ultimate guide to succulents

The Ultimate Guide to Succulents

In Green-thumb by Tony

Last updated on March 10th, 2019 at 02:21 am

Do you want to learn how to garden, but you’re scared you might not have a green thumb? Succulents are a great choice for beginners who have never tended to plants before. They thrive in arid desert climates and are drought tolerant, so they can survive even if you forget to water them for a while. Some succulents can also tolerate low light conditions, making them ideal houseplants.

In addition to being low maintenance, succulents are beautiful and colorful. They come in vibrant hues like red, blue, purple and green. They all have different leaf shapes and textures and no two varieties look exactly the same. If you shop around, you’re sure to find a type of succulent that you love.

Best of all, succulents are affordable and widely available, so if you do accidentally kill your plant, you can easily replace it with a new one. Follow the advice in this guide about how to care for your succulent, though, and you won’t need to! We’ll clue you in on everything you need to know to become an expert succulent gardener.

But before we jump into the guide, let’s define some key terms.


pink and green succulent
Or feel free to jump forward to a particular section instead:

1) How to Plant Succulents
2) Growing From Seeds
3) Indoor Care
4) Outdoor Care
5) Soil & Fertilizer
6) Watering
7) Light
8) Bugs
9) Propagate & Trim
10) Replanting & Repotting
11) Pet Safety
12) Types of Succulents


Succulent Glossary

  • Succulent
  • A plant that stores water in its thick, fleshy leaves so that it can survive in an arid climate. Some succulents like cacti can survive in the desert for decades. If indoor succulents are cared for properly, they can live for six or more years. As compared to other plants, succulents are slow growers. They have a long dormant period in the winter which slows down growth, but they can get pretty big under the right conditions. Some Haworthias, for example, can grow to be 12 inches in diameter.

    There are four different ways to propagate, or grow, succulents. You can use leaves, cuttings, seeds or offsets, which are tiny plants that sprout up around the base of a mature succulent, to grow brand new plants.

  • Genus
  • A group of related plants, and a species is one type of plant within a genus. Species from the same genus have similar light and soil preferences, so knowing your which genus your plant belongs to can help you care for it.

    Like other plants, succulents are capable of flowering and do so in the spring and summer to attract pollinators. Some succulents such as Aeoniums are monocarpic, which means they die right after they flower.

  • Seeds
  • As mentioned above, one of the ways you can grow succulents is from seeds. Seeds house an embryo that will grow into a new plant under the right set of conditions. We’ll show you how to grow your succulent from seeds later.

  • Edible
  • Believe it or not, some succulents are actually edible. Edible varieties include sea beans, which have a flavor similar to asparagus, and dragon fruit, which tastes like melon.

  • Hardy
  • Hardy succulents are able to survive in below freezing temperatures, so they’re ideal for outdoor gardens. The most common varieties of cold hardy succulents are Hens and Chicks and Sedum.

  • Fertilizer
  • Fertilizer contains essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium that will help your succulent bloom and grow. However, succulents don’t need to be fertilized during the winter months or as often as other plants.

  • Cactus
  • A cactus is a type of succulent, but it has a unique structure that other succulents don’t: areoles. Areoles are small bumps on the body of the cactus that look like cotton balls.

  • Biome
  • A Biome is the community of plants and animals that lives in a certain habitat, like forests or grasslands. Most succulents are part of desert biomes.


How to Plant Succulents

If you’re a gardening newbie who’s wondering how to pot a succulent, then you’re in the right place! Planting succulents is easy, and we’ll walk you through it step by step, so don’t be nervous. All you’ll need is a pot with a drainage hole, succulent soil, and mesh tape or a coffee filter.

The first thing you’ll need to do is place a piece of the mesh tape or coffee filter over the drainage hole of the pot. This will create a barrier that will prevent soil from escaping through the drainage hole and making a big old mess in your house!

Garden centers have a bad habit of planting succulents in the wrong kind of soil, so the next thing you’ll want to do is replace it. Fill up your planter pot with the new soil, leaving just a few inches of room at the top for the roots of the plant. Take the succulent out of its container by holding the top of the plant gently and turning the container over. Tap the bottom of the container to loosen the soil and ease the plant out. Then, try to gently remove as much of the old soil as you can from the roots. It’s ok if you can’t get it all.

