Succulents need lots of sunshine!
Succulents get their beautiful colors from the same chemicals that give fruits and vegetables their rainbow of colors. Succulents come in all the colors we see in produce—blueberries, red cherries, purple eggplant, and yellow and orange bell peppers, to name only a few. Once fruits and vegetables are ripe, they don’t need sunlight to keep from turning back to green. On the other hand, succulents need lots of sunlight to keep their bright, vibrant color.
Sometimes people think their succulents are doing great because they’ve grown so tall and they’re stretching out in all directions, but they’re mistaken. Succulents without enough sunshine are stressed. They grow tall in search of sunlight. Stressed succulents lose their flower-like shape and become elongated. It’s called etiolation. When succulents have enough sunlight, they’re compact, and their leaves grow in a close pattern, stacked one above another. The stem is barely visible between their leaves.
I’ve noticed that often the first sign that a succulent needs more light is that its leaves lie very flat instead of holding their naturally cupped shape. Next, the color in the leaves fades and begins to turn green. New leaves growing in the center at the top of the plant stay small as they use all their energy to grow skyward in search of more sunlight. The leaves look sparse along the long, etiolated stem.
If the succulent doesn’t get more sunshine, it’s more susceptible to pests. The plant will look more like a weed than a succulent as its leaves become smaller and sparser. And the plant will eventually die.
More sunshine can save the plant, but won’t return it to its compact shape. Once the plant regains color and the leaves are full-sized again, cut the stem down so the plant is about three inches tall. The new growth will be healthy. Save the leaves from the cut stem and refer to the section on succulent propagation to learn how to use them to propagate new plants.
The amount of direct sunshine your succulents need depends on the intensity of the heat and sun where you live. If the sun is too intense, succulent leaves sunburn. Sunburnt leaves have large, uneven brown spots that appear, usually a day after too much strong sun. These spots won’t heal, but as new leaves grow, your plants will be beautiful again.
If you live in a desert climate where the sun is scorching, your succulents need protection from intense midday sun. But shade is not enough to keep them beautiful. Place the plants where the sun will shine directly on them early in the morning, and they’ll have indirect sunlight the rest of the day. A covered patio, sunshade, or patio umbrella can protect succulents as the sun climbs higher in the sky and becomes more intense. All shade options also need good air circulation to keep succulents healthy.
Most garden centers have mesh screens overhead that protect plants from the harsh noon sun. Often nursery center succulents are placed indoors, without natural sunlight, for short-term shopping convenience. Don’t mistake this for acceptable growing conditions. It’s not. Succulents displayed this way aren’t intended to stay on the shelf for any length of time.
The south side of any yard gets the most hours of sunlight during the day. If you live where the sun is harsh, it’s important to place plants where they can be sheltered from the midday sun and increase exposure gradually.
Outdoor nurseries often mark the south-facing side of plants in the nursery yard. This is so you can place the plant facing the same direction when you get it home to avoid sunburn on the side that’s not used to southern exposure.
Succulents that have been in a greenhouse, protected from full sun, or kept indoors in temporary shade, can sunburn easily when they’re exposed to full sun. But most succulents build up an ability to take more direct sunlight without sunburn if they’re exposed to it gradually. Succulents growing outside in the spring when the sun is mild get more sun exposure as the season changes to summer. Sheltered succulents brought home during midsummer can only handle full early morning sun. They should be moved out of direct sunshine before midday. Gradually increase their sun exposure each day for about a week before you set them outside all day.
A simple way to remember not to expose greenhouse succulents to harsh summer sun is by comparing their sun exposure to yours. It doesn’t take long to get a sunburn the first time in the summer sun without sun protection. But if you’re gradually spending a little more time in the sun, you can usually avoid sunburn. I’ve found that greenhouse succulents have similar sun sensitivity. However, most succulents will need ongoing strong midday and afternoon sun protection in harsh, desert-like climates.
Succulents ordered online have been in a dark box for two to seven days on arrival and will likely be stressed from lack of sunshine. They can easily regain their color with gradual exposure to more sunlight. Direct morning sun is mild. Gradually introduce them to more direct sunlight to prevent sunburn. It can take two weeks for succulents that have lost color to regain full color.
Many succulents grow naturally in harsh, cold climates and in full sun. The key is selecting climate-appropriate succulents and placing them outside in springtime, or gradually exposing them to more sunlight during the summer months.
If you’re making a greenhouse for your succulents, you’ll need a roof that filters sunlight but keeps out rain, and openings to allow lots of air circulation. Commercial greenhouses for hot climates often have mesh sides that filter harsh sunlight, but allow air circulation. They’re usually made with PVC pipe framing and covered with whitewashed plastic. Mesh siding is added a few feet from the bottoms of the plastic walls around the greenhouse. The plants are kept on tables, not shelves, to ensure that all the plants have the same amount of sunlight.
I’ve discovered that grow lights work well as a supplement, but aren’t enough to replace natural sunlight indoors in winter. Some succulent collectors say they successfully grow succulents indoors with only fluorescent lighting, like the T5 grow lights. I haven’t found grow lights that are able to give enough light for succulents to retain their compact shape and intense colors that come from natural sunlight. If you’re using grow lights in place of sunshine, eight to twelve hours a day is recommended. Succulents need about five hours of rest from light. You may have success experimenting with longer hours or various lightbulbs.