The dirt on your soil.
You are so dirty....
I see you.
Trolling the internet for plant groups looking for sage advice as you have discovered you like these succulent things, but have no idea where to start. You may have murdered a few already, but they just keep calling to you like sirens calling sailors out to sea. Ok, maybe not quite that dramatic. However, you do find yourself inexplicably drawn to the nursery section of big box home improvement stores and landing frequently on my website to see what is new.
This will be one of the important first lessons: success starts at the roots. Your soil medium may make or break your plant. You may be drawn to tiny (expensive) bags of soil with “cactus and succulent mix” emblazoned across the top, but nay! Nay, I say! Turn away from these brightly colored packages and mix your own! Unless, of course, these are specialty remixes made regionally, they are peddling a one-size-fits-all medium that may not suit your particular microclimate. They may also have time-released fertilizers, which may conflict with your plant’s active growing season (yes, succulents can be summer or winter dormant). So in the spirit of saving you money to buy more plants, of course, here is the scoop on mixing your own. It’s way more economical and you will have a mix suited for your micro-climate.
You can start with just two or three ingredients. First, you want good plain top soil. This will be your organic matter. You will adjust this along with your inorganic matter to get the mix best suited for your growing needs. Next, is the inorganic medium. Perlite is readily available in most places. Perlite is lightweight mineral that resembles styrofoam. It starts as small volcanic glass that is full of water. It is then heated to 1650 degrees, and at that point, it literally pops like popcorn. Volcanic popcorn. I hope you can never erase that image because I will be calling it volcanic popcorn going forward. These foamy balls have a lot of porous openings inside of them and this is key to your soil mix. Aeration and drainage make all the difference. Perlite helps with both.
Your plants need oxygen not just above ground, but below it, too. The root system needs to absorb oxygen from the soil. Perlite helps to aerate soil, which allows little pockets of air to remain. This helps the growth of a strong root system.
My next ingredient of choice is pumice. Yes, the stuff you scrub your nasty heels with. More volcanic rock! This time it’s basically whipped volcanic glass. It’s super light and has more of those air pockets we are looking for to provide aeration, assist in drainage, and allows for good microbial life to flourish. Pumice will also absorb excess water, keeping your roots from rotting. Another advantage to using pumice is it makes an excellent top dressing for your plants, which reduces gnat issues and keeps lower leaves from touching wet soil.
Pumice can be difficult to source in different parts of the country, but there are alternatives like poultry grit, very coarse sand (NEVER beach or aquarium sand) and calcined clay (Turface is a brand name. It’s the stuff they use on baseball fields). Stay away from smooth pebbles and aquarium rock because they don’t offer the air pockets you need for healthy roots. If all else fails, just use perlite.
Now to mix!!
In my Southern California climate, basically succulent Eden, the basic recipe is 6 parts top soil, 2 parts perlite, and 2 parts pumice. A word of caution, wet the perlite. That stuff is nasty and the fine powder is not good for your lungs. And wear a mask while mixing together. How did I come up with this recipe? Easy, a former past president of one of the local succulent societies and 40-year succulent specialty grower gave it to me. I live in the world of work smarter not harder! From this basic mix, you will then adjust to your climate. Are you in Arizona and your pots dry out in one afternoon? You may want more organic matter or you may just need to water more often. Live in Florida or the ghastly humidity of Texas? Add more inorganic matter to drain faster or keep the recipe and water less often. This is where your plant needs and your temperatures will determine what you may need to adjust. It may not be the soil you need to fix, but how often you water. If using indoors, there will be a lot more control over your environment versus growing outdoors. There will be a learning curve for both.
Your goal in your mix is to keep the soil from compacting to the point that it strangles the roots or stays wet too long and causes root rot.
Also, stay away from peat-based products, as they retain a lot of moisture and can become hydrophobic. While you may notice these lightweight peat soils being used by the growers and you may be inclined to not repot your plant, remember that the greenhouse your plant grew in is vastly different than your home garden. They can regulate temperature. They often have giant fans on to help with airflow and they are in the business of making a plant that they can take to market as fast as possible. The grower has no vested interest in you keeping a plant alive because they want you to buy another one if you kill the first one!!! They are not setting you up for success.
Finally, there is no such thing as a water schedule once your plants are in the right medium. What you should schedule for is check your plants to see if they need water. Is the pot completely dry? Are the leaves wrinkled? Is your plant actively growing? Pro tip: separate your winter and summer dormant plants. It will make watering a lot easier!
I hope you find this information helpful.
There is still practice involved and don’t get discouraged! I highly recommend joining a local succulent society so you can learn from people familiar with your particular neck of the woods.