Succulents Help Us Survive Winter

People who love to garden, or even who love nature, must make a few compromises and adjustments in any climate with cold winter months and snow. Having some houseplants and even colorful blooms eases the loss for gardeners in winter. We have a large selection that contains mostly succulents. My husband, Tim, is the succulent caretaker, and although I tease him about the volume of plants, I’m so glad they’re growing and blooming in winter on a sunny wall.

succulents in sunny window
Succulents love our bank of south-facing windows. Foreground is a spiral aloe (Aloe polyphylla) started from seed. Behind it is a Christmas cactus, barrel cactus and a variety of houseplants.

Succulents and cacti

Succulents are the ultimate in adaptability. They tolerate drought by storing water in their stems and/or leaves. Some also have evolved to develop especially large roots. Succulents need little supplemental water, especially when it’s cold and cloudy. Cacti are a large family of succulents that have spine cushions called areoles.

barrel cactus
Barrel cactus in container. For a plant that is basically round with spines, there is a huge variety of Ferocactus, the “fierce cactus.”

The enormous variety of succulents makes them so appealing to me. We have cacti that have grown in containers for years, tiny succulents that thrive in small clay pots, and a few that flower for most of the winter or year. Their varying colors and textures are a delight to hold, especially in groupings.

The selection is larger now than when I took this photo a few years ago. And that tall euphorbia is even taller!
The selection is larger now than when I took this photo a few years ago. And that tall euphorbia is even taller!

Caring for succulents

Succulents often survive the poorest of conditions, but they need some water. They certainly don’t use as much water as other houseplants, however, and tend to be more forgiving when neglected. As long as the plant is in soil that drains well, you can water weekly or less often, depending on the variety. Although succulents need less water, it’s a good idea to water them slowly and deeply. They need little fertilizing, although giving them a boost with a fertilizer such as fish emulsion once a month should support their growth and flowering.

Euphorbia adobe wall
Close-up of the euphorbia. The Euphorbiaceae family is one of the largest succulent and even plant families in the world.

Most succulents need at least a half day of sunshine, even in winter. Placing them near a sunny window usually takes care of this. But keep an eye on the plant; sometimes sunlight can burn a succulent. Turning the plant gives it more even sun. You can also use grow lights to keep them warm and happy.

succulents under grow light
We might as well use our grow lights for succulents until seed-starting time.

Like other plants, succulents flower to ensure their survival; the flowers produce seeds. My favorite example of this is how the giant Saguaro cactus from the Arizona desert reproduces. Birds, bats and insects help pollinate the flowers, which don’t emerge until the cactus is about 35 years old. Coyotes and cactus wrens eat the fruit and carry the seeds in their digestive system until depositing them with their waste. In the right conditions, a new Saguaro forms.

baby toes bloom
Baby toes (Fenestreria) produces one of my favorite flowers several times a year. The plant originated in South Africa.

But back to the houseplants – most flower indoors as well, and some are fairly predictable. For example, the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) typically blooms in mid-winter, which gives the plant its name. Ours are blooming for a second time.

split rock succulent
This split rock (Pleiopilos nelii) surprised us with a delicate, flesh-colored flower.

Easy to manage

Succulents are easy to propagate. In most cases, the gardener needs to let the cut stem dry a few days before replanting. Tim has successfully propagated dozens of succulents. As long as the plants get some light and warmth, you’ll be able to enjoy them inside all winter, and give them a nice vacation outside in summer when temperatures warm. It’s best to harden them off, as you would any houseplant or seedling. Gradually introduce the plants to the outdoors, increasing their time outside each day. They need their six hours or so of sun, but can easily burn if exposed to too much direct sun, especially during the hottest time of day.

Aloe vera in sunny window
Aloe veras are popular succulents. We love the fan aloe (Aloe plicatillis) in the foreground. It eventually grows a woody base.

We love having a colorful desert in our home in winter, and it’s nice to have some green and blooms. For more information on caring for succulents, see my Resources page.