2019-04-01 / Features

Pretty Easy

If you don’t have a green thumb, try succulents — they’re low maintenance and visually appealing.
By Sarah Rafacz | Photos By Ruth Harpster

Walking through Jennifer’s Succulent City at Sammis Greenhouse almost feels like being transported to the desert. Rows of succulents — diverse in structure and texture and in varying shades of green, yellow, blue and purple — could trick you, for a moment, into thinking you’re not in Centre Hall.  

Jennifer Philippoff and Leo Sammis, who own the greenhouse, conservatively estimate that they have 50,000 succulents this year, at least three times as many as last year. (Though that supply might last them a couple years.) More than 200 varieties are in production, Philippoff says, out of which about 100 varieties will be ready for purchase when the greenhouse opens to the public in mid-April.

“They’re so unique and sculpturally fascinating and varied,” she says. “There’s something for everybody.” People want to bring nature into their homes, and they want plants that require less care. Succulents really check off those boxes.

So if you have a black thumb, succulents could be your first step into the world of plant parenthood.

“People have luck with them,” Sammis says. The trick is to not overwater them.


The word succulent means “juicy plant,” and that’s exactly what they are.

Succulents are found throughout the world wherever regular periods of drought occur, says Molly Sturniolo, Penn State Extension Master Gardener coordinator for Centre County. Succulents evolved to survive during prolonged droughts by storing water in their swollen leaves, stems or roots.

So … a cactus?

Well, all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Cacti are generally spiny, Philippoff says. They usually require less water and more light than other succulents.


✚ Start with the soil.

Succulents need well-drained, aerated soil either in the ground or in containers. There’s special potting mix for succulents available, but Sturniolo says “you can make your own by mixing potting mix with coarse sand, crushed pumice and gravel or perlite.”

Philippoff used to worry about the soil, but advises that as long as the potting mix doesn’t have a water-holding gel and has good drainage, that’s enough.

✚ Don’t overwater them.

Succulents are “xerophytes,” meaning they’ve adapted to very little rainfall by storing water in their stems or leaves. Their root systems are small, and overwatering causes rapid death; the plant will start to rot. The soil should be thoroughly dry between waterings.

“They kind of thrive on neglect and abuse,” Philippoff says. If you fuss over them and overwater them, then they tend to get lazy and leggy because they don’t have to search for water. That’s what keeps them tight and shiny, she says.

Sammis suggests placing an ice cube on the soil and letting it drip to slowly wet the soil. If you pour water on it, it can go right through without giving you an idea of how much actually got absorbed.
Once the leaves look wrinkled, it’s likely that your succulent is too dry.

✚ Let there be light.
Bright light is essential for succulents, either indoors or outside. Problem is, while they require a good amount of light, they don’t like window sills or direct sunlight coming in the window.

If you have low-light conditions in your home, which most people do, Philippoff says it’s better to under-water your succulents by a lot, try a plant light or choose a variety of succulent that can handle lower-light conditions, like string of pearls (sansevieria) or panda plants (kalanchoe). (Be advised that less light means that your succulents won’t be as colorful.)

✚ Finally, fertilize.
There are special cactus and succulent fertilizers available, or you can use a quarter to a half of the recommended amount of an all-purpose fertilizer, Sturniolo says. That should be done three to four times per year, but not during the succulent’s winter dormancy.


Succulents’ popularity has skyrocketed in recent years. People use them as centerpieces for weddings, party favors and, of course, as home décor. Everyone in the industry is wondering whether succulents are peaking in popularity, Sammis says, but it doesn’t seem that way.

Wandering through the succulent section at local greenhouses and seeing what catches your eye might be the best way to choose the right succulents for you. If that seems daunting, try one of these to get you started.

Jades: Jades are always easy, and everybody recognizes them, Philippoff says. It’s a big family, and they come in many different forms.

Echeverias: Similar in look to hens and chicks (perennial plants), echeverias are tender succulents — meaning they’re less tolerant of cold temperatures. They come in a variety of sizes, colors, shapes and textures.

Sedum: Sedum is a popular garden plant. It can be a low-spreading ground cover or a 2- to 3-foot shrubby mound. They look great in the landscape, or in containers, with colors ranging from smokey blue to rich burgundy •SCM

Check out The Makery ( for floral design classes specifically focused on succulents.

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