Succulents were big sellers during the 1970s and 1980s, and, like many houseplant trends, they’ve come full circle, roaring back to popularity of late.
Millennials — and social media — are some of the main drivers of the recent succulent renaissance, says Dave Holley, general manager at Moss Greenhouses, a wholesale plant distributor in Jerome, Idaho. Holley presented on succulents at AmericanHort’s inaugural Finished Plant Conference, which took place in early October in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“By 2027, succulents will be an $8 billion in revenue annual business segment,” he said, adding that Moss started growing succulents with 200 flats back in 2012. Today, he says the business is averaging 5,000 flats of succulents annually.
One key in putting together a fantastic succulents program is to be good at forecasting and planning, because the unrooted cuttings that you’ll need to start production are typically in shorter supply than traditional ornamental cuttings. And there just aren’t as many genetics providers for succulents as there are for floriculture plants.
“You’ve got to be able to forecast out 12, 16, even 20 weeks in advance if you’re looking to get good availability of a lot of different varieties,” Holley says. “If you go on their site today and want to order plants for a month or two from now, you’re probably not going to see a good selection to choose from. Get those orders in early.”
Another option is to grow non-patented varieties, which Holley says you can then take “pups” or cuttings from that can be rooted into viable young plants. If you choose varieties that are under patent, then you’ll have to ask the propagator about any royalty fees you’d be responsible for.
“Just one more thing that can help keep your costs down, which is key for this crop as well,” Holley says.
Some key revelations about succulent production that Holley shared:
1) Having a wide variety available to your customers is key, he says. “You won’t be successful if you’re offering just one or two varieties, you’ve got to have more to round out that program.”
2) On the subject of which soil mixes are best, Holley says that succulents like a sandy-loam soil. But since most growers don’t have ready access to enough sand to mix into their custom-blended mixes, he recommends a mix with some added perlite to help with drainage and mimic naturally sandy soil.
3) Sunlight is your friend as a succulent grower, he says. The plants thrive in hot, sunny and humid conditions in the greenhouse, and the best vegetative growth will occur when they are grown on raised benches. “And, if you’ve got hanging basket production above them, or just multiple levels of plants, make sure they are not having water dripped down on them from the other plants,” he says.
4) Water sparingly, because succulents do not require a lot of water. A good rule of thumb is to let them dry down completely before watering, even up until they start to show some wilting. And watering in the morning is best so that the medium has plenty of time to drain and dry down before nighttime. Implement a weekly flush with clear, pH adjusted water as well to keep salt buildup down.
5) Some people will tell you that you can only grow succulents in the spring, which Holley says a recent study from Cornell University has disproved. “You can grow them any time of year where you have enough light,” he says. “I was initially surprised at the sales we saw during winter, and they really tie in nicely with our tropicals program.”
6) Keep the growing medium pH between 5.7-6.3, and electrical conductivity readings in the .75-.80 range. Usually, a fungicide application within 24 hours of first sticking is effective at maintaining plant health. Fertilize succulents regularly to help draw out more vivid colors.
7) One of the best parts of growing succulents in a greenhouse is that, in general, they are a low pest pressure crop, Holley says. But keep an eye out for mealy bugs between the leaf and the stem. Scale bugs are another pest that will attack succulents if given the opportunity. A broad-spectrum insecticide is usually effective in controlling both of those pests. Aphids and spider mites can also become problematic. Holley suggests using insecticides if the problem is significant enough to warrant treatment. For minor problems, he advises having a greenhouse scout go around with rubbing alcohol and Q-tips to eradicate bugs on individual plants, or spray neem oil, which is organic.