when it comes to succulents.
When I enter a plant store, I never picture my dim, drafty apartment with only one southern exposure (facing an airshaft). I instantly forget that I live in New York City, where temperatures are frigid for half the year (I’m typing this with mittens on). And I certainly don’t dwell on past casualties—the feather cactus that grew so weary with existence that one day it quietly disintegrated into a pile of gray dust feels more like something I heard about in passing than something I vacuumed up last weekend.
Instead, when I enter a plant store, I head straight for the succulents.
I love their miniature stature. Their nubby, swollen leaves are intoxicating. Succulents manage to look relaxed, stylish, and classic all at once, like if Julia Roberts starred in a film about a socialite going off the grid in Palm Springs. I imagine a succulent driving a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado through the desert with confidence and a silk headscarf. Now I want a convertible, too.
Unfortunately succulents do not harbor reciprocal feelings toward me: I’ve never been able to keep them alive through an entire winter. Last spring, as I guiltily disposed of the latest gang—reduced to a tangle of gnarled, dried-out stems and rotted leaves, puckered and wan like golden raisins—I vowed to end the cycle of senseless succulent slaughter.
I did my research. I invested in new equipment. I steeled myself against the next hellish snow/sleet/fog/windstorm winter 2018 has coming for me. And this year, when I bought my replacement succulents, I gave them names. Was that a bit rash? I’ll let Tim, Matilda, and Mister Cute answer that one.
Read on for my winter-tested tips to help your indoor succulents survive the cold months:
Photography by Mimi Giboin for Gardenista.
Buy Hardy Succulents
Set yourself up for success. Buy the hardiest varieties you can find: burro’s tail, aloe vera, snake plant, and hens and chicks can tolerate more fluctuation in temperature and sunlight than some of their fair-weather cousins. Stay away from living stone plants (lithops), aeoniums, and the finicky feather cactus.
Feed Succulents Sparingly
Contrary to my own personal beliefs about how one should pass time in the winter, succulents prefer not to be overfed in these dormant months. In fact, they only require fertilizer during the warmer part of the year, when they’re actively growing. The addition of fertilizer in colder months can cause succulents’ leaves to get soft and fall off, a condition known in my household as “Little Tim’s Disorder” (one that was quickly remedied after the initial feeding—Tim is expected to make a full recovery).
Find a Sunny SpotSunlight is king. Find a spot for your succulents where they can pass the winter months with daily access to natural light—southern exposures are ideal. They’ll need less sunlight than they would in the summer, but aim for at least three to four hours a day.
Resist the urge to over-water. Because succulents don’t actively grow in the winter, they don’t need as much water—once every four to six weeks should do the trick. When you do water your succulents, use the same technique you would in other seasons: water all the way through to soak their roots, then drain the excess from the bottom of the succulent’s pot.
Arrange for Drainage
Pot thoughtfully. Because succulents like to have their roots soaked when they’re being watered, they appreciate containers with proper drainage. Avoid glass planters with solid bottoms; allowing succulents sit in soggy soil in the winter when there’s less light to dry it out can cause your plants’ leaves to rot and attract pests.
Look for terra cotta or ceramic pots with drainage holes, and use mesh tape or cheesecloth to keep the soil from falling out.
Expect Leaf Loss
Don’t obsess over outer leaves. A succulent’s lowest leaves will often dry and shrivel, before falling off, in the winter months. This is not a cause for concern! (The patient woman who owns the plant shop in my neighborhood encouraged me to repeat this mantra next time I feel compelled to rush in the moment she opens, with Mister Cute swaddled in a dish towel.)
Lower leaves will fall off in the summer months, too—it’s an ordinary part of succulents’ growth cycle. However, if you see leaves start to shrivel toward the top of the plant where the newest growths are coming in, this is a red flag, and could be the result of over-feeding, or too much water (which can kill a plant’s roots).
De-bug As Needed
Keep an eye out for what looks like tiny cotton balls on the underside of your succulents’ leaves, often where they meet the stem. These are bugs, and can be eradicated by spraying the plants with a mixture of rubbing alcohol and water. Start with a ratio of one half cup rubbing alcohol to one quart of water, and adjust the proportions up to one cup of rubbing alcohol if you’re not seeing results.
Check the Thermostat
Succulents’ favorite temperature changes with the seasons. In the winter, they prefer to be in a room that’s between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit—versus the summer, when they do better when temperatures range from 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
N.B.: So many succulents, so little time. See more tips in Succulents 101: A Field Guide to Planting, Care, and Design. See more:
- If you have a question about a specific kind of succulent, see our field guides for Aeoniums, Agaves, Aloes, Christmas Cactus, Crassulas, Echeverias, String of Pearls, and Senita Cactus.
- Landscape Designer Visit: At Home with Flora Grubb in Berkeley, California.
- See growing tips for more of our favorite indoor plants in Houseplants 101: A Field Guide to Planting, Care, and Design.
- Required Reading: Success with Succulents.
- Everything You Need to Know About Succulents.
- Succulents Explained: How to Grow and Identify 12 Favorites.