Nobody wants to raise a houseplant only to have it grow so well that it takes over and gets too huge to manage. Understanding how to keep succulents small can mean you enjoy your plants for many (many) years without having to worry about their size.
What Are Succulents?
Before discussing how to keep succulents small, we should all be clear about what types of plants we are talking about. There is often a great deal of confusion about this group, and how they overlap with cacti.
Succulents are a large group of plants that have thick fleshy leaves (or a similar type of body), and they usually love hot climates. This is why they have evolved to hold on to so much water in their tissues.
Succulents can reproduce by budding or producing small clones of itself, usually sprouting them around the base. Many of the non-cactus types can be propagated by simply breaking off a healthy leaf and sticking in a pot of soil with a little rooting compound.
Cacti are part of the succulent family, having a number of distinct characteristics that make them unique compared to other succulents. Namely the presence of thin hard spines rather than the usual leaves.
Barrel cactus and Saguaro cactus are two examples that most people are familiar with. But there are lots of common succulents that aren’t cactus. A jade plant, for example, and Aloe vera, Hen and chicks (Sempervivum or Echeveria) and snake plants.
Which Succulents Are Small?
The best way to have a succulent that won’t take over your space is to choose one that is going to naturally stay small in the first place.
Most people do think of cactus and succulent plants as being small, mainly because they grow so slowly and never seem to get any bigger as you watch them. It’s smarter to consider the long-term situation because they can reach significant size eventually. To avoid this, you can choose one of the smaller types of plants.
An aloe vera can grow to about 2 feet, which isn’t too bad for most indoor gardeners to deal with. Their spines are filled with cool gel that you can use for minor burns in the kitchen. All they need is a sunny spot and regular watering.
Air plants (Tillandsia sp.) and another really hassle-free plant that won’t get very large. They are often sold mounted on decorative pieces of wood or in glass containers, and don’t require any soil.
Air plants absorb water through their leaves, so you can spray yours regularly and dunk the whole plant in water every other week to give it a good drink.
Hen and chicks get their nickname from all the little pup sprouts these plants put out. As long as you pluck out the new plants, your Sempervivum won’t outgrow the pot for many years. Even at full size, it will only be around 4 to 6 inches across.
The main plant will only live for about 2 years, so you do need to leave a clone or two in place periodically to replace the parent when it dies.
A Christmas cactus doesn’t really have a maximum size as it will continue to put out new leafy segments on the ends of its branches indefinitely. In a few years, one of these cacti can be around 2 feet around. You can keep it trimmed though if that is too large for you, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
For the ultimate in small succulents, try a Lithops or a “living stone” plant. They look like two pebbles sitting side by side, and don’t get much bigger. Periodically, they will sprout a new pair of thick leaves from the middle, and the original pair will die off.
Sometimes, they also bloom from that middle groove, and can put out their own small pups as they mature. Even so, worrying about having to repot a big Lithops isn’t going to be an issue.
On the other hand, you should be aware of which succulents are known to get huge so you can avoid those species when you make your choice. Jade plants can easily grow to 3 or more feet in height (and just as wide), and even a simple barrel cactus can swell up to 3 feet across by the time it stops growing.
Tips to Keep Succulents Small
There are some other techniques you can use to keep your plants small, but it will depend on what type of succulent you are dealing with.
For leafy succulents, you can do some strategic pruning to keep the overall growth and size down. Jade plants and Christmas cactus are easy for this because they have very distinct leaves and stems, making the trimming simple.
Even plants with thick spears, like the aloe vera or snake plant, you can still do some trimming to keep them under control. Use a sharp knife or pruners to cleanly remove the larger old leaves, especially if they are starting to die back anyway.
Small new leaves will come up from the center of the plant. Also cut away any flower stalks as they develop.
Another way to keep succulents small is to snip or carefully break off the small pups that sprout around their bases. These baby plants will eventually grow to be the size of the parent, and can crowd out a pot after a few generations.
In this case, it’s a size issue in terms of pot size rather than the height of the plant itself.
If you only have space on that sunny windowsill for a certain size pot, then this is the approach you need. You can just dispose of the little plants, or pot them to start whole new plants.
This can be a fun way to make your own gifts for like-minded indoor gardeners who would appreciate a new succulent.
Even if you are concerned about keeping your succulents small, you still want to provide them with the best care you can so they can thrive. Keeping it small is one thing, letting it die is another.
Succulents generally like a lot of sun, and while most also do well in a very warm environment, some species will not tolerate high heat (like a Christmas cactus).
They also need to have very well-draining or almost sandy soil so their roots are not left soggy for any period of time. This is the most important concern with keeping healthy succulents.
When you do water a succulent, give them a very thorough drink so the soil is fully saturated. The roots are designed to take in a lot of water all at once. As long as the soil drains well, the roots won’t stay wet for too long.
One last point to mention, choosing a succulent plant of any size means a bit of a long-term commitment in many cases. Cacti are especially long-lived, with many specimens living for 80 or more years.
Planning to keep a succulent small is a good idea but that doesn’t necessarily change the fact that your plant may still live for decades. Hopefully you make plans for your plants, just in case they happen to outlive you.