How to Care for Succulents
Succulents are often regarded as the ultimate low-maintenance plant, but even seasoned gardeners have seen them perish under their care. Read our growing guide to help keep them happy indoors and out.
What Are Succulents, Anyway?
"Succulent” refers to thick, fleshy plants that have evolved to store water to survive arid climates or tough soil conditions. Often the water is stored in the leaves, giving succulents their signature (and irresistibly cute) look. Other succulents may store water in their stems, and some succulents are geophytes — plants with underground organs that store food or other nutrients.
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Succulents are sometimes mistakenly thought of as just desert plants, but their reach goes far beyond that. You can find succulents across multiple plant families with dozens of varieties growing all over the world — from houseleeks high in the Pyrenees mountains to ice plant, a South African native you can find sprawling alongside California's coastal highways.
Tips on How to Care for Succulents
1. Go Easy on the Water
The number one mistake home gardeners make is overwatering.
Plants should only be watered when the soil or planting medium is completely dry. A good, reliable way to water your succulents is to place your planter on a saucer full of shallow water and wait until the water is absorbed into the soil, then remove the planter from the saucer.
Signs a succulent has been overwatered include yellowing, translucent leaves that may be mushy due to the excess water causing the plant's cell walls to burst. The leaves will tend to fall off easily if touched.
How Often Do You Water Succulents?
These tough plants don’t need daily water. Here’s how to give them the amount they need.
If damage has been done, all hope isn't lost — many succulents thankfully don't mind a quick emergency transfer. Remove the succulent from the wet planting medium and remove any rotten leaves or cut off any rotten stem with a pair of sharp, clean scissors. If the soil is soaked, you can even give the root ball a gentle squeeze. Leave it to dry in a sunny spot. In the meantime, clean out the planter thoroughly; it's best to start by scrubbing with warm water and soap, then follow up a 10 percent bleach solution to sanitize. This will help prevent bacteria from infecting your succulent. After the succulent has had some time to dry out, replant in fresh soil.
Unfortunately, there's no perfect watering schedule. How much to water succulents, as with all plants, will change by the season, and even by the week. Plants won't need to be watered as frequently in the winter because most plants go dormant during winter; likewise, your plants will need less water during a string of cloudy, overcast days.
While misting may work for some high-humidity plants, you shouldn't mist succulents. Succulents, used to arid environments where rainfall is infrequent, store water in their leaves via their root system, which they can't do if you're only misting the leaves and top layer of soil. A buildup of water on the leaves could also lead to rotting. It's best to give succulents an occasional, deep watering, making sure the excess water fully drains.
Underwatering is a less common problem for these drought-tolerant plants, but you'll likely be able to spot it: Shriveled, droopy leaves can mean the plant has had to resort to using its internal water source. You'll want to look for consistent wrinkling across the entire plant; if there are only shriveled leaves at the base of the plant, the leaves may just be older leaves that you can gently remove.
Remember that succulents in small planters will need to be watered more often than ones in larger containers or in the ground. Smaller containers naturally dry out quicker.
2. Plant Them in Containers With Drainage Holes
We've planted succulents in pretty much everything imaginable — cinderblocks, thrift store bowls, hollowed out books — the sky's really the limit once you get the hang of caring for them. However, try to always make sure your planter has a drainage hole. Succulents should never sit in standing water; it quickly leads to root rot, so proper drainage is essential.
Terra-cotta pots are porous, so they absorb extra water and allow it to evaporate quickly. Ceramic is another good, breathable option. Self-watering planters have built in drainage trays and are a novice gardener's best friend. Both terra-cotta pots and plastic self-watering planters are usually relatively cheap.
The issue with plastic pots is that water doesn't evaporate as quickly, so you run the risk of overwatering more quickly than with terra-cotta or ceramic pots. This is why it's crucial to provide proper drainage in any container garden.
If your planter doesn't have a drainage hole and you're not able to create one, add a few layers of pebbles to the bottom of the planter before adding the succulent and planting medium.