Now you’re ready to pot your succulent! If you’re planting just one succulent, all you have to do is center it in the pot. But if you’re making an arrangement out of a few plants, you should take a few minutes to decide where you want them to go. You can pack them in close together to achieve a full, lush look, or you can space them out a little so they have room to grow and expand. It’s entirely up to you—there’s no wrong way to do it! Once you’re done arranging your plants, fill up the pot with more soil so that it goes all the way to the top. This will prevent water from pooling and causing root rot.

If you’d like, you can add a top dressing to finish off your arrangement instead of the extra soil. Small rocks and pebbles, sea glass, marbles and fine gravel in bright or neutral colors all work well as top dressings. A top dressing can add extra personality to your arrangement and keep the soil in place when you water it, but it’s definitely optional.

green and yellow succulent

If you want to plant your succulents outdoors, the process is pretty much the same—you’ll just have to dig a hole in your garden instead of filling a pot with soil. Remember not to water your succulent for a few days after you plant it or pot it. Watering it right away could result in rot.

Growing Succulents From Seeds

If you’re a more advanced gardener, you might be ready to start growing succulents from seeds. The process of planting seeds is a bit more involved than planting an already growing succulent. You’ll need to pasteurize the soil to prevent fungal growth and create a humid environment in order for your seeds to germinate. Growing succulents from seeds is worth the trouble, though—you’ll be able to cheaply grow rare varieties that are expensive and hard to find. If you’re ready to test your gardening skills by tackling an exciting new project, then keep reading to learn how to start succulents from seeds.

The first thing you’ll need to do is buy seeds, growing medium and a planting tray. There are a few different things you can use as a growing medium. Horticultural sand is an option, as is commercial potting soil mixed with an equal volume of sharp sand, perlite or pumice. You should use a gritty growing medium with sand in it because it promotes drainage. If your seedlings sit in water, they’ll start to rot!

Funnily enough, seeds need a somewhat humid environment in order to germinate. To create that humidity you can either purchase a planting tray that comes with a humidity dome, or put a shower cap over the planting tray. The planting tray should also have a drainage hole to ensure that your seedlings are moist, but not sitting in water.

Now that you have all of your materials, it’s time to start planting! Make sure you clean your hands and trays with a little disinfectant before you get started. You’ll also need to prepare your growing medium by baking it in a 300°F oven for 30 minutes. This will pasteurize it and prevent nasty fungi and parasites from infecting your seedlings.

After your growing medium has cooled, you should wet it thoroughly and allow it to drain. Don’t let it dry out completely, though—you want it moist so that the seeds stick to it. Now, take that moist soil and fill your tray almost all the way to the top with it. You only want to leave about half an inch of room between the soil and the tray’s rim.

Next, shake your seeds out into the palm of your hand and try to evenly distribute them across the soil. This is tough because of how small they are, so just do your best! Place the humidity dome or shower cap over the tray to allow your seeds to soak up all of that great moisture from the soil.

To successfully germinate, your seeds will need access to lots of light and water over the next few weeks. Keep them indoors near a bright window and keep the soil wet. You may need to water the seeds as often as once per day depending on how quickly the soil dries.

As soon as you see sprouts, you should take the humidity dome or shower cap off of the tray so that they can get more airflow. As the seedlings grow, you can gradually reduce the amount of water you give them. Your succulents will be fully grown in six months to a year, and then you can transplant them indoors into a pot or outdoors into your garden and enjoy them for years to come!


How to Care For and Grow Succulents

Now that you know how to plant succulents and grow them from seeds, you need to learn how to take care of them. Luckily, caring for succulents is a whole lot easier than growing them from scratch! This section of the guide will give you tips on how to take care of succulents that live indoors and outdoors. You’ll also learn how to choose the best soil for your succulents and how much light and water you need to give them.

Indoor Care

Indoor succulents are at risk of getting too much water and not enough sunlight. Because indoor succulents get less airflow and sun exposure than outdoor succulents, their soil dries out much more slowly. This means you should water them less often than you water your outdoor succulents.

The best way to prevent overwatering is to wait until your succulent’s soil is completely dry before you water it. You can check by sticking your finger an inch deep into the soil. If the soil feels dry, your plant is probably thirsty, so go ahead and water it! If it still feels wet, wait a day or two and check again.

