The Best Succulents for Your California Garden (For Beginners)

The best California succulents for beginners available at a nearby nursery.

Written by Kelsey W

Succulents offer their owners a dazzling array of colors, shapes, and sizes. These drought-tolerant plants are an ideal choice for fledgling botanists in California, as well as anyone who’s terrified of killing yet another plant.

It’s no secret that cactuses and succulents thrive in Southern California. Just walk down any neighborhood street, and you’ll see lawns loaded with drought-tolerant plants that thrive despite a severe lack of attention.

Consider the following succulents and cactuses for your Southern California garden or windowsill. They’ll give you a beautifully green and vibrant landscape and easily forgive you when you forget to water them for weeks at a time.

1. Jade Plants or “Crassula Ovata”
An iconic Southern California succulent, jade plants actually fare better when you don’t water them much, which is a boon for anyone who regularly forgets to fill up their watering can. Also called the friendship plant, the crassula ovata will grow anywhere that offers several hours of afternoon sunlight, whether in your garden or on a windowsill.

They feature dense clusters of green or variegated leaves that should feel relatively firm when you gently pinch them. Jade plants are so easy to grow that a leaf will propagate when it falls from the plant and lands on the ground or soil. You’ll commonly see jade plants growing randomly on untended hillsides around Los Angeles and in yards, gardens, and pots. 

Virtually the only long-term concern you might have with a jade plant is having to prune it once every several years. If you see the plant getting a little top-heavy, cutting off a few of the top stems to reduce its size can help. There’s no need to worry about killing the plant, though. Even if you’ve never pruned a plant in your life, jade plants are incredibly forgiving when they’re pruned. As far as watering jade plants, every two or three weeks is fine.

2. Lipstick Echeverias or “Echeveria Agaviodes”.
The lipstick echeveria is another plant you can file under “oops, I forgot to water it for a month, and it did just fine.” More than 1,000 varieties of echeverias grow worldwide, but you’ll commonly see the lipstick echeveria in Southern California. They like well-drained soil and don’t like overwatering, just like the jade plant. 

These echeverias create a dazzling geometric pattern with their leaves as they form a beautiful rosette that can reach up to a foot in diameter. They spread by growing pups (yes, succulent babies are called pups!) that may extend across the ground when you plant the echeveria in your yard. They’re also tolerant of growing in a pot inside, but they need a healthy dose of sunlight each day.

3. Prickly Pear or “Opuntia Cactus”
The prickly pear cactus offers one of the most classic cactus shapes for any Southern California garden. Its large oval leaves or pads are covered in short spines that make them appear quite fierce, but they’re actually edible and a popular ingredient in tacos (minus the spines, of course!).

They’re commonly sold diced from food carts around the Southland and in some grocery stores. Prickly pear cactuses grow in abundance when left to enjoy the bright California sun and low yearly rainfall, and they may grow up to six feet tall and ten feet wide when given ample open space. They also propagate pretty easily and don’t require a lot of attention. In fact, they often fare best when left alone.

To ensure healthy prickly pear, you’ll want to make sure you plant the cactus in a well-draining environment. They like full sun and grow well when placed in sandy or gravely soil. The plants aren’t a huge fan of clay soil, which is common in Southern California because it often remains too damp in the winter. Make sure you replace clay soil with sandy soil before planting your opuntia. 

4. Barrel Cactus or “Ferocactus” and “Echinocactus”
Barrel cactus is an umbrella term that refers to a cactus that usually grows in a round or cylindrical shape. Like other Southern California-friendly cactuses, barrel cactuses require almost no care, especially when left to sit happily in an area of your yard that gets a lot of sunlight. However, if you’re not lucky enough to have a yard and live in a condo, townhouse, or apartment, barrel cactuses are ideal for growing in pots. If you plant a barrel cactus in the ground, it may reach more than three feet in diameter!

The most important thing to remember about growing a healthy barrel cactus inside is placing it so that it gets enough sun and planting it in sandy soil. If you forget to regularly water plants, you’ll grow great barrel cacti. Not only do they need fertilizer just once a year, but they go dormant in the winter and only need infrequent watering in the warmer months.

5. Elephant’s Food or “Portulacaria Afra”
If you’re looking for a plant that can turn into a monster eight-foot succulent, look no further than an elephant’s food plant. These plants look a lot like jade plants but have much smaller leaves. They’re usually a very light green color or may even appear yellowish in full sun. They’re a very popular plant for xeriscaping because they don’t need an irrigation system or frequent watering.

When you buy your Elephant’s food plants, make sure you’re buying the right variety if you’re looking for a massive plant because you can also get a dwarf variety that only grows a few inches tall. You can use the dwarf option as a ground cover.

One of the fascinating features of the Elephant’s food plant is that it absorbs a very high amount of CO2. All plants consume CO2, but Elephant’s food soaks up more than the average amount expected by a succulent. The plant is native to South Africa, but the climate there is quite similar to Southern California, which is why the plant does so well in gardens and yards around Los Angeles.

6. Hoya Heart or “Hoya kerrii”
These heart-shaped succulents are popular in Southern California stores in February because they make great Valentine’s Day gifts, but they’re also difficult to find. It is a great plant when you don’t have a yard and can only grow your plants in pots. They grow incredibly slowly, so you don’t need to worry about replanting them for several years.

As with other cactuses, hoya hearts like a lot of sunlight. You’ll only need to water the cactus every three to four weeks. If you can’t remember how long ago you watered your hoya heart, stick your finger in the soil. If the soil is completely dry, it’s safe to water. You might see the leaves wrinkle a bit when it needs a drink.

7. Dragon Fruit or “Selenicereus Undatus”
If you already have a prickly pear cactus in your yard, you might consider another edible cactus known as the dragon fruit cactus or Selenicereus undatus. These plants are popular in South America and Asia because they bear fruit rich in nutrients. Dragon fruit can grow to 20 feet wide, but it takes a long time for the plants to reach that size. However, you should have a big yard with a sunny space to grow your dragon fruit.

You can also grow dragon fruit on a windowsill for the first few years of its life, but it’s essential to make sure that you don’t water it that often. They’re effortless for beginners to grow, but they don’t like sitting in damp soil for long periods. Make sure your pot is at least 15 to 25 inches wide and filled with well-draining soil.

You’ll notice your dragon fruit plants only increase in size during the summer. That’s because, like other cactuses and succulents, they fall dormant in the winter. When your dragon fruit begins to grow fruit, allow the fruit to reach a yellow or red hue before picking them. There are loads of delicious recipes for dragon fruit. Some people use them as a meat substitute because they look quite like pulled pork when cooked.

Begin Your Succulent Journey at Green Thumb Nursery
Find your next succulent at one of Southern California’s Green Thumb Nursery locations. Whether you’re a succulent beginner or a seasoned cactus enthusiast, we can help you beautify your home with new, drought-tolerant and easy-to-grow plants.

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