Growing and Propagating Succulents

Magnificent, easy, and prolific.

Magnificent, easy, and prolific.

We'll get to designing with succulents another day - I don't have any good pictures of my process at the moment! In the meantime, we’ll start with growing and propagating, plus the varieties that I’ve had success with, and maybe a few that I covet with all my soul.

Succulents are probably the easiest and perhaps most profitable plants we grow. They are extremely popular for weddings right now, and the trend shows no signs of slowing, so I keep propagating. I started propagating succulents pretty much accidentally, when a leaf detached from one of mine and started growing roots. "Wow," thought I, "It's cloning itself. Genius." So I bought some mother plants from the big box store and my local nursery and started popping their leaves off and sticking them in the soil. Soon I had a whole succulent hive. They cost almost nothing to care for, except water, a little bit of time, and electricity, and they are brilliant for boutonnières, flower crowns, centerpieces, wedding favors, and wearable jewelry à la Susan McLeary, AKA @passionflowersue. They are a bit fussy to work with in design, but we'll get to that another day.

GROWING

I grow succulents under fluorescent lights in my basement, and they seem to love it. They don't stretch, the way they always do if I have one just out in my living room, but I imagine if you have a VERY sunny window they would also stay in their compact rosette form. I use the T5 fixtures that I also use for starting my annuals and perennials in the early spring, on a timer that gives the plants a 16-hour day. 

At first, I was growing succulents in 2-inch nursery pots, the kind that fit 32 per standard tray. These pots are quite deep, and I found that about half the soil was not being used, since succulents have fairly shallow roots. So when I got my new soil blocker, I started putting them in blocks. They love it! I think they actually grow faster. I mix an all-purpose organic fertilizer into the soil before planting, according to the label instructions, but I've also planted them in plain soil with nothing at all in the past and they were fine.  I don't use a special quick-draining cactus soil, because it's not necessary in our very dry climate - I just use a basic potting soil, whatever we have around for our regular starts.  If you live in a moist area, you may find that a fast-draining soil is necessary.

Succulents growing happily in their 2-inch soil blocks. 

Succulents growing happily in their 2-inch soil blocks. 

Succulent flowers are kind of a nuisance, but they are super beautiful.

Succulent flowers are kind of a nuisance, but they are super beautiful.

Succulents like it dry, warm, and bright. I water when I notice that the plants are a little bit floppy, that the leaves are not a rigid as they should be. I water my new baby plants much more often than my big plants, which seem to tolerate long stretches without water just fine, but I don’t water on a regular schedule - I just feel it out. I think I could probably wait 10-14 days between waterings. I only ever bottom water my succulents, because my water is very hard and leaves behind mineral spots on the leaves which do not come off, and I can’t have that on the plants I use for weddings.  Every month or so, I add an organic liquid fertilizer to the water and let them soak it up. I try to use a fertilizer with high nitrogen and low potassium - I don’t really want the succulents to flower, because they produce big long fat stems that can deform the perfect spiral shape. However, the flowers are stunning and tropical-looking, and they can add a lot to a corsage or boutonniere. They last forever, too.

Sometimes, a plant will stretch much more than is useful to me. If this happens, I simply behead it and replant it. I just cut the top off, where it’s still looking like a rosette, and nestle it back into a container with fresh, moist soil. It will start to sprout roots within a few weeks. I’ll then remove the remaining leaves from the stem and put them somewhere to start making new babies. If I leave the beheaded stem in the soil, it too will start to sprout new baby plants! These are my “zombie mommies.”

Until recently, I didn’t have any problems with pests. I do see tiny insects nesting in the soil around my succulents’ roots, and I have had some die from root worms, but not many. I’ll just notice one day that the plant is dying, and if I pull it out a bit, sure enough, it just pops out of the soil because the stem is eaten through and rotten.  I just get rid of the contaminated soil, bleach the container, and start over. Some varieties seem more susceptible to this problem than others.

Eew. You can see the scarring from aphids on this one. Since applying the insecticidal soap though, the center has greened up.

Eew. You can see the scarring from aphids on this one. Since applying the insecticidal soap though, the center has greened up.

Aphids. Ew. But also, this shows how plantlets can arise from the stumps of beheaded plants.

