The cacti all go to sleep, and the succulents start to put on a show.
While cactus care in winter is pretty cut and dry – literally – succulents are a much more mixed bag. Some species go dormant and stop growing, while others happily continue to drink water and throw new growth. Anything I’ve planted in the ground are species I know (or suspect) are species or hybrids that will continue to grow or at least survive the wet and cold rains we get in mid to late winter. I also have dozens (maybe 100 or so?) potted succulents, and those I can monitor a bit more closely and provide more or less water with more control. The potted succulents dry out faster when it rains, and when they’ve been potted for a while, their compacted soil tends to not get wet all the way to the bottom. Unless we get rain for multiple days in a row, or it’s more than an inch in a single day, it’s rare that the compacted soil plants will end up with thoroughly saturated soil. Not ideal for fast growing or intensely growing species, but it works for winter conditions for my slower growing plants.
My Korean import specimen of Echeveria “Tippy” beginning to show its beautiful winter blushing.
Our typical cool weather season:
Early winter here is usually quite dry, with our most common weather conditions being Santa Ana winds, perpetually hearing “warmer than average” on the weather forecast, and fire risk warnings from October through December.
Our hottest time of year is usually August and September, thanks to the unique weather conditions of the San Diego region. While many places have hot “dog days” of summer in August, we get prolonged heat waves of 90 – 100F that can last for a week or two at a time, even into September. While many areas are seeing leaves change, we’re still getting days hot enough to go tan at the beach! For the plants, this tends to mess with their growth habits. Even with these scorchingly hot days, the nights are getting cooler and the day length is decreasing. I usually stick to my summer watering routine through this period, which is typically a few times a week and sometimes daily if it is particularly hot.
As we enter October and November, nights get noticeably chilly, down to the 40s and 50s, and plants start to show some nice cool weather blushing. Daytime highs are typically in the 70s, and it’s a nice, mild time of year. This year we had a few days of rain, but this time of year is also when we often see Santa Ana wind conditions. The dry, hot wind rushing through our area makes humidity plummet into the single digits, and drastically increases fire risk. The low humidity can often mean that soil dries out faster, so even though the weather is mild, bordering on cool, the succulents may still need water nearly as often as they did during the hotter months.
December is either dry as well, or it’s the beginning of rain – days are short, and any dormant plants are distinctly dormant by this time. Like most of the US, December isn’t usually our coldest month; it’s just giving us a taste of what’s to come. On the flip side, we sometimes have warm days; at least 1 or 2 of every 3 Christmases has been an 80F degree day! At night, the lows are still around the 40F mark.
January and February are the coldest months of the year, with average lows in the mid 30s, and daytime highs rarely above 70F. This is also when rain starts to come in, which makes it tough for plants that come from regions that are only cold when it’s dry. We’ll get occasional light frosts, and nights can dip into the high 20s for a few days at a time. This is where house position, slope, and plant position really come into play for where I’ve chosen to place my in-ground plants.
March is usually wet and cold, but less cold, and April (despite the rhyme) is usually dry with only a handful of days of rain.
Why am I telling you this?
Because our local weather has a strong impact on what actions I take for prepping and maintaining my succulents through winter, and it provides context for you (wherever you are in the world) about how I describe my winter regime as opposed to yours. We have unique weather conditions that impact my watering schedule, and you likely have unique weather conditions that would impact yours. One of the strongest factors is light; if you’re in the Northwest or Northeast, you likely don’t get enough natural light to maintain succulents through winter without them going fully dormant. You probably even need to use grow lights during the shortest days of the year!
I do not, and have never needed to, use grow lights for my succulents. Even my seedlings – they’re all outdoors. Sheltered in a greenhouse, sure, but outdoors! So use this context as background for decisions you make based on my care routine.
Sedeveria “Blue Elf” blushing from the blue-green summer colors to the red tips that make it such a pretty winter succulent.
Watering and Fertilizing in Winter
Not all succulents have the same winter requirements as others, and this is where knowledge of the species and original habitat of your succulent becomes essential. Species that grow closer to the equator tend to have a much less pronounced dormancy period, and if the plant is kept indoors, it may never go dormant at all.