Not giving your succulent enough sunlight can also harm it. Your succulent will let you know that it isn’t getting enough light by bending towards the light source. The plant will also start looking pale and the leaves may even get a bit smaller if it can’t soak up enough rays.

To keep this from happening, place your succulents near the sunniest window in your home. South-facing windows are a great choice because they get sunlight all day. Also, try to choose plants that are known to fare well indoors, like Hens and Chicks, Aloe Vera and Snake Plants.

Another problem that can occur with indoor succulents is mineral buildup. Tap water has additives and minerals that rainwater doesn’t. If you water your indoor succulents exclusively with tap water, those minerals will eventually form an unsightly white crust on the soil of your plant. Soft water, which contains high concentrations of sodium, can cause even more damage. The sodium will build up in the soil over time and prevent growth and water absorption.

So, what can you do to prevent mineral buildup? You should try to water your succulents with distilled or filtered water instead of tap water. If you don’t want to purchase distilled water, you can collect rainwater from outside or leave a glass of tap water out on the counter overnight. Some of the harmful chemical additives will actually dissipate into the air overnight.

pink succulents

Outdoor Care

Keeping succulents alive in soil that doesn’t have good drainage is nearly impossible. Luckily, there’s a simple way to find out if the soil in your garden is well draining or not. Dig a hole in your garden that’s at least one foot deep and fill it with water. If the water drains in thirty minutes or less, your soil is good to go! If it takes longer than that, you’ll need to mix three inches of something gritty like sand into it to promote drainage.

Another big killer of outdoor succulents is the weather. Many succulents can’t handle below freezing temperatures. If they’re kept out in the cold for long enough, the water inside their tissues freezes and expands, which can cause their cell walls to burst. Your plants can become permanently damaged if this happens, so it’s important that you take some precautions when temperatures drop.

If you want to ensure that your plants will be safe from the cold, move them indoors on the coldest days. If they’re in the ground and you don’t want to uproot them, make sure that you put frost cloth on them. Don’t water them right before the cold sets in or else they’ll have a greater chance of sustaining tissue damage.

Taking care of succulents during the winter is easier if you choose plants that do well in your growing zone. The USDA has a Plant Hardiness Zone Map that assigns a number to each area of the country based on how cold it gets during the winter. Once you know which growing zone you live in, you can choose succulents that have the same zone rating and keep them outdoors all year.

Depending on where you live, you may also need to protect your outdoor succulents from heavy rain. If you don’t want to move them inside during rainstorms, put a patio umbrella over them to keep them as dry as possible. Use a well-draining soil in your garden and a top dressing like pumice that will absorb some of the rainwater.

Soil and Fertilizer for Succulents

The best soil for succulents is either commercial succulent soil or a homemade soil blend. Regular potting soil is too porous for succulents to thrive in. Commercial cactus and succulent soils usually have things added to them that promote drainage like peat or sand, so they’re a lot better for your plants than regular potting soil.

If you have the time, try mixing your own soil. You’ll get to control exactly what goes in it and tailor the recipe to the species of succulent that you own. Homemade soil is cheaper, too, so using it is a win-win for you and your plant! A great basic soil recipe to get you started is three parts potting soil, two parts of coarse sand, and one part perlite or pumice.

The best fertilizer for succulents is a balanced fertilizer. You should pick up a fertilizer at the garden center that says something like 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 blend. When all three numbers are the same, that lets you know that the fertilizer is balanced and contains equal proportions of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Succulents don’t need to be fertilized as often as other plants, but you should still feed them during their active growing season, which is usually in the summer. Some gardeners only fertilize their succulents once a year, and some fertilize them every week, but we recommend a happy medium of once a month.

When you fertilize your succulents you should only use half the recommended amount to prevent leaf and root rot. So, for example, if your package of fertilizer says to use one tablespoon of fertilizer per gallon of water, you should only use half a tablespoon.

pink blue yellow succulents

Watering Succulents

Did you know that you can actually grow succulents in water? Only certain varieties of succulents can be grown in water and it doesn’t work every time, so we don’t really recommend it. But the existence of hydroponic succulents proves that succulents are not as averse to water as you might think.