Aphids. Ew. But also, this shows how plantlets can arise from the stumps of beheaded plants.

Plague of horrors, however! I’ve recently had an issue with aphids eating the new growth of plants - from old ones to brand new babies. It is not nice! They leave gross sticky stuff (honeydew) everywhere, can scar the leaves, and keep the plant from growing. They are tiny little blue-gray dots, and every time I think I’ve killed them, they come back. LAME. I’ve started using Safer brand insect soap, and it does kill them, but they are so sneaky that they hide form it and some always survive. Lady bugs may be next, or neem oil. Anyone have experience with aphids on their succulents?

Other than the aphids, there’s just not much to worry about with these tough, beautiful creatures, and they keep giving and giving.

Some of my succulents are huge! These ones are about 3 years old, and they have been beheaded and replanted a few times - they just keep truckin’.

Some of my succulents are huge! These ones are about 3 years old, and they have been beheaded and replanted a few times - they just keep truckin’.

PROPAGATING

Succulents just want to take over the world! It seems like all parts of the plant will product a new one, if given a chance - all I do to propagate is create the right conditions and accelerate the process.  It does take a while - about 9 months to a year for a leaf-propagated succulent to reach 4-5 inches in diameter, depending on variety. I use three different strategies to propagate my succulents.

Leaf method: Starting with the mother plant, I choose a fat, healthy bottom leaf (or, I choose many fat healthy bottom leaves all at once). Bigger leaves tend to produce bigger, faster plantlets. Wiggling the leaf back and forth, I move it until it pops off the stem without tearing either the leaf or the stem. Sometimes I fail and hurt the leaf or the stem - some varieties are more compliant than others. When I have my collection of leaves, I toss them into an empty flat and let them have a little light, though they don’t need much. If I’m trying to propagate a very desirable or hard-to-sprout variety, I’ll use rooting hormone according to the package instructions.

It takes at least 2 weeks for the leaves to start making their tiny, red roots. Some plants start making new plants before they make roots, and some never get around to rooting, while others make roots, but never make a new plant! Ideally, you want both. One the leaves start to make roots, I put some moist soil into their flat, so the roots will have something to grab onto while I’m waiting for them to make plantlets. Then, once I see plenty of roots on a leaf with a good sized plantlet, I pop it into a soil block, just nestling the roots down into the block and snugging them in. I keep these flats well-watered until I can tug on the plant and feel resistance from the roots. After that, they’re pretty much home free!

Little red-pink roots coming off a nice leaf.

Little red-pink roots coming off a nice leaf.

A wee plantlet settling into its new soil block home.

A wee plantlet settling into its new soil block home.

Stump method: I use this method for plants that are difficult to propagate via leaves - sometimes, they just don’t want to make roots or new plants. I discovered this method back when we had giant pack rats that terrorized our basement - they would bite the heads off my most beautiful succulents and take them back to their shadowy lair. But, soon after, the stumps of these beheaded succulents would begin to sprout tiny new plantlets, right where they had been guillotined. I simply waited for these babies to grow large enough to cut off, and then snugged them down into a new soil block. This method, along with the next one, produces the fastest clones - they are already primed to live and have had the support of the mother plant throughout their development, whereas the leaves have only that one tiny part of her. To cut off a new plantlet, sterilize your cutting implement (I like needle-nosed snips or trimming shears with very skinny points), and snip the plant out near the stem of the mother plant. Make a loose hole in the soil block or other medium and place the stem into it gently, pressing the soil in around it for good contact.

Here are some out-of-focus plantlets growing from the stump of a rat-ravaged giant. 

Here are some out-of-focus plantlets growing from the stump of a rat-ravaged giant. 

Here's the rooting hormone I use occasionally.

Here's the rooting hormone I use occasionally.

Sucker method: This is the easiest method and produces great clones. Most succulents, once they reach a certain size, will begin to make suckers, sometimes from the main stem , but often from below the soil line. All you have to do is a little hunting - lift up the lower leaves of your older succulents, and you’ll probably find some babes under their mommas’ skirts, just waiting for a new home and their time in the sun. Just snip them off and plant them in a new soil block. They’ll get growing immediately. make sure you just plant the rosette, no the stretched stem, as they don’t have roots to support any height. New succulent clones from leaves often make multiple plants, as well, and these can be divided to further multiply your stock. Wait until the plants are fairly big, and then snip off the biggest sister - she’s got a lot of energy, while the other sibling can still be supported by the roots she’s already grown.