Some species come from areas that have regular winter rainfall, and some come from areas that only get cold when it is also quite dry. Echeveria agavoides, Echeveria minima, Echeveria chihuahuaensis – many of the Mexican species of Echeviera, for example, are quite accustomed to winter rains and do well with regular water through winter months. I find that many of the species from the upper bounds of South America up through the southern ends of North America do well with mild winter rains, likely because their growing conditions are similar to what we naturally experience here. Notably, the dudleya genus thrives here, likely because it is our only native genus and has adapted specifically to our winters.
While many species not native to our area do well with winter rains, there’s still a point where it’s too much. Around March is when I tend to start losing plants; the ones that survived the cold and infrequent rains of mid winter usually give up when the more regular spring rains arrive.
African and Malagasy species of succulents tend to be more finicky; some do great with winter rains (many aloe species, for example) while others will melt at just the thought of cold and wet (ahem, lithops). Generally, the more of a dry desert condition the plant grows in naturally, the dryer they need to be in winter. Lithops and other mesembs are in this category, as are some of the Malagasy aloes, such as Aloe suzannae. The further south the succulent lives, the more likely it is to experience rain only during the hot period of summer.
This year, I’m experimenting with several types of mesembs and aloes in-ground on one of our cooler slopes; we’ll see if I need to invest in frost cloth or not.
Even for succulents growing through winter, it’s not the best time to fertilize them. Most succulents put out their best growth in summer, when the days and nights are warm, and there is plenty of light. I do not fertilize any of my succulents once it starts to get cold. My last round of fertilizer is usually August or September, depending on the plant and how hot it’s been.
Echeveria agavoides hybrid “Frank Reneilt” showing off winter colors – foreground is an older plant experiencing its second or third winter; out of focus in the background is a yearling plant in its first winter.
Which succulents will look best in winter?
Depending on what you’re looking for, some succulents are better winter showers than others.
Pretty much any Echeveria is going to look fantastic. The most common reaction for stress, particularly cold, is for Echeverias to blush red. This can range from just a few outer leaf edges or leaf tips to the entire plant (as seen in the Echeveria agavoides pictured above). To have a striking winter succulent arrangement or garden, consider some of the larger Echeveria species as your contrasting red show pieces. In summer, they’ll tend to revert to their greener selves for growth, but in winter they will really shine.
The gallery slider above shows some of my favorite winter plants.
Aeoniums should absolutely be in any winter gardener’s collection. These are plants that almost exclusively come from the Canary Islands, and they are quite accustomed to dry summers and wet winters. As a result, they tend to look their best all winter, opening up as it cools down and rains move in and really putting on a striking show.
Some cultivars or varieties are more sensitive to temperatures extremes than others. I find Aeonium “Mardi Gras” to be a particular diva, while my “Velour”, “Zwarkoff”, and generic green hybrids all shrug off extreme highs and extreme lows with no real fuss. What they all share is a love of water in cold weather, and the summer dormancy period that turns them into sticks. While I love the winter appearance of my aeoniums, the summer dormancy appearance is a bit of a drawback, so I tend to use them in landscape gardening when I have summer blooming species to offset them.
Echeverias are by far one of the showiest through winter, although the plants themselves are usually pretty low growing. They get pink, red, or orange edges, and can often look like a completely different plant in winter compared to summer. Winter is also when they tend to bloom, and you’ll see tall, showy sprays of yellow, orange, peach, and red blooms all winter and into spring. Blooms plus blushing are two big reasons I love echeverias, along with hummingbirds! Hummingbirds really love Echeveria flowers, and will be regular visitors to your garden whenever they’re around.
Sedum / Sedeveria hybrids are small succulents, usually with rounded leaves, that are commonly a blue or green base color. Sedeverias are hybrids of sedum and echeveria, and will often blush the red color that Echeverias are known for. These are excellent filler plants for potted or planted arrangements due to their crawling, sprawling habit. They’ll bloom as well, but the showiness of the flowers is heavily dependent on how much Echeveria has influenced their flowering.