Succulents definitely need a good soaking every now and then in order to thrive. You’ll know exactly when to water yours by checking the soil. If it’s completely dry to the touch, you should grab your watering can and soak the soil until water starts coming out of the drainage hole of the pot. Your plant will need to be watered this way about once per week or less, depending on how long it takes for the soil to dry out.

If your pot doesn’t have drainage, you’ll need to use a lot less water. If you remember roughly how many cups of soil you put in your planter, then measure out half that much water. So, if your planter has two cups of soil in it, you should use around one cup of water. If you can’t remember, just be sparing with the amount of water that you use and watch your succulents closely for signs of underwatering (dry, crispy leaves) and overwatering (soggy yellow leaves).

Light for Succulents

In general, succulents need between six and eight hours of sunlight per day. Low light succulents can get by on less than that, but it’s still a good idea to put all of your indoor succulents by the brightest window in your home. You should also watch out for signs that they’re not getting enough sunlight. They’ll bend towards the window and start to stretch out. The leaves will look further apart and the plant might start to look pale and lose its color, too.

If there simply isn’t enough light in your house for your plant, you should definitely consider using some grow lights. You might be hesitant to set up grow lights in your house because they’re kind of ugly. We definitely don’t blame you, but before you rule out grow lights completely, take a look at white LED aspect lights. They look just like regular light fixtures, so they’ll blend in nicely with your home décor.

If you’re wondering how much sunlight to give your outdoor succulents, the answer is the same—six to eight hours. Make sure you watch your outdoor plants for signs of sunburn, though, especially during the hottest months of the year. In the beginning stages, your plants will develop a warmer, more golden color than normal. If the sunburn progresses, they’ll develop white, pale patches on their leaves. If you notice any of these signs of sunburn, put a shade cloth on your succulents to keep them cooler.

Bugs

Getting mealybugs on succulents is no fun! They leave white fuzz everywhere, eat new plant growth and spread like wildfire. Before you know it, your entire succulent garden is infested with them and your plants look misshapen from all the bites the bugs have taken out of them.

If you have an active infestation, you can either use pesticides to get rid of them or isopropyl alcohol. You can use contact pesticides, which have to make contact with the bugs to kill them, or systemic pesticides, which absorb into the roots of the plant and poison the bugs. There is a chance that your succulent will get burned by the pesticides, though, so you might prefer a natural solution like rubbing alcohol. To kill the bugs, pour 70% isopropyl alcohol into a spray bottle and spray the mealybugs. If you have a big infestation, try pouring some alcohol onto the soil to kill any mealybugs or eggs that may be hiding in it. The rubbing alcohol won’t damage your plant because it evaporates quickly, but it will kill the bugs!

To avoid getting mealybugs in the first place, try not to overwater your plant or use too much fertilizer because they seem to be attracted to moisture.




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How to Propagate and Trim Succulents

A few times a year, you should trim your succulents to get rid of dead leaves and stems. You may also want to prune your plant if it has grown too tall due to lack of sunlight.

All you’ll need to prune your plants is a pair of clean pruning shears.

The first thing you should do is remove any dead leaves, debris, or sticks that you see on your succulent or in the soil. You don’t have to use the shears for this—you can just use your fingers to pluck the dead leaves off the stem. If your plant looks good and isn’t stretched out at all, then you’re done!

If your plant is looking stretched out because it hasn’t been getting enough sunlight, you might want to take your pruning a bit further. To get your succulent back to its nice, compact state, you’ll have to cut off its head and replant it. Surprisingly, this won’t kill it! The head will just grow new roots after a few weeks and turn into a brand new succulent. This process of taking a cutting from a mature plant and using it to grow a new plant is called propagation.

When you’re ready to begin, grab your pair of shears and make your cut about two inches below the succulent’s head. Having an inch or two of stem still attached will make the cutting easier to replant. Don’t discard the rest of the stem that’s left in the pot yet—we’ll tell you why later. Put your cutting in a sunny spot and leave it to dry out for one to three days. You’ll know your cutting is ready when the edge of the stem has scabbed. This step probably seems really weird, but its purpose is to prevent the cutting from absorbing too much water the first time you water it, so don’t skip it!

green and red succulents

Once your cutting is nice and dry, pour some succulent soil into a new pot or tray and nestle its stem into the soil. Place the pot somewhere in your home where it will get bright, indirect sunlight. You should mist the soil with a spray bottle full of water whenever it looks dry. You’ll probably end up misting the soil about once per day. After a few weeks, your cutting will grow new roots and leaves. Once it grows a little more, you can ditch the spray bottle and start watering it just like you would any other succulent. Make sure you take care of it so it doesn’t get all stretched out like your last succulent!

