Discovering succulents is like snorkeling for the first time: Gardeners are plunged into a new world of life forms in shapes and colors that seem to belong in a dream or fantasy. Succulents offer more than variety; they are also undemanding, low-maintenance plants. But think low-care, not no-care, so pruning remains a possibility.
Variety of Shapes
Succulents have leaves like: a) pancakes, b) donkey tails, c) zinnias, d) blue pieces of chalk or e) all of the above and a thousand other weird and beautiful designs. You guessed it, succulents come in many shapes and sizes. The thick leaves of the paddle plant (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora), in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 10 through 11, look like pancakes, while tree aeonium (Aeonium arboreum and cvs.) resemble zinnias, albeit enormous ones, up to 24 inches wide in zones 9 through 11. You'll have to live in a warm clime to grow donkey’s tail (Sedum morganianum) or blue chalk sticks (Senecio mandraliscae) since they thrive in zone 11 and zones 10 through 11, respectively.
Tender Loving Low-Care
You don't have to pamper succulents like you do fussy, flowering prima donnas, but you shouldn't go off to Europe for a year and leave them on their own either. Succulents are famously drought-resistant. Their fat leaves serve as individual water reservoirs, so they don't need to be watered until their soil is dry. But in times of minimal irrigation, your succulents will die just like any other plant without water. Water thoroughly when you do water, and be sure the excess runs out through well-draining soil to prevent wet feet. Every now and again, get out the pruners.
To Prune or Not to Prune
To prune or not to prune, that is the question, and the answer is: sometimes, carefully. Obviously, you're not going to top a magnificent saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea, zones 9 through 11), and many types of yucca, such as mound-lily yucca agave (Yucca gloriosa, zones 9 through 11), are happiest if they spend their lives far from the clippers. But generally, don't hesitate to remove dead, diseased or broken leaves or branches from your succulents. Sterilize the cutting tool before using by wiping thoroughly with a clean rag soaked in denatured alcohol, and remove each damaged section several inches into healthy wood.
It will take you by surprise when long flower stalks emerge from succulents in spring, producing bold, bright flowers. But once the flowers and stems have faded, prune these back, close to their point of origin. You can also prune back hanging or branching succulents to make them more compact. Often plants with inadequate light get leggy as they rise on thin stems to search for more sun, so decapitate these, making each cut just above the point the stem veers off from the main branch. Since succulents propagate vegetatively, you can obtain new plants by planting the cut bits in well-draining soil after the pruning wounds dry for a few days.
Just Say No to Pineapples
Some gardeners enjoy shaping succulents like Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoriae-reginae, zones 9 through 11) into pineapple shapes, but this is not a good idea, according to the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association. This kind of pruning leaves open wounds that allow pests to enter the plant.
- University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources: Succulent Basics
- Fiskar's: Tidy Up Your Succulent Containers
- Arizona Municipal Water Users Association: When to Prune Succulents
- Lowe's: Cactus and Succulent Care
- American Beauties Native Plants: Carnegiea Gigantea
- University of Florida Cooperative Extension: Yucca Gloriosa
- Photo Credit liveslow/iStock/Getty Images