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Grow succulent plants indoors this winter
URBANA, Ill. — Just because the snow is flying outside doesn’t necessarily mean that gardening is over until spring, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture specialist.

“Succulent plants are well adapted for growing indoors during winters where the relative humidity of Midwestern buildings is low,” said Barbara Bates.

Plants described as succulent have thick, fleshy leaves, stems, or tubers. They have evolved in arid environments, and their specialized structures are used for water storage.

Best known among the succulent plants is the cactus, but Bates points out there are over 60 plant families considered succulent. “There are many architecturally interesting ones to choose from,” she said. “You can find a succulent plant to fit just about any location indoors because they come in a wide range of forms and sizes. Some present best in hanging baskets such as string-of-pearls (Senecio rowleyanus), succulent grape (Cissus sp.) and Ceropegia woodii.

“Others are most effective when mixed together in a dish garden, and others are best as solo performers that serve as a focal point.” Jade trees (Crassula argentia) with their bright green waxy leaves can grow to be five feet in height with stems several inches in diameter. Aeonium and Echeveria come in a variety of rosette forms. “Echeverias can be grown in low to medium light conditions, and the rosettes stay low and compact,” said Bates. “Aeoniums vary in form including some that hold their rosettes of leaves high on stalks to those that are very flattened, with closely overlapping layers of leaves.”

Succulents, she added, are available in a wide range of colors and textures, from various shades of green, variegated, blue-green, to purple-red.

“Leaf texture is most often plump and fleshy, but sometimes the stem is the most visually interesting part of the plant,” she noted. “With living stones (Lithops), two leaves are all you see until a delicate flower emerges from deep within a crevasse between the two leaves.”

Conophytums resemble Lithops but have a papery sheath that remains around the pair of leaves. Both Lithops and Conophytums produce beautiful flowers.

“Other succulents are referred to as ‘fat plants’ because the prominent thickened stem is the primary part of the plant,” Bates said. “Brachystemia sp., and some Dioscorea are two such plants that have broad, flattened tubers that remain above the soil for an interesting display.”

Bates said that the ability of succulents to store water makes them very low maintenance. During the growing season, watering once a month is adequate.

“Let the soil dry out between watering, clear to the bottom of the container,” she said. “Porous containers, such as unglazed terra cotta are preferred. Porous, sandy soils are best. Watch for the leaves to show a lack of turgidity, then water thoroughly.

Overwatering will lead to leaf drop. Underwatering will be shown as limp, wilted leaves.

“Fertilize with low-nitrogen fertilizer only during the growing season. Average household temperatures are ideal for succulents. Avoid placing them in drafty locations where cold air may cause leaf drop.” Bates said, “For easy care, good conversation pieces, and a truly unique feature, create a dish garden with a variety of succulents.”

Published in the January 25, 2006 issue of Farm World.

1/25/2006