Remember the rest of the original plant’s stem that you saved? Stems are great for propagating succulents too! Just let the stem dry out for a few days and then care for it like you would any other succulent. In a few weeks it should sprout offsets. You can remove these offsets with pruning shears, leave them out to dry for a few days, and then stick them in some soil, just like you did with the head of your old succulent.


Replanting, Rooting and Repotting Succulents

If beheading your plant sounds too scary, there’s actually another type of cutting that you can take from your succulent to propagate new plants—leaves. As long as your succulent has thick leaves (thin ones won’t work), you can pluck them right off the stem and get them to root. How awesome is that? Growing from cuttings, especially if you use leaves, is an easy and free way to get lots of new succulents, so we highly recommend that you do it.

All that you’ll need to get started is a spray bottle and a pot or planting tray filled with soil.

First, you’ll have to take some leaves off of your plant. To do this, gently twist the leaf off of the plant’s stem. Make sure that you get the whole leaf, because leaves that aren’t intact are less likely to root. Leave them to dry out until the cut sides callus over, which will take a few days.

Next, place the leaves on top of the soil or cut side down in the soil—either way will work. After you plant them, you’ll need to water the leaves frequently. You should use a spray bottle to mist them with some water whenever the soil looks dry, so you’ll probably end up watering them once a day.

Your leaves will probably sprout buds in about a month. Not all of them will successfully root, so don’t blame yourself if you lose a few leaves! In six months to a year, the new plants will be a normal size. As they grow you can stop misting them with a spray bottle every day and start using a watering can to water them once a week.

Now that your cuttings and offsets have rooted, you may be wondering when and how to replant all of the beautiful succulents that you’ve propagated.

You’ll know when the succulents you’ve propagated from leaves are ready to replant because the leaves will start to wither. This will happen about eight weeks into the propagation process. Before repotting your babies, make sure you remove all of the dead leaves.

Offsets and cuttings can be planted in pots or in your garden as soon as their roots have developed. Rooting generally occurs in four weeks, but we recommend waiting six weeks so they have a little more time to grow before you replant them.

rainbow succulent

If you’re planting your baby succulents outside, try to put them near larger succulents. The bigger plants will provide your little ones with some shelter from the elements. Don’t plant baby succulents outside when the weather is extremely hot or cold, and try plant them in a shaded area if you can.

While we’re on the subject of replanting, you should know that mature succulents need to be replanted about once every two years in new soil. Soil loses nutrients over time, so your plants will benefit from some fresh soil every few years. Succulents that are pressed up against the edges of their pots and starting to outgrow them should also be repotted.

When you’re ready to repot or replant your succulents, follow the planting instructions in the “How to Plant Succulents” section of this guide.


Are Succulents Safe For Pets

Are succulents safe as pets? Of course they are! 😉

But seriously, If you have a dog or cat who tries to eat everything in your house then you’re probably wondering whether or not succulents will be safe for them. The good news is that most succulents are safe for dogs and cats even if they ingest them.

There are a few types of succulents, though, that might cause your pets to vomit or get a stomach ache if they eat them. The plants you should avoid are String of Pearls, Aloe Vera, Jade Plants, Kalanchoe, Snake Plants and Euphorbia.


Types of Succulents

There are so many succulent types to choose from, which makes it hard to choose just a few plants for your garden. Hopefully this section on different kinds of succulents will help you narrow down your search! This section may also help you with identifying succulents that you come across, which is a super useful skill.

Flowering and Colorful

If you love flowers and succulents, why not get the best of both worlds by purchasing a flowering succulent? Some gorgeous ones that you should look into purchasing are Flaming Katy, a Kalanchoe that has flowers in bright colors like red and orange, and Blue Prince, an Echeveria that has yellow blooms and blue and pink rosettes.

