Growing Succulents Indoors

By Melinda Myers - horticulturist and gardening expert
December 5, 2020

Cacti and succulents are great low maintenance plants for busy, experienced, and those new to indoor gardening.  Their unique form and interesting colors make individual plants impressive, unique, and beautiful. Combining several to create a desert-inspired dish garden or attractive display in unique containers and vertical gardens adds to their appeal.

All cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti. Succulents include a broad array of other plants that have thick fleshy leaves or stems. These store water to help the plants survive in extremely dry conditions. Succulents are found all around the world. All but one type of cactus are native to the Americas from the Arctic Circle to the mountains of Chile. This wide range of growing conditions has resulted in a variety of shapes and sizes. Cacti have areoles, bumps, which sets them apart from other succulents. These structures are where flowers, spines, and stems grow.

aloe vera and ball succulent in container

All you need is lots of light and benign neglect to raise healthy and beautiful succulents.  Place plants near a south-, west- or east-facing window or under artificial lights. Water thoroughly whenever the top inch of soil is dry. Some gardeners check the soil moisture at the drain hole just to be sure the soil is dry and needs to be watered. Always pour off any excess water that collects in the saucer.

When you purchased your plants they were likely growing in cacti and succulent potting mix. This is a well-drained planting mix that drains faster than most potting mixes. The fast-draining mix reduces the risk of overwatering that can lead to root rot. Use the same type of planting mix when transplanting individual plants into larger containers or creating a container garden of succulents.

Make slight adjustments in your watering regime and the growing environment as the seasons change. Adapting to the changing conditions keep your plants healthy and looking their best year-round.

Winter Care of Succulents

Find a cool sunny draft-free location for your cacti and succulents in the winter. The cooler temperatures will help these sun-loving plants adapt to the lower light of winter.  Maximize the amount of light the plants receive by moving them to the sunniest, usually south-facing, window in your home. Supplement low light and short days of winter with artificial light if your plants are stretching toward the light or are paler in color than normal.

Water thoroughly but only when the top few inches of soil are dry and just often enough to keep the plants from shriveling. Adjust your watering schedule to compensate for this decrease in light and cooler temperatures. 

These changes in care and growing conditions may also result in the added bonus of flowers in late winter. Their flowers are colorful and unique just like these plants.

Spring & Summer Care for Succulents

As the days lengthen and temperatures warm outside you usually need to water more often. This is also when you can fertilize plants in need of a nutrient boost or encourage growth. As you know I am a fan of Milorganite, a low nitrogen slow release fertilizer great for any type of plant. But it does have that earthy small that may make you hesitate using it indoors. If you don’t mind the “fragrance’ just work it into the soil to help mask the smell. Otherwise, you may decide to use an indoor plant fertilizer at the rate recommended on the label for succulents.

mixed succulents in a pot indoors

Most cacti and succulents need minimal fertilization. One application in spring and another in summer is usually the most any of these plants require.

You may decide to move your plants to an east- or west-facing window that receives more summer sun when keeping your plants indoors for the summer. The plants will do fine indoors year-round as long as they receive sufficient sunlight and water. Just keep them away from cold air conditioning drafts.

Some gardeners move their succulents outdoors for the summer. Wait until the danger of frost has passed, days are warm and night temperatures are consistently above 40 degrees. Many find it less stressful for them and the plants to grow indoors year-round. And if you are lucky enough to grow cacti and succulents outdoors year-round you might want to extend the garden indoors with these plants.

If you decide to move your plants outside for summer do so gradually. Prepare your succulents for the sunnier and hotter outdoor growing conditions. Start with the plants in a full shade location. Each day increase the amount of sunlight the plants receive by an hour. Continue this process until the plants reach their final summer growing location. Skipping this step results in sunburned plants, much like us when we go from winter coats to a day on a warm sunny beach in January.

You will need to water cacti and succulents growing outdoors frequently since they are now growing in sunnier and hotter conditions. Check the soil moisture daily and water thoroughly but only when needed.


Fall Care for Succulents

As temperatures drop it is time to move any succulents summering outdoors back inside for the winter. Check plants for any pests that might have tagged along on the move indoors. Isolate these plants until you are sure they are free of insects that can potentially infest your other houseplants

Adjust your watering schedule when moving the plants back inside. The lower light conditions mean the plant is growing less and needs less water. If you keep your house hot and the air is dry you will be watering more often than those who keep their homes cooler.

