A few months ago my daughter and I were at Ponce City Market, an upscale mall in Atlanta that was remodeled from a gigantic 100-year-old building (the former Atlanta City Hall). It's a very unique place. We wandered around and came to a store that was filled with beautiful plants of all varieties and sizes. But they were soooo expensive. So I figured (as I often do), I can make that myself. The next week I went by the outdoor store and bought a bunch of different succulents, some cactus soil, and a few pretty planters. I also wanted to use some of my candle jars as planters. I replanted everything and they looked gorgeous. But two weeks later, half of them were dead. WHY???
I decided to do some research and, in the process, realized just how much I didn't know. The website Succulents and Sunshine has about everything you could possibly want to know about growing these plants (did you know a snake plant is a succulent? I did not). Because they have so much information, I have summarized it here into three key steps fo growing beautiful thriving succulents. If you want to learn more, including propagating, identifying, purchasing plants and supplies, check out their site.
Step 1--It's all about the dirt...and the water...but for now, just the dirt
Succulents don't like to sit in water. I knew this beforehand which is why I got cactus soil since it drains quickly. But, here's what I didn't know: succulents absorb water from the air around them, not through direct contact. But what does that mean in practice? It means they like soil with a large particle size. So that cactus soil I got them wasn't going to cut it because the dirt granules (grains?) were so small there weren't air pockets for the roots to absorb the water.
But there were other issues with my soil. It was relatively dense so the water had no way to evaporate from the surface, particularly on my pots that didn't have a drainage hole. (More on containers below). Your soil needs to be loose enough for the water to evaporate. The take-home message here is you need a soil with a large enough particle size so that the roots can get the water from the air around inside the soil and also allow water from below to evaporate at the surface.
So what do you use? I ordered a succulent mix online from a store called BonsaiJack. It was a bit more expensive but I figured if it kept my plants alive then it was worth it. I was pretty impressed with the company. They delivered fast (and for free). Plus my order came with a bunch of extra goodies. They sent a pH strip to test my water (though I didn't see instructions about what to do with those results), a pair of disposable gloves (my nails say thank you), and a metal chopstick. The chopstick is used to carefully remove dirt from the roots when replanting as well as to poke air holes in the dirt if needed. Very handy. But a bit more about the dirt...it was HUGE. In fact, it looked more like gravel than dirt because it has 1/4" sized pieces of inorganic material as well as organic material like pine bark. Honestly, I was a bit skeptical that it could even support a plant but it did and it looks really nice and neat.
Step 2--It's really easy to over or underwater succulents
If it's starting to sound like succulents are a lot of work, stay with me because there's just a bit of a learning curve. Once you know the key elements, they're really quite easy. But back to the water: it's probably easier to overwater succulents but they don't like being dry either. Overwatered succulents will have leaves that are almost transparent, yellowish, mushy and drop off at the slightest touch. This is exactly what happened to mine right before they kicked the bucket. If your succulents are getting too much water you may be able to save them by not watering for at least a week then watering them much less going forward. Conversely, a too dry succulent will have limp, thin leaves that droop downward and are wrinkled. To rectify this water them more frequently and ensure the water is going all the way to the bottom of the pot. Just be really careful to make any changes gradually so you don't end up with waterlogged plants.
How much and how often you water will depend on a number of factors. The suggestions below are for succulents grown indoors. They don't like to be sprayed so leave the spray bottle for another plant. The amount of water a succulent will need is determined by the soil (see above) and the pot (see below). Succulents like to be soaked and then allowed to dry completely. When they're soaked they will drink as much water as they can. When they're allowed to dry all the way to the bottom for several days they will put out new roots and the existing ones will get stronger and healthier. If your pot has a drain hole add water slowly until it starts to come out the hole. If your pot does not have a drain hole, the best way to water is to estimate the volume of the pot then add half that amount of water. You don't want to use the sink or a random amount from a watering can (which I definitely did not do), you need to measure it. I got a squirt bottle from Amazon with measurements so it is much easier to be precise with where you water. Don't water again until the pot is totally dry. If you have a drain hole you can feel to see if the soil is cool or wet; if it is, then wait a day or two and check again. If you don't have a drain hole, you'll have to estimate by weight. When you first water your succulent (with the measured water), lift the pot and pay attention to how much it weighs. Over the next several days continue to pick it up until it becomes substantially lighter. It is not a good idea to water on a set schedule (i.e. once a week, etc). Instead, pay attention to your plant, look for signs of too much or too little water and adjust accordingly. When in doubt, always err on the side of too little water; it's easier to save a too dry plant than a too wet one. If you make adjustments to the frequency or amount of watering, do it in small increments.