If you want to add a pop of color to your garden, try buying a purple, blue, or pink colored plant. Afterglow, a type of Echeveria that has big, beautiful purple and pink hued rosettes is a great choice if you love the color purple. If you’re more partial to the color blue, check out Echeveria Glauca, a blue version of the popular Hens and Chicks succulent, or Pachyveria, a hybrid plant that comes in beautiful shades of aqua blue. Some red and pink succulents that can add a touch of rosy warmth to your planter are Copper Rose, a type of Echeveria that turns a coppery pink color when given enough direct sunlight, and Rainbow, a variegated Echeveria that has pink and green rosettes.

Some stores have recently started selling brightly colored painted succulents. We don’t really recommend that you buy them, though. The paint will probably get in the way of the plants carrying out photosynthesis, which will affect their growth and longevity. Choose one of the naturally colorful plants we mentioned above instead.

Bright colors aren’t your thing? Check out black succulents like Black Prince, a type of Echeveria that looks black in some lights and very dark purple in others, and Black Rose, a type of Aeonium that has very shiny leaves.

Rare and Exotic

Rare succulents can be hard to track down and hard to care for, but they sure are beautiful! One example of a rare succulent is Ruby Necklace, which has plump, green leaves tinged with pink and purple stems. The contrast between the colors is gorgeous! Some other rare species that you’re sure to fall in love with are Dolphin Succulents, which look just like jumping dolphins, and Bunny Succulents, which look like little bunny ears.

Mini succulents are another uncommon type of succulent. They’re super cute, though, so they’re worth hunting down. One of our favorites is Jet Beads, a Sedeveria with pointed copper, green, and black colored leaves.

Agave is a pretty common succulent, but what makes it special is the fact that it’s edible. Agave is used to make tequila and agave nectar, a type of sweetener. Some other examples of edible succulents are Saguaro and Opuntia, which are two types of cacti that are often used to make salsas.

Another unique and interesting species is the Baobab tree. It’s said to be the tallest succulent in the world at eighty-two feet tall. You definitely won’t be able to plant your own Baobab tree, so if you want a tall succulent of your own, try getting a Variegated Elephant Bush. In the wild it can grow twenty feet high, but as a houseplant, it will remain just a few feet tall.

Indoor and Outdoor Succulents

If you keep your plants indoors, you might want to choose low light succulents. Ponytail Palms, Kalanchoes, and Jade Plants are all good choices. You don’t have to limit yourself to just low light succulents if you’re planting indoors, though. Lots of species do well both inside and out. Hens and Chicks is an example. It can thrive in hot and cold temperatures and is tolerant of both full sun and lower light conditions.

Many Haworthias also do well indoors. Haworthias are a genus of small succulents native to Africa, but surprisingly they handle lower light conditions pretty well. One species you should consider buying for your home is Haworthia Concolor, a striking plant that has bright green leaves dotted with contrasting white spots.

If you live in a cold climate and want to plant your succulents outside, make sure you choose a hardy variety. Many Sempervivums and Sedums are cold hardy. Try planting Irene, a coppery red Sempervivum, or Blue Spruce, a Sedum with pointy, bluish green leaves.

Hanging and trailing succulents are another great type to put outdoors. They were practically made for hanging baskets, but you can put them in any pot and they’ll look beautiful. Donkey’s Tail and Burro’s Tail will spill out over the sides of your baskets or pots and look absolutely lush.

Crafty Succulents

Some people love succulents so much that owning several of them isn’t enough. Succulent fans are now making felt succulents, buttercream succulents, succulent themed quilts, and more. Our favorite DIY trends are felt and buttercream succulents. If you take your time cutting out, layering, and shading the leaves with markers to create some color variation, your felt succulents will look scarily realistic. Well crafted buttercream succulents could almost pass for real ones too. The ones we’ve seen on Pinterest look too pretty to eat!


You’ve made it to the end of the Ultimate Guide to Succulents! Hopefully you learned a thing or two and enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it.


Plant, grow and care for succulents
(View full size succulent infographic here on Pinterest)

About Tony

TonyTony is a native of Florida living in Dallas with his wife and small Chiweenie named Noli.

He's managed client PPC and content campaigns for over four years now and after seeing how impactful helpful, fun content has been for his clients and their readers, he decided to take on the role of content marketing director for dwelling trends.

He loves doing the research for content pieces here and hopes our awesome readers find value and enjoy reading them.