3. Plant in Well-Drained Soil
Most succulents will do best in a special potting mix blend made for succulents and cacti. Regular potting soil often contains too much organic matter to help retain moisture — great for many plants but not great for succulents. You can also use a blend of potting soil, sand and perlite (white, volcanic rock that is highly absorbent and helps with drainage).
Best Soil for Succulents in Pots
No two gardeners use the same potting mix for succulents, but they all start with similar basic ingredients that help plants hold a little moisture and fertilizer while allowing extra water to drain away very quickly.
Remember that this is a basic soil recommendation, and you'll want to base your final decision off the specific varieties of succulents you're growing, as requirements may vary. Once again, the most important thing to look for is that your growing medium drains easily.
4. Keep Them Comfortably Warm
Unlike their cactus kin, succulents can't take extreme heat. Succulents do best with moderate temperatures between 70 and 90 degrees, so put them by a window indoors, or outdoors on a covered patio or beneath trees in the summer. Freezing temperatures will kill them, which is why for most of us they're houseplants.
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5. Get the Light Right
Succulents need a 50-50 mix of sunlight and shade.
Full sun burns their leaves, but too little sun makes them rangy and frail. A quick rule of thumb is that green, yellow or variegated succulents like more shade, while red, gray, and blue ones, or the ones covered in spikes, like more sun. If they're outdoors, put them in a spot that gets morning sun and afternoon shade. If you're growing succulents indoors, put them by a south-facing window to get the bright light they need
6. Keep Their Colors Vibrant by Giving Them Sun
Colorful succulents, like aeoniums, paddle kalanchoes and some varieties of sempervitum and echeveria, need at least six hours a day to maintain their rich hues. Less sun causes them to revert to back to green and elongate. Heat and extreme cold (but not freezing cold) bring out the deepest hues, so most varieties will be their most colorful in the spring when they'll get warm, sunny days and chilly nights.
7. Let Them Sleep During Winter
Most succulents go dormant during the winter and stop growing. They're resting, waiting for spring and summer when they'll grow like crazy. Don't fertilize them and water just enough to keep the pot from drying out completely, because they're extremely susceptible to root rot when they're dormant. Don't worry, they'll be fine. The water and nutrients stored in their leaves will keep them alive till they wake up in the spring.
8. Take Them Outside
Even houseplants need a summer vacation. Give your succulents some time outdoors in the spring and summer. Let them get rained on, because rainwater contains oxygen and trace minerals a plant can't get from chlorine-laden tap water. They'll benefit from air circulation they can't get inside, too. Do not put your indoor succulents in full sun, though, because sudden light change can burn their leaves.
Bonus tip: If your succulents are in containers, repot them annually with new soil because salts from tap water build up in the dirt and harm the plants.
9. Feed Them
Fertilize succulents during their active growing season, from spring to fall. We recommend a 10-10-10 fertilizer diluted to half strength. Succulents don't need to be fertilized during winter while they're dormant.
10. Check Them for Bugs
Succulents are tough, but they still need a little love from you. Check them regularly for aphids, spider mites and mealy bugs that will make a meal of your precious plants.
Aphids tend to be the least offensive bugs and can be blown off with a hose on high pressure — it may take a few rounds over several weeks to completely get rid of the problem. Spider mites and mealy bugs can do damage quickly.
Black Spots on Succulents
Sunburns and fungus and virus, oh my. Here’s what to do when black spots spoil your succulents.
Spider mites are very, very small red arachnids that feed on sap. Like their spider kin, they make small webs. You can blast them off with a hose.
Mealy bugs are aggressive. Careful watering can help prevent mealy bugs since they are attracted to wet soil. You can spot them because your succulent will have the appearance of white fuzz; adult mealy bugs resemble small crabs. Gardeners sometimes resort to neem oil, a natural organic pesticide, to get rid of bad mealy bug infestations.
If your succulents have pests, it's best to isolate them if possible so other plants don't get infested until you're able to control them.
How to Propagate Succulents
Succulents are one of the easiest plants to propagate, or grow new plants from a mother plant cutting. In fact, succulent owners often find themselves with an abundance of baby