How to Care for Echeveria Imbricata (and other Succulents)
A happy succulent garden needs four things: soil, water, sun and air. Here’s how to manage them.
Let’s talk succulents. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know how madly and deeply I’ve fallen for them. The past three and a half years since this obsession has taken hold have been a time of learning. I had always thought that cacti and other succulents never needed water, that they thrived on neglect, the hotter the conditions, the better. Well, this hasn’t been true for me.
Fact: It is possible to kill succulents, they do like water (for most varieties, more than I realized) and too much of the summer sun isn’t always the best thing for them. Just like with most things, there is such a thing as a happy medium with succulents. In case you’ve been struggling to keep yours alive I thought I’d share a thing or two about what I’ve learned after much trial and error. What works for my Northern California succulent garden (Zone 10A) might work for your garden, too, with some adjustments for your local climate.
The succulent community I’m fortunate to have become a part of via Instagram and Facebook boasts some of the happiest, most helpful and generous people I know. Seasoned gardeners are quick to impart their knowledge and lend support to those struggling with their new succulent hobby. In terms of experience I fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum; I still have much to learn but I want to do my bit and share what has worked in my garden.
Echeveria Imbricata Fun Facts
One variety that I get the most questions about is the Echeveria Imbricata so I thought I’d focus this post on this classic echeveria but the fundamentals below can be applied for most other succulents.
Here are some details that my fellow succulent nerds might appreciate: The Echeveria Imbricata “Blue Rose” is one of the older succulent varieties around. A member of the echeveria genus, the E. Imbricata is a hybrid (E. Secunda “Glauca” var E. Gibbiflora “Metallica”) cultivated in the 1870s by Jean-Baptiste DeLeuil of Marseille. Yesterday’s gardeners referred to Imbricata as “hens and chicks”, a fitting name since the Imbricata readily multiplies, offsets growing in tight clusters around the mother plant. Besides being prolific the Imbricata is hardy (it can handle short durations of as low as 20ºF), is low maintenance and undeniably beautiful.
But frustrated gardeners complain that they can’t seem to keep their Imbricata alive. What’s the secret? Why are they such a challenge to grow for some?
The Four Keys to Growing Happy Echeveria Imbricata and other Succulents
A good growing environment for your Imbricata and other succulents means considering these four elements: well draining soil, water, light and air circulation. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and I will address them in future posts but these basic principles can be applied to most varieties and should help you get started on your new succulent hobby.
1. Well-Draining Soil
I mentioned above that succulents can tolerate more water than I realized. What a revelation. I was hard on my succulents that first summer. I thought a good soaking once every two to three weeks would be enough but by September my garden was a sunburned, wilted mess. When I did try to give them more water, some of my succulents rotted. If only I’d known then what I know now. I’ll share my watering tips below but in order for you to be able to water your succulents sufficiently, you first need to make sure your succulents are planted in well-draining soil. This applies to both in-ground gardens and container gardens.
Succulent roots and stems don’t mind getting wet but they don’t like to stay wet. This means that water must be able to pass through the soil freely. I’ve been using the same organic cactus mix for years but over time I’ve found it to be too rich still, so I’ve learned to amend it with pumice.
Pumice (crushed volcanic rock) improves drainage and aerates the soil. Roots need oxygen, too, and the addition of pumice in a mix allows roots to receive more oxygen and, since the little rocks absorb moisture, succulent roots dry more quickly, reducing the risk of rot (and fungal growth). I use a minimum 50/50 mix of pumice and cactus soil for my garden and when in doubt, I always err on the side of using more pumice than less. Every seasoned gardener will have their preferred soil mix–likely more complex than mine–but this works for me.
Important: If your succulents are in pots, please make sure you have drainage holes in them. Well-draining soil is useless if water pools at the bottom of the pot. This is one sure way to cause rot.
Where to get pumice: I recommend using Dry Stall (this is the brand name and it is 100% pumice). Dry Stall is used as horse bedding in stables to help absorb moisture in stalls and is conveniently sold in 40lb bags so if you have a feed store near you, that would be the best place to source it and avoid shipping costs. Note: Not to be confused with another horse product called Stall Dry.
Pumice vs Perlite: Perlite is another type of volcanic material used for amending soil. It’s much lighter than pumice so it has a tendency to float to the top of the soil over time. Pumice is heavier and stays in place and in my opinion is far more effective.
While it’s true that cacti and other succulents are classified as desert plants this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t get regular waterings in your garden. My succulents look much better and are much happier now from a weekly watering routine than when I watered them only every two weeks during the summer months. Even the past two wet winters we’ve had in Northern California have proven that most well-established succulents will not only survive but they can thrive in rainy conditions provided that, again, they have well-draining soil. The Imbricata is one such variety that seems to love the mild Northern California winters. Here is my watering schedule for most of my succulents based on the time of year and the amount of sun exposure they get:
Hot months, High Sun Exposure (All day sun or Full Afternoon sun): My potted succulents get watered once a week; my in-ground succulent beds get watered once a week but every five days would be better. In fact, I have Imbricata in the ground that are connected to a drip system and get a drink three times a week and are very happy despite the full-sun conditions (they’re on a slope and drainage is excellent). Summer temperatures for my sunny garden range between 80-100ºF.
Hot months, Moderate Sun Exposure (Mostly Morning sun, Some Afternoon sun): Once a week. This is the best type of sun exposure for succulents in my sunny inland garden as they get plenty of sun without too much of the harsh rays and allows water in the soil to dry quickly.
Hot months, Light Sun Exposure (Some Morning sun, Bright Shade the rest of the day): Every 10-14 days. This allows for enough time for the soil to dry between waterings. Normally, smaller pots can use more frequent watering since they dry out faster but consider that under these conditions the soil might take a little longer to dry compared to a same-sized pot that gets more sun. When in doubt I use an inexpensive moisture meter to test the soil.
Tip: Wilted, wrinkly leaves generally means that your succulent is thirsty. Yellow or translucent leaves means they’re getting too much water and are at risk of rotting.
Winter and Spring: Mother Nature takes over watering duty so I stop watering my succulents after the first rain of the wet season and don’t resume until after the last rain of spring. All my succulents live outdoors and my Imbricata, especially, are all exposed to the elements year round. I do have some rare, more delicate varieties that I keep in smaller pots–these are rotated between a brightly-lit covered area and a spot where they can get a little rain water during winter and spring but are kept mostly dry, otherwise. In general, succulents love rain water and seem less prone to rot when compared to receiving the same amount of water from a garden hose.
3. Light/Sun Exposure
Light: Succulents need bright light to grow and thrive and this is the top reason I don’t keep them in my home. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to grow them indoors but I just don’t have enough light for succulents to be happy in mine. A spot by a window that gets a lot of sunlight would be a good place to keep succulents but winter months might pose a challenge when the days are shorter and sunny days are few are far between.
Tip: A succulent that isn’t getting enough light will stretch. Without enough light, succulents that normally have a compact appearance will begin to look leggy (more stem between the leaves) as they reach for more light.
Sun Exposure: As I mentioned above, morning sun is ideal for most succulents and full exposure to hot afternoon sun can be tolerated by some succulents as long as they are acclimated first to these conditions. Succulents can get sunburn so a plant that has been living in a shaded area will burn if suddenly exposed to much sunnier conditions.
Coastal Areas: It seems hard to believe that a desert plant would be happy living close to the water but it’s true. In fact, succulents thrive in coastal areas; the cooler summer temperatures and milder winters allow them to grow and thrive even when exposed to the elements year-round. In this case, succulents do just fine in full-sun all year long.
4. Air Circulation
Air flow is very important for succulents. Proper air circulation minimizes dampness in the soil and reduces the risk of fungal diseases and mildew. This is another reason I keep my succulents outdoors. Proper air flow is an often overlooked element when caring for succulents (and other plants).
Humidity: I’m fortunate to live in an area where humidity is not a factor but I do receive requests for help from gardeners who live in parts of the country where humidity can make succulent gardening quite challenging. This is a tough one, I admit. One thing I can recommend about combatting humidity goes back to soil mix. If you can keep roots dry it can help to minimize the risk of rot. In this case, I would use a soil mix with a greater concentration of pumice. A 70/30 mix of pumice/cactus mix would be a good start and an even higher concentration of pumice to soil would not be out of the question for the more delicate varieties.
Frost: There are very few succulent varieties that can handle frosty winters but most do well in our mild Northern California winters with just a handful of frosty nights. The most popular frost tolerant varieties are: sempervivums and stonecrop sedums.
Soil, water, sun and air. I hope these guidelines encourage you to give succulents a chance. Once you have these basics down tending to them can be an easy, fun and rewarding experience. If you’ve not had much luck before, don’t give up. Even if you follow all the rules, you might still lose a succulent or two–it’s okay. There is at least one succulent out there that will be happy in your garden. I hope these guidelines give you enough confidence to get started on your succulent gardening journey. Have fun!