This little sucker is coming out of the soil from beneath her momma plant.

This little sucker is coming out of the soil from beneath her momma plant.

Often, new plantlets will come in pairs, triads, or quartets. They can be divided. 

Often, new plantlets will come in pairs, triads, or quartets. They can be divided. 

VARIETIES

The best rosette succulents are Echeverias and Sempervivums, but there are many other genera that make great succulents for favors and just general enjoyment. I actually think the zebra plant is my favorite, but it’s very slow and not great for propagating.

FairyBlooms is a fun Instagram to follow and they have a great selection in their online shop, though of course I recommend using your local nursery whenever possible.  They also sometimes have the most coveted succulent of all, the variegated “Compton Carousel.” You’ll pay out the wazoo for it though - almost $50 for a 4-inch plant. It’s rare!

I don’t know the names of a lot of my succulents, but I do know a few: here are the ones I currently grow.

Lilacina - Very productive, easy to propagate, and grow quite large.

Lilacina - Very productive, easy to propagate, and grow quite large.

Lipstick (?) - not so easy to propagate, but very pretty and worth the effort.

Lipstick (?) - not so easy to propagate, but very pretty and worth the effort.

Perle Von Nurnberg - easiest and most productive of all, fast to size.

Perle Von Nurnberg - easiest and most productive of all, fast to size.

Black Prince - Beautiful color, but susceptible to root rot.

Black Prince - Beautiful color, but susceptible to root rot.

I also grow, but don't have pictures of:

Lola

Topsy Turvy

Caribbean/Neon Breakers

and a bunch of others. 

How do you propagate succulents? What varieties do you like? What god should I pray to to save me from this plague of aphids?

 

Mouse Attack, the Marijuana Industry, and Baseball Cards

This post ain’t too pretty, I’ll tell you right off the bat. Hope you like pictures of thermostats!

Well guys, some days you just can’t win. I went into my propagation room this morning to find 3 flats razed by mouse destruction. They chopped my Scabiosa stellata and made holes in the seeds they dug up (they must be geniuses), beheaded my stock seedlings, and somehow ate my tiny tiny feverfew seedlings as well. Grrr! Well, what do you do - just get over it, wipe your tears, and start over. As Mimo Davis, of Urban Buds, said to me at the Floret workshop, “When in doubt, plant more seeds.” So I did, and it made me feel better.  At least they didn’t have a taste for my snapdragons. Anyway I put an awesome electronic trap down there so those furry lil cuties will be dead soon, Jah willing. (Yes, Jah. I’m not a Rastafarian but I appreciate the philosophy).

Just a good old fashioned dirt party.

Just a good old fashioned dirt party.

Can you even believe this?

Can you even believe this?

Now on to the good stuff. I wanted to share with you a bit more about our seed-starting setup and how I organize my seeds, because I think it’s pretty nifty. We have a basement grow space with five T5 broad spectrum lights, of the 8-tube, 4-foot variety. We hang the lights over our benches, as close to the seedlings as they can be without diminishing the footprint of the lights too much. Our older room is lined with white plastic to reflect the light back to the seedlings instead of letting it escape into the gloomy basement - these are the tricks you learn from the marijuana industry ;). Our newer space is just slap-dash - I bought new lights this spring and set up the space really quickly, without reflective plastic, and I do notice a difference in brightness. And ideally, we’d have a natural-light propagation house with heat out on the farm, because I do notice that my basements seedlings are quite leggy. The lights are all controlled by a simple timer that I have set to a 16-hour day.

Space #1, with the white plastic walls and a billion succulents.

Space #1, with the white plastic walls and a billion succulents.

Space #2, with creepy sandstone foundation walls and very uneven floor. 

Space #2, with creepy sandstone foundation walls and very uneven floor. 

 
One of the simple timers that controls the lights. 

One of the simple timers that controls the lights. 

