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Diggin' It

Ways to overwinter tender succulent plants

Succulent plants are easy to grow in containers during summer, but a little trickier to overwinter in cold climates.

By Betty Earl / November 19, 2009

Succulents – with their wide range of colors and textures – are perfect in containers.

Photo courtesy of Betty Earl.

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I love growing succulents -- you know, those alluring fleshy, spiny, hairy, thorny, and otherwise bizarre-looking plants – in old bird baths, troughs, dishes, and other small containers outdoors during the summer months.

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These tender, no-fuss plants offer interesting textures, shapes and colors, creating individually fascinating gardens that, for the most part, thrive on benign neglect.

Less time spent lugging around hoses or watering cans is a very compelling reason for growing several containers filled with these captivating gems.

Gardeners in warmer climates can grow them on walls, in rock gardens, in beds and borders, and containers year-round. However, here in the Midwest, growing them outdoors in containers during the summer is easy; but trying to overwinter them indoors is not.

Since tender succulents are such a large species with immense variations in tolerance for cool temperatures and lighting conditions, you can’t always expect perfect results. But over the years I’ve found several different methods of overwintering them that have worked for me with reasonable success. But to be honest, some losses still do occur.

Aloe and cacti are all placed near a south-facing window in the spare bedroom at the other end of the house, where my “neglect” actually helps them thrive.

Native to arid regions around the globe, these and other succulents, have adapted their thick, waxy leaves or gnarly, swollen bases to hold water for long periods of time, way beyond what the plant needs for its immediate use.

Several containers of everyone’s favorite pet -- donkey’s or burro’s tail (Sedum morganianum) -- also overwinter in this room on stands. All of these beautiful and low-maintenance succulents are almost perfect roommates to visiting guests.

As for the remaining succulents in my collection, I either take cuttings or room them from the base of detached leaves. For the most part, the process is the same:

With a sharp knife, take cuttings, removing a small piece of the plant, making sure to allow at least an inch or so of the stem (or break off some leaves from the middle of the plant.)

After removing the bottom leaves so that about a half-inch of exposed stem remains, allow the cutting to dry for a few days in a warm, dry place, away from direct sun.  Succulents will rot if a scab – or callus – has not formed over the cut end.

After the cuttings or detached leaves have air-dried, I dip the end of the stem (or leaf) in a rooting hormone and stick the cuttings into small shallow pots containing a premoistened, fast-draining potting mix, such as cactus soil mix.

Grouping the small pots in a tray, I place them under bright lights in my basement and water very sparingly throughout the winter months.

Come April, I pot up the cuttings in their summer containers and slowly acclimate them to the outdoors as the weather warms.

Last fall, however, I experimented on a very small scale with a different method  – and had great results. This fall I’m trying the same with a large trough full of succulents, hoping for similar good results.  Here’s what worked for me last year.

On a bottom shelf in a dark corner of my unheated basement, I gave the small container of succulents its winter home. They didn’t get a drop of water or a speck of light for four long months. In late February I brought the container into the warmer, well-lit section of the basement.

To break dormancy, I placed the container under bright lights, watered it well once, then only sparingly for the next couple of months.

The succulents resumed growing and appeared none the worse for their winter storage.

As the outside weather warmed, I acclimated the plants to outdoor conditions until the nights were warm enough to leave the container garden outdoors, once again, for the summer months.

Betty Earl, author of “In Search of Great Plants: The Insider’s Guide to the Best Plants in the Midwest,” writes a regular column for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine and The Kankakee Journal and numerous articles for Small Gardens Magazine, American Nurseryman, Nature’s Garden, and Midwest Living Magazine, as well as other national magazines. She is a garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens and a regional representative for The Garden Conservancy.

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