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Arid landscape

Broaden your botanical horizons and expand your indoor gardening repertoire to include succulents and cacti – sculptural, striking and adapted to survive.

Words Laurian Brown, Mandy Allen. Photography Lar Leslie and Warren Heath

Looking after succulents

Succulents are plants with fleshy stems or leaves, designed to store water in arid environments or seasons. They are not however, exclusively desert dwellers, but grow in widely different conditions, from coast to mountain top throughout Africa and in many other parts of the world. Some are giants but many are compact jewels, ideal for greening and brightening small spaces. The secret of success is to find out under what conditions each plant grows in nature, so that you can be sure of giving it the right amount of light and water.

Planting points

  • Make sure the pot you choose has adequate drainage holes.
  • Keep pots, plants and surroundings clean.
  • Make sure air circulation is adequate.
  • Soil should be light and free-draining. One part fine riversand, one part coarse river sand and one part well-rotted compost is a good basic mix.
  • Keep a close watch for pests: succulents are prone to aphid, mealy bug, scale and fungal diseases, often caused by overwatering or crowding. Cut away the infected area and water the soil with a fungicide drench. 
  • Most succulents are simplicity itself to propagate: you can grow new plants from cuttings, the offshoots and plantlets, which many species produce, or even a single leaf.

Cacti 

Cacti are a distinct group of succulents native to the Americas. There are basically two kinds: forest and desert growers. Desert cacti need sun to flower and should not be watered during winter. Forest cacti need light shade year round; in winter water and feeding should be reduced but not withheld entirely.

Basic needs

Light 

In nature many succulents grow in a degree of shade, beneath what are known as nurse plants, or among rocks. Place them in direct sun on a hot windowsill for most of the day and they will scorch. Aim for bright light but not direct sun; 40 per cent shade is good for most succulents.

Water 

Rather too little than too much; a good basic rule is to drench pots once a week during the growing season, which may be summer or winter. In their dormant season water your plants only occasionally or not at all. 

Air 

All succulents need good air circulation indoors and enjoy a spell outside in the fresh air.

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