Succulents: Beware Over Packed Pots!

This composition of mixed succulents may look pretty, but the gang-potted group will not survive unless transplanted into their own Terracotta pots.


Those big, popular succulent collections sold in pots and troughs (otherwise known as “gang pots”) are dying out all over. Each container may be packed with a dozen or more species of succulent plants that often originate from vastly different locations and have different cultural needs.  Many are native to South Africa while others originate from Mexico on the other side of the world. Dry climates are not all the same. There is more variation in the growing preferences of different succulents than you might think.

balcony outside
This wrought-iron slatted window balcony shelf offers great drainage for succulents.

That’s why these ganged creations just don’t last that long.  Those succulents that need drier conditions are in conflict with those that need more moisture.  In the end, the one-size-fits-all gang pot results in gang watering, which will cause mixed-succulent-pot decline due to too much or too little moisture.

Secondly there’s no way to adjust the lighting given to different succulents in gang pots.  Different succulents often have different light requirements, but when they are set in one position in gang pots, you can’t give different plants the sunlight they need.  This is why you never see serious succulent aficionados growing this way.  When you are unable to control light or moisture well, these plantings die out in spots and look generally ratty most of the time.

Choose Individual Pots

It’s far better to grow window box and balcony succulents in individual pots.  That way you get to rearrange them any time you want.  Watering is simple because you must look at each pot to determine how dry it is.  Just like kids, succulents can be very different, even when closely related, and unless you treat them accordingly, they’ll show it in the form of decline.

Planting one specimen, such as this star cactus, in an artful Terracotta pot is best.

Growing individuals in Terracotta pots is the best way to create a beautiful composition that blends easily, offers plants what they need, and allows you to bring them all indoors at season’s end to brighten your winter home.  Don’t fall for big, overflowing gang pots this year. Shop for the succulents you love, then bring them home to be planted in their new pots, and placed out in the sun where they thrive.

Potting Mix and Drainage

Key to your potted succulent’s success is Black Gold Cactus Mix, which ensures each new succulent is planted in very fast-draining soil.   Choose pots in scale with the size of the plant with very large or numerous drain holes.  Once planted, top the soil with a thin layer of Black Gold Washed Gravel or White Rock to hold in moisture and discourage perlite floaters that otherwise accumulate there.

A specimen jade plant in a red clay pot. (photo by Mike Darcy)

Consider setting your pots on an open, free-draining, slatted shelf on the patio or balcony that encourages drainage.  This ensures there’s plenty of free drainage plus pot walls are in the open air where oxygen and moisture readily exchange through Terracotta.  Open air also encourages evaporative cooling to keep containers adequately cool in the high heat of late summer.  If left in plastic containers, direct sun can cause such high interior soil temperatures that roots can literally cook.

Over time you can add and subtract from your collection as your succulents grow large and take on their best looks.  They can be fed individually, evaluated for health often, and best of all, a diseased or pest-ridden plant can be moved elsewhere.  That’s why succulent lovers keep their specimen plants in individual pots rather than gang pots that spoil the overall success of the team.

About Maureen Gilmer

Maureen Gilmer is celebrating her 40th year in California horticulture and photojournalism as the most widely published professional in the state. She is the author of 21 books on gardening, design and the environment, is a widely published photographer, and syndicated with Tribune Content Agency. She is the weekly horticultural columnist for the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs and contributes to Desert Magazine, specializing on arid zone plants and practices for a changing climate. She works and lives in the remote high desert for firsthand observations of native species. Her latest book is The Colorful Dry Garden published by Sasquatch Books. When not writing or photographing she is out exploring the desert on her Arabian horse. She lives in Morongo Valley with her husband Jim and two rescue pit bulls. When not writing or photographing she is usually out riding her quarter horse.

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