Succulents have a reputation for being homebodies. Charming on bookshelves and perfect on window ledges, they're frequently thought of as indoor plants. But succulents can also make great additions to outdoor gardens. "You can grow succulents outside in almost all climates," says Marianne Hugo, director at Coastkeeper Garden, a nonprofit conservation garden in Orange County, California. "If you live in colder parts of the country, it just takes a little more planning and rotating."
Ground vs. Planters
The vast majority of succulents won't survive a frost. With the exception of a few extra-hardy varieties—such as hens and chicks, which go dormant in freezing temperatures—outdoor succulents will die once cold weather moves in. Unless you live in the warmest parts of the country, you'll want to plant your outdoor succulents in pots that can be moved inside once the mercury drops. Potting succulents also allows you to control how much water your plants receive. Although they're celebrated for being low-maintenance, succulents have delicate roots that can rot when overly saturated.
"There's only one way to truly kill a succulent, and that's too much water," says Hugo. "If you live in an area where it rains frequently, such as Portland, or if it's an unusually wet season, planters allow you to bring your succulents inside to keep dry." Even in sunny Southern California, where conditions are ideal for succulents, Hugo finds planters helpful. "When we're having a terrible heat wave, I move mine into the shade," she says. "Even succulents can get too much sun."
Caring for Succulents in the Ground
For all the advantages of pots, if you live in a perennially warm climate, consider planting some of your succulents in your garden bed. As desert natives, they tolerate weather extremes better than most plants, and are an easy way to cut down on wasteful water usage. When planting succulents in the ground, it's important to provide them with well-draining soil that will prevent root rot. Before planting, create a six-inch mound using a lightweight, succulent-specific soil mix. Then, plant your succulent in this mound.
When planting succulents that like to sprawl, such as hens and chicks, be sure to allow enough space between plants. These petite plants spread generously as they mature. Once in the garden bed, succulents need little care. During extreme droughts or heat, you may consider watering if their leaves begin to shrivel. But keep in mind that thirsty succulents are better than drenched succulents. "When in doubt, if you’re wondering if it needs water, it's better to err on the side of not watering your succulents," says Hugo.
Although succulents don't attract many pests, those outdoors can become infested with the dreaded mealybug. These white, wingless insects are found in warmer climates and greenhouses, where they enjoy snacking on juicy plants—and there's no juicer plant than a succulent. If you observe mealybugs on your outdoor succulent, Hugo recommends removing the infested leaf or branch. If the bugs have invaded the entire plant, it's best to get rid of the plant.
Caring for Succulents in Planters
Succulents thrive in a variety of pots. Those that live exclusively indoors can occupy almost any type of vessel, from teapots to terrariums, provided the amount of water is carefully regulated. When outdoors, however, succulents can be soaked by heavy rains. For this reason, it's important to use pots with drainage holes. Terra cotta pots are ideal, as they naturally wick away moisture from the soil. Succulents should be potted in a lightweight succulent soil mix that allows for ideal drainage.
As with succulents planted in the ground, potted succulents living outdoors will rarely need watering. However, if it's unusually hot or dry, check in with your plants. Are the leaves shriveled? Does the soil appear dusty? If so, they likely need a drink. While it's true that most succulents enjoy abundant sunshine, some do best in partial sun or shade. Be sure the succulents in your planter have similar light requirements, and keep them in a portion of the yard that suits them best.
Moving Succulents Indoors
If you live in a cooler climate, your potted succulents will have to come indoors before your area experiences the first frost of the season. Before moving indoors, double-check for mealybugs. Remove any portions of plants that are infested—you don’t want to introduce bugs to your indoor plants.
Once indoors, most succulents will need a generous amount of light. If you don’t have enough sunshine to go around, Hugo suggests investing in grow lights. Some succulents go dormant over the winter and require little or no water. Others, however, continue to actively grow, and will need to be watered as often as once a week. Research your individual plants to ensure that they enjoy a happy, healthy winter vacation indoors.