Step 3--Choose a good pot
The container for your succulent can make a big difference in your plant's health. The things to keep in mind are the container material, the drain hole (or not) and the pot size. A terra-cotta or glazed ceramic pot will dry out more quickly as it is porous. However, they can also be heavy and fragile. Large glazed pots can be more expensive although there are so many beautiful shapes, colors, and styles. A plastic pot is lighter, cheaper but will retain water longer so you'll need to keep that in mind. Glass containers are similar to plastic in terms of water evaporating slowly but they do have the advantage of allowing you to see how much water is inside. Some other less common container materials are wood and metal. A piece of wood such as driftwood can be especially lovely and unique but you will need to make sure it dries out and also understand that eventually the wood will disintegrate and need to be replaced. Metal generally isn't recommended as it doesn't breath well and will eventually rust.
A pot with a drainage hole is best for succulents, especially if you are new to growing them. There are many cute options available. Be sure to use a piece of screen or mesh over the hole so that your dirt doesn't come out. You will also need to have a saucer to hold excess water. However, many people prefer pots without drain holes because they don't want water on their counter or table.
Step 3.5--How to repurpose the Good Thoughts jar for succulents
First, you will need to clean your candle jar. Burn the candle all the way to the bottom, then use a pair of pliers or another tool (I've used scissors) to remove the remaining wick. Don't put the jar into the microwave before this step because the wick tab has a metal base. After you have removed the wick use a microwave to melt any remaining wax. It won't take long; I usually try 30-second increments. After the wax is melted, wipe out any excess with a paper towel then handwash with plenty of hot water and soap. Don't put your jar in the dishwasher. Because we use soy and coconut wax, clean up is much easier than paraffin wax.
After your jar is clean and dry you will need to decide if you want to add a hole or use it without one.
If you are using it without a hole, you will need to be particularly careful not to overwater your plant. In this case, I would be sure to use a succulent specific gritty soil like the one from BonsaiJack.
It is also possible to drill a hole using a special drill bit. There are lots of YouTube videos with instructions and it isn't difficult at all. There's even one for making a hole without a drill but I don't know if I'm that adventurous.
You will want to use small succulents for your Good Thoughts pot. Fortunately, they are plentiful and cheap at Home Depot or Lowes. Be sure to select ones that fit your lighting situation. Carefully remove them from the container they are potted in then use a chopstick or pencil to dislodge excess soil. Most soil used for propagating and selling succulents at big box stores is not suited for succulents so it makes sense to remove as much as you can. Fill your jar halfway up with the BonsaiJack or other appropriate succulent soil then carefully place your succulents in the container. You should allow about 1/2" to 1" of space from your plant (s) to the jar rim to give them enough room to grow but not so much that they develop shallow roots. Fill the jar with the rest of the soil; a spoon works well here. Then give your succulent some water. Remember if you don't have a hole in your jar only add half the volume of your container in water. For our candle jar that means no more than 8 oz. Don't water again until the soil is completely dry. If you want to be really precise, weigh your plant before and after watering (and write it down) that way you know when to water again. If you drilled a hole in your jar, then add water slowly until it comes out of the hole and be sure to use a saucer or place somewhere where the table surface can tolerate dampness.
The majority of succulents need a lot of light so choose a sunny south-facing window. If you don't have that, you should try some of the succulents that work better in low light such as these.
If you grow succulents and have any other tips, please share them! If you've repurposed one of our candle jars into something new, tag us on social media @AmaniSoaps and we'll send you a discount code for your next order. yay!