Dudleyas are pictured in the above gallery, with both an attenuata and hassei in attendance. The colder it gets, the redder their leaf tips and outer leaf edges get, with their growing season culminating in large sprays of little yellow flowers. Compared to other succulent species, dudleyas tend to be more finicky, but the varieties with powdery white leaves look absolutely stunning when they blush red or are planted against the red blushing echeverias or sedums. Like Aeoniums, this genus goes dormant in summer, which is the hardest part of growing them.
Other genus that will blush in winter include pachyphytums, senecios, cotyledons, and many graptopetalums. Any genus crossed with an Echeveria is also likely to show pronounced blushing in winter.
Not all Echeveria will blush when it gets cold, however! Many of the icy blue hybrids stay blue even in winter, although they seem to get even frostier in the cold. Echeveria “Arctic Ice” and Echeveria “Atlantis” are two in my collection that don’t get a winter blush.
Echeveria “Arctic Ice”
(In summer, before rats/chickens ate it to bits )
Imports / Korean Succulents / Indoor Growing
I have a small handful of Korean import succulents, picked up mainly because there were certain appearances I was really chasing for a bit. In particular, I wanted to try and collect all of the Echeveria agavoides varieties out there, which has become a Sisyphian task with all the selective breeding and cultivation going on.
Many of the imported or very specific cultivars is that they have been grown in nursery conditions, with a very controlled environment, both to get them to a specific size as well as to stress them to their best coloration for listing photos. As a result, what you actually keep and maintain is unlikely to look much like the listing photos for long, if at all. The Instagram growers you see with these amazing collections and beautiful, pristine succulents usually have a grow light setup and very controlled growing conditions. If your plants do not look like the ones on Instagram, it’s okay! Most of the time, plants don’t look that way. It’s okay.
Because I have naturally ideal weather for my succulents 99% of the time, and I already keep reptiles, amphibians and needy tropical plants in the house, I don’t really want to invest in an indoor grow setup for my succulents. I keep all of mine outdoors, which means that my ‘fancy’ cultivars don’t look all that fancy much of the year.
Winter, they do start to shine. In particular, my Echeveria “Magic Jam Gold” looks absolutely amazing this year. I picked that one up at a discount due to stretching and poor condition after being imported to a seller on Instagram that I liked (she’s since closed up shop, or I’d link her here), and it’s become one of my favorites. See below for the before and after – glow up, even!
This is the plant after unpacking – the listing literally was “not so pretty discount”, so I purchased it knowing full well it’d need some babying. This photo was from early June 2019.
Here is the exact same plant as of mid December, 2020! Three heads, consistent growth, and ugh look at that blushing!
Should you get imported succulents?
While I very firmly believe that you should try to buy local whenever possible, and pay the extra $3 for a US grown cultivar if you can, it’s not all that insurmountable to get an imported succulent. Importing them does come with risks, and does require at least intermediate knowledge of succulent care for success.
If you see listings online of succulents being held at the base, with the pretty side up and contrasted against a nice white or black background, those are likely recently imported plants showcasing the height of their stressed colors. Similar to recent imports of Titty cacti or similar types of high-demand cacti and succulents, these plants haven’t yet put out new roots, are not established, and are often harder than they seem to get going. By the time they get to you, they have likely been out of soil for 3 or 4 weeks, and will need careful care to get established and thriving.
This isn’t impossible to do, but it is harder than when they arrive with thriving roots from a more local seller, so it is something to factor in to your decision. If you, like me, really want a specific variety and your searches in your country haven’t turned that plant up – turn to the internet and importation! Just be aware of challenges and be prepared for the plant to need time to really settle in and look its best.
And naturally, support local when you can! Here in the US, there are multiple growers creating their own hybrids and cultivars, which are gorgeous, worth the price tag, and sure to turn heads. If you know a grower in your area who’s creating some unique and gorgeous cultivars, share it with me either through [email protected], or on Instagram @trexplants! Let’s make it easier to find the people creating the beautiful plants we love.