 

Speaking of the marijuana industry, another big development is that we bought a whole pallet of potting soil from our local grow supplier. I’m so happy about this - last year we spent $700 on good potting soil and bought it bag by bag as we needed it - but of course, we often didn’t have it when we did need it, and planting was delayed. I think these 60 2-cubic-foot bags will last us at least a couple of seasons, and cost only a little more than what we spent last year.  The brand we bought is Tupur Gold, which is formulated for hydroponic indoor growing, but I like it because it’s super-fine, has lots of drainage (it’s easy to over-water seedlings indoors), and it’s cheap. I fortify the soil with granular fertilizers like Down-to-Earth’s All-Purpose Mix, and then feed the seedlings regularly with liquid nutrients like Age Old Organics Grow. I’d love to hear how the rest of you get enough soil for your regular planting schedule, and if I’m missing out on a great deal elsewhere. I’ve tried to get bulk orders from Johnny’s, but they never got back to me with a shipping quote, waaaahh!

The best part about going to my indoor growing supplier (Way To Grow, in Boulder), is that all the clerks are potheads, and they all think that I’m growing pot. When I say, “I grow flowers,” they’re like, “Yeah man, flowers, heh heh.” (Because, of course, the part of the plant you smoke, and that has the THC, is the flower!) I let them think what they think. Also I’ve never seen another woman in that store - is the pot industry really that male-dominated? Seems like it.

Yep, that's what part of a pallet of soil looks like.

Yep, that's what part of a pallet of soil looks like.

Some of the nutrients we mix into our soil.

Some of the nutrients we mix into our soil.

Last year, we built a small nursery inside our big hoop house - my design partner Kim calls it the babushka - which I think means “Grandmother” in Russian, but I think she’s referring to those nesting dolls. The nursery has two giant benches in it, and the top is made of PVC hoops. We covered it with old hoop-house plastic. (We replaced our plastic in the spring of '15 and promptly got a hundred holes in it from a 3-hour hailstorm with golfball-sized stones). The idea with the benches was that we’d use a sump pump to flood them with water from our old aquaponics tank, which is inside the hoop house, thereby bottom-watering all our seedlings at regular intervals. We tried this, but it didn’t work too well, because we hadn’t made the tables perfectly level so the water would spread out evenly under all the seedlings. This year, my plan is to use capillary matting on top of the benches but under the seed trays, to hold the water until the plants can soak it up. I think this will work especially well with soil block trays.

A hoop within a hoop. And some junk. And our wee tiller. 

A hoop within a hoop. And some junk. And our wee tiller. 

That little white PVC pipe in the foreground is where the water can flood out. There is a bench on the other side too - it's just covered by frost cloth. Storage solutions...

That little white PVC pipe in the foreground is where the water can flood out. There is a bench on the other side too - it's just covered by frost cloth. Storage solutions...

The nursery is pretty heavily DIY-engineered. The climate controls are a big exhaust fan on one end, controlled by a thermostat, plus an intake fan that pulls cool air from the north side of the hoophouse through both the hoophouse and nursery wall. This works, but because of the placement of the fan, most of the cool air stays near ground level. Trying to figure out a fix for that has been a headache. In the early season, we also place two space heaters, the beefiest ones we could find on sale at our local big box store,  under the benches and control them with timers during the evening. This year I’d like to upgrade to controlling them with thermostats. My favorite thermostats are not programmable, but rather these super basic (and super-cheap) Thermo Cubes, which come in a variety of temperature ranges. For my big box fans that exhaust the hoop house, I have the TC-21, which switches on when the temperature gets above 78°, and off when it gets below 70°. This saves me and my interns from having to plug in and unplug the fans every day. I also have one for the space heater I put in my cooler (does that ever sound oxymoronic), where I’m storing my dahlia tubers, as an “oh shit” measure in case it gets really too cold in there. That one goes on at 35° and off at 45°.

Exhaust fan. It's actually an attic exhaust fan I think. 

Exhaust fan. It's actually an attic exhaust fan I think. 

Intake fan. The silver tubing connects to the outside world on the north side of the hoop house.

Intake fan. The silver tubing connects to the outside world on the north side of the hoop house.

Cold Thermo Cube connected to a space heater.

Cold Thermo Cube connected to a space heater.

Hot Thermo Cube for our hoop house exhaust fans.

Hot Thermo Cube for our hoop house exhaust fans.

