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Harvesting living succulents

Spring planted crassulas are easy to dig and pot so they don’t freeze.
Spring planted crassulas are easy to dig and pot so they don’t freeze. TNS

Yes, you can dig your summer garden succulents and bring them indoors for the winter. It’s easy if you know how.

The key is that succulents are different and don’t depend on moist roots to survive. It’s because they have stored their moisture in advance and aren’t dependent on real-time soil moisture to stay healthy. A succulent can live a long time without any roots at all, gradually consuming its own internal moisture. Only when that’s exhausted does it finally die.

Most of the echeverias and other showy succulents sold today are frost tender. In colder climates, these succulents come into our gardens like summer annuals. They love the hot days and high UV exposure until fall when they struggle with cold nights and persistent damp. It is likely that many succulents happy now during extended drought may prove otherwise if reasonable rain returns.

While it’s unrealistic to harvest annual flowers, annual succulents are easy to dig and relocate prior to frost. This allows you to carry them on to next year’s garden while enjoying them indoors over winter. But don’t use what you know about ordinary plants because it won’t work. You have to think pure succulent in order to harvest them.

Above all, know that succulents are composed of juicy sterile interior tissues, much like our own bodies under the skin. They get infections like we do, too. For example, an infected toe becomes the genesis of sepsis by traveling gradually through healthy tissues. Disease organisms can enter a cactus or succulent from a tiny injury that goes unnoticed. A small crack in a stem may become a freeway for rot causing microbes to enter the sterile interior and begin the process.

Once rot afflicts a succulent, particularly at the base or among the roots, it’s very difficult to stop. Often it’s like flesh-eating bacteria, you must amputate to stop the spread. This is how it goes with succulents, so when you dig and pot them, be very careful. Rough handling is the cause of many unexpected deaths soon after transplantation due to root damage. Here’s how to avoid that:

Dig it out … gently. Try to avoid damaging any part of the plant when you dig it out with roots attached. You will cut some roots, others break, even stems fall off. It’s to be expected.

Clean the roots. On a solid surface gently remove as much soil from the roots as you can because it’s not suitable for containers. This also prevents importing soil pests into your new pot.

Provide callus time. Allow the plant with exposed roots to dry in an airy shady spot for a day or two so callus fully forms and closes over all injured sites. They will feel dry to the touch.

Choose proper soil. Plant only in cactus and succulent potting mix because it’s perfectly drained to greatly reduce overwatering risk that increases in winter.

If it’s warm enough for your succulents to remain in ground throughout the winter, there’s another opportunity: propagation. Clipping the overgrown tips of lanky summer growth can result in a plethora of cuttings to root into new plants. If a lot of that material is just going to die back anyway due to rain and rot, why not take the cuttings, gang them in a pot of ordinary damp sand, and wait for the roots to appear as if by magic. Keep dry in a bright location away from frost until roots form. Repot these individually or as a group for new opportunities next year.

With so many cactus and succulents sold today, it’s difficult to know their preferences. Some will be far more amenable to transplantation and propagation than others. You won’t know which are which until you try. For all those plants you acquired this year, consider adding more of those that did the best by reproducing them for next year.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at mogilmer@yahoo.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.