Customers at Seascapes have long been requesting more succulents, as these showy drought-tolerant plants are very hip these days. They are often viewed as “easy” plants to take care of because one needn’t water them very often. In the humid tropics, especially with this extremely wet year we have been having on the North Shore, there are more factors to consider in order to create the best conditions for succulent plants to thrive.
The term succulent refers to any plant with modified leaves, stems, or roots that have evolved for moisture storage in order to survive periods of drought. These plants have evolved this way in areas where rainfall is seasonal or sporadic. Here on Kauai, we have a plentiful amount of rainfall, but there is also a high relative humidity in the air. This factor can work against the longevity of succulents if proper watering techniques aren’t practiced.
Each variety of plant is different, and there are many that can handle a bit more water. These are great candidates for going in the ground if the area is well draining, sunny, and/or has good wind flow. These include popular plants like aloe, agave, Crassula (jade plant) varieties, and donkey’s tail.
For the succulent collector, there are many other varieties that can be grown here in humid Kauai if the right conditions are created and maintained. The following are best practices for keeping succulents alive in a wet place!
1) Soil: It is important that succulents be grown in the right media that provides proper drainage and some nutrients, but not too much. A combination of a potting mix or compost, cinder, and sand is usually a good bet for Hawaii. If you purchase succulents from other locations, take a look at the medium it is planted in. Many places use a coconut coir fiber that is simply too absorbent and moisture holding—this material encourages fungal growth and rot! If you will be planting in the ground, especially if there is any question about the drainage, it is helpful to mix some cinder and/or sand into the soil. Here are Seascapes, we will soon have a packaged succulent and cactus mix available, formulated with local conditions in mind. It contains Kauai Worms worm castings, which is a fantastic natural source of slow-release nutrients.
2) Pots: Clay, concrete, and terra cotta pots are your friend. These porous type pots allow the moisture to exit and soil to dry out more quickly. Avoid using plastic if at all possible as plastic pots don’t allow any breathing. Also, make sure your pots have drainage holes! We have a wide variety of low bonsai style ceramic pots that work wonderfully with succulents.
3) Sun: While succulents are considered “desert” plants and they can handle high temperatures, they will actually thrive and look better if they have a little shade. All day filtered sunlight would be the best, but if not, partial sun and partial shade certainly works. These plants often are exposed to high heat with low humidity. The high humidity here makes the plants a little more sensitive to the heat of full sun exposure. Another consideration with sun is the coloration of the plant. Many people like to keep their succulents in full sun because the stress creates a red, pink, or orange coloration, especially around the edges of the leaves. This is a natural reaction to sun and heat, but it is important to balance how much the stress the plant endures, and the desire to create a particular aesthetic with the succulents.
4) Watering THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR: If you live in an area with frequent rain, I highly suggest that you keep your succulents under a cover of some kind, like an awning or on a patio, or indoors in a hot window. At the nursery, we constructed a little greenhouse to let the light in but keep the rain out. If you want to keep your succulents out in uncovered areas, I highly suggest that you keep them easily mobile, so that you can move them inside if a big rain event is happening.
Proper succulent watering
Certain varieties of succulents seem to thrive with hardly any water, and these are the most sensitive to our high humidity and high rainfall environment. Many of these fall in the genus Sempervivum, or hen and chicks. Great care should be taken to avoid overwatering these or they will rot away easily. Another place to keep an eye out for rot is with the varieties that form rosettes of leaves. Many of these are found in the genus Echeveria. The tightly packed leaves in the center of the rosette create a space for water to pool and a rotting fungus begins to form within the stalk. Soon, all the leaves fall off and the plant is dead.
Because of this, all overhead watering should be avoided! If you must use a hose and let the water rain down, make sure it is happening in an area with good wind flow, and spend some time pouring the excess puddled water out of the center of your echeverias.
There are two approaches you can use for watering your water sensitive succulents. One is to place the pot in a shallow dish of water for a few minutes and allow the medium and roots to soak up the water from below. The other is to use an athletic squirt bottle, a spray bottle with a straight stream, or a gallon pump sprayer, to apply water directly to the soil, avoiding contact with the leaves and plant material as much as possible. This approach can be very labor intensive, but with a pump sprayer with a long wand, it doesn’t take that long. It’s important to get the soil decently soaked if you will only be watering once a week.
As for frequency, this is a tricky question. Here at the nursery, we seem to have the succulents grouped by plants that get watered once a week and are very water sensitive, and ones that get watered twice a week and can receive water in the form of a hose sprayer versus the meticulous careful watering of the soil only. It is better to under water and keep an eye on the leaves for water stress than to overwater and lose the plant to crown rot. If you see the leaves looking less plump and potentially shriveled looking, this is a sign the plant is water stressed and needs to be watered.
Now that we have our dry succulent zone at the nursery, keep an eye out for more succulents being propagated here in the nursery, and for the new made-in-house succulent and cactus mix that is formulated for our tropical conditions!
This blog was written by Alli, part of the Seascapes Sales Team.