So that’s the seeding setup, in addition to the heat mats, domes, and so forth. What I really want to show you is our super cool seed storage system (well, I think it’s super cool. I don’t know about my employees, or you). I use baseball card pocket pages - you know, those 9-pocket plastic sleeves you would use to hold your most precious collectors’ items. Well, that’s what my seeds are to me, so what could be more appropriate? Not only do the sleeves protect and organize my seeds, they also mean that my seeds take up a LOT less space. I have 3 binders of seeds - 2 for my annuals and 1 for perennials. I’m definitely going to need another annual binder soon, the way I’ve been ordering - eek!

In the beginning, I cut the seed packets open, dumped the seeds into a plastic bag, and then labeled the bag and stuck it in the pocket, but as you can imagine, that took up a lot of time and was tedious and unnecessary. Now I just fold the seed packet in half and stuff it in. Geoseed packets are slightly too big, so I have to cut the edges off, but Johnny’s & Renee’s Garden packets fit perfectly. When I order a lot of seeds or bulky ones like wheat, they get dumped into a bin and are not very organized at all. But I know they’re there. I think (I hope) the binders help my interns and field manager learn the names of the seeds, and their characteristics, since they’re all out there in the open and easily accessible.

So easy! So organized! Saves so much space! Thanks the Internet for showing me the way.

So easy! So organized! Saves so much space! Thanks the Internet for showing me the way.

Almost all my seeds in less than 1 cubic foot of space.

Almost all my seeds in less than 1 cubic foot of space.

Well jeez that turned into a long post really quickly! Tell me about your seeding set up, and your seed organization strategies, and how you get enough soil for your business. Are these kinds of nuts-and-bolts posts interesting to you? Am I showing too much of how the sausage is made? Thanks so much for listening to my crazy thoughts and ideas.

Starting the Season

Well, here goes my first blog post - ever! Despite my English major heritage, I haven't been writing much, to my brain's dismay.  So I hope this will help me keep myself sharp, focused, and provide reasons for why I do things the way I do. I hope it's helpful to you too :)

This year, we started our first seeds in the last week of January.  These include varieties like snapdragons, craspedia, stock, rudbeckia, and icelandic poppies, which are call cold hardy and like being cold - or some that just take a long time to get going, like foxglove and campanula. We are trying a technique that Lisa Mason Ziegler wrote about in her wonderful book, Cool Flowers: by starting seeds very early in the spring or even in winter, and planting them out early, we can take advantage of the cool spring weather that allows hardy annuals to flourish, strengthening their root systems and giving them the natural cool to warm weather they need to complete their life cycles. When I found Lisa's book, at first I was really skeptical, and then I was really, really excited. I saw that all these years I had been waiting for things to warm up, when I could be taking advantage of the cool/cold spring weather! It's the first year we are trying these methods, so we'll see how they work out in our Zone 5 garden, where temps can dip to -10°F.  

Our hand-pump style seeder, for the tiniest seeds.

Our hand-pump style seeder, for the tiniest seeds.

The first seeds to pop up this year were our ornamental kale, Crane Bicolor.  They are quick!

The first seeds to pop up this year were our ornamental kale, Crane Bicolor.  They are quick!

I like to use a hand-pump style seeder, from Johnny's Selected Seeds,  for these tiny and often expensive seeds. Once you get the hang of it, it's not too difficult to use, and does seems to save some time. As you see, we use heat mats, attached to a thermostat, to give the root zone a lil' bit of warmth to encourage those seeds to pop. I also use acrylic humidity domes to ensure the seeds and seedlings stay moist between waterings. Right now, we grow under T5 grow lights on benches in our basement, which is warm but not too warm. The next big improvement to our farm would definitely be a heated propagation house - right now, we have a nursery inside our hoop house, but it's just not enough space, even so! I feel like we could never have enough seedling space, really. 

This year, I finally put together a proper seeding schedule, relying on my Excel spreadsheets and a few hours of tedious computer work. But now I have a list of everything I need to start each week, including successions, bulbs, dahlias, etc, and all I have to do is trust that my December/January self got it right! (Hard to do - I'm always second-guessing her.) Next time, I'll show you how I store and organize my seeds, along with a more zoomed out view of our seeding area, and we'll see how the plants are getting along. Thanks for reading!