Pruning and Trimming Succulents

In addition to being among the most exotic-looking and easy-to-grow garden plants, succulents are fleshy plants that store water in leaves, stems, or both, and come in a huge assortment of interesting shapes, sizes, and colors, often with stunning flowers and unique frills or spines.

However, some get quite large or sprawl outwards and can outgrow their garden space or container, getting quite unruly and in need neatening up. Succulent plants often need pruning just like any other kind of garden favorites, for size control, to shape them better, or to propagate them for more plants. And though most succulents can seal off damaged parts, it is always good to quickly remove broken, diseased, or dead leaves, stems and flower stalks. 

Though landscape maintenance crews have been known to use string trimmers to quickly remove spent flowers from low-growing Sedum and other succulent groundcovers, this can be tricky and requires a steady hand. For cleaner cuts less likely to decay, it is much better to use clean clippers, a sharp knife, or a pruning saw with fine teeth. If plants are diseased, avoid spreading the problem by swabbing or dipping blades in alcohol before starting or when cutting lots of plants.

When pruning succulents with spines or milky sap, wear gloves, especially around members of the Euphorbia genus such as pencil cactus or crown of thorns, whose milky sap is very irritating to some gardeners.

Echeveria, Graptopetalum, Crassula, Aeonium, Yucca, and other long-stem or multi-branched succulents can be kept compact with occasional pruning. Because new growth typically sprouts near the end of cut ends, simply prune stems to where you want new growth to emerge. You can train some to grow in different directions by cutting just above a small branch or bud that is pointing the right direction; this is often done by growers of succulent bonsai.

In many cases, the cut-off portions can be allowed to dry a few days and then rooted in well-drained potting soil, or stuck into a planter or wall hanging for rooting right in place.

Trimming succulents grown in-ground outdoors is best done in early spring just before new growth begins; year-round tropical species can be pruned nearly any time the weather or indoor temperatures are warm. Prune flowering varieties while dormant in the winter, or soon after blooming. In the case of Agaves, which after flowering usually die down completely leaving only small sucker or offset plants at their base, remove the entire dead flowering stem and dried flattened leaves, to make room for more to grow from basal offsets.

Remember, most succulents are very forgiving after being shaped or neatened up, and often the cuttings can be rooted to start new plants elsewhere.

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