Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Succulents offer a world of possibilities for both indoors and outdoors

When I think of something succulent, it usually relates to food -- a succulent piece of steak  -- thick and juicy.  Translate that thought into plant terms and open a door to a world of possibilities for both indoors and out. 

Succulents are very “in,” right now, and it’s easy to see why.  They are extremely versatile, low maintenance and visually pleasing.  Succulents have always had a presence in our home décor and outdoor plantings, whether we were aware or not.  Indoors, we have seen them appear as aloe vera and kalanchoe (a common indoor blooming plant).  Outdoors, succulents have been appearing as a variety of sedums including the ever-present hens and chicks.  Their increasing popularity allows new varieties to be introduced.  The shapes range from tall fleshy spines to smooth flat rounded leaves with colors ranging though gray, lavender, dark reds and  all shades of green.  One of the new trending ways to use succulents is in fresh flower designs.  Their longevity is incredible -- we’re talking weeks to months and no water to change.

If you prefer the plants, keep in mind is that all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.  All cacti and succulents have the ability to store water in their flesh, which allows the plant to withstand periods of drought.   Cacti are succulents with spine cushions called areoles that can bear spines or flowers, but the plants do not have branches or leaves.  Succulents do not have areoles and can have branches and leaves.  In either case, a green thumb is not needed.


Succulents, as with all cacti, prefer high to high-filtered light.  In Montana, a southern or western windowsill with no sheer curtains that provides direct sun part of the day is ideal -- although, sheers are necessary during the summer months.  They also can be placed outdoors during the summer.  Place them in a partial shade area for the first few days to allow them to get acclimated to the outdoors.


During their growth season, March to September, cacti and succulents can grow prolifically and proper watering is important.  They absorb water rapidly, so the soil needs to be kept slightly moist.  During the fall and winter, apply only small amounts of water to moisten the soil around the roots allowing the soil to become dry before watering again.  A well-draining soil is a must and plants must never be permitted to stand in water.  This will lead to root rot.


Avoid fertilizing during the dormant season.  During the growing season, feed with a water-soluble all-purpose fertilizer.  Mix it at half-strength and fertilize every other time you water.


Cacti and succulents prefer temperatures from 65º to 85ºF during the growing season.  Dormant cacti do best at 45º to 55ºF.  The plants are more likely to flower and thrive if kept cool in the winter.


Succulents and cacti like to be slightly pot bound; repot only as needed.  The best time is in April, just as they are coming out of dormancy to start their new growth.  Repot into a container only slightly larger than the current one with good drainage.  If the container is too large for the plant, the soil will stay moist and this could lead to rot.

Pests and Problems

The primary problem is too much water.  Root and stem rots usually result from a soil mix that doesn’t drain well or watering too frequently.  Insect pests most common are mealy bug and scale.  Both try to hide.  Mealy bug is a white cottony pest and is easily visible, while scale is a bit more camouflaged.  Check new plants for pests before purchasing it.  Houseplant insecticide sprays or insecticidal soaps can be used for control. However, make sure the product is labeled for cacti.  Physical removal of the pest works well, also.