Grow plants in a south-facing or other sunny window free from hot and cold drafts. As the days shorten and plants adapt to their indoor winter homes, move them to cool sunny locations and transition to the winter care regime.

mixed succulents in a pot indoors

Transplanting Succulents to a Bigger Container

Don’t be over-anxious to move your plants to a larger pot. Cacti and succulents have a small root system compared to their top growth. Moving them into a container much larger than their root system can result in root rot, decline, and even the death of your plants.

If roots fill the container and grow in circles around the mass of roots and soil they are pot bound and it is time to transplant. Move pot bound plants into the next size container.

Avoid the pain of spines and thorns piercing your skin during the transplant process. Use tongs to handle the spiny cacti throughout the transplanting process. Or make your own by folding paper into a long thick strip. Wrap this around the spiny portion to make handling the cactus easier on your hands.

Remove any wayward spines that end up lodged in your hands with the help of white glue. Cover the spine-infested area on your hands with white glue and allow it to dry. Then peel away the glue along with most of the spines.

Cacti & Succulents that are Easy to Find & Grow

Jade Plant Crassula ovata – A traditional favorite. The short fleshy leaves form along stems and mature plants resemble a small tree. Grow jade plants in a heavy pot to prevent the top-heavy plant from toppling.

Zebra Haworthia Haworthia fasciata - This miniature cactus is composed of a rosette of leaves highlighted with bands of white or shades of green, red or brown. Its small size makes it perfect for small spaces and dish gardens.

EcheveriaThe echeveria’s flatten rosette of leaves are available in a rainbow of colors. Create a colorful centerpiece with a collection of these plants.

Aloe vera - Known as the burn plant it is both pretty to look at and useful. Just break off a leaf and rub the sap over a minor burn for relief.

Panda Plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa) - Small hairs cover the thick leaves adding texture and beauty to this kalanchoe. You’ll find a variety of kalanchoes sold for their flowers or attractive leaves.

Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) The swollen base gives way to a cluster of long thin leaves resembling a ponytail.  The overall shape of the plant adds a unique and elegant flare to your indoor garden.

Snake Plant (Sansevieria) - Long flat leaves are covered with marking reminiscent of a snake, thus the common name. You will find others with yellow leaf edges, cylindrical leaves, short and squatty or tall and lean. They tolerate low light but grow best in bright locations and even flower with sufficient light.

African Milk Tree (Euphorbia trigona) - Small flat leaves sprout from the angular narrow upright stem of this succulent. Easy care but watch out for the thorns

succulent in small container indoor

Creative Ways to Display Cacti and Succulents

Show off your cacti and succulents in unique containers and arrangements. Here are a few ideas to get your started.

  • Wine Bottle Planter. Cut an opening into the side of a wine bottle or purchase one that’s precut. Place gravel on the bottom for added interest. Fill the bottle with cacti and succulent potting mix. Plant your wine bottle garden and place it on a support to prevent it from rolling off the table. 
  • Create a dramatic desert indoors in an open terrarium. Select an open container or leave the top off the terrarium for these plants that thrive in dry soil and low humidity. Place a thin layer of gravel or decorative stones on the bottom of the container. Add the cacti and succulent potting mix. Set plants on the soil surface and arrange as desired. Add a few decorative stones, small twigs, or other decorations to complete the scene.
  • Fill cocktail glasses with a cactus potting mix, add succulents, and place one next to each guest’s place setting. They make unique gifts as well.
  • Plant a variety of cacti and succulents in a shallow ceramic container to use as a centerpiece on the dining or serving table. After the meal move your container to a sunny location and continue to provide proper care so your centerpiece is ready for your next event.
  • Display individual plants together in a copper plant tray, terra cotta saucer or other shallow container.  As plants grow or decline you can easily replace it with a fresh new succulent.
  • Create a succulent wreath for the holidays. Purchase or locate a wire wreath form from past holidays.  Set the wreath on moistened sphagnum moss.  Fill it with a well-drained potting mix and cover with more sphagnum moss.  Wrap the moss around the soil and wreath form and secure with wire. Take 2 to 3-inch cuttings from a variety of succulents. Set aside for several days to allow the cut end to form a callous.  Use a pencil, chopstick, or other pointed object to create planting holes.  Set the calloused cutting into the soil and gently press the soil and moss around the base of the cutting.  Leave enough room for each cutting to grow.

These easy-care unique plants are hard to resist. It starts with one plant then soon you find yourself with quite the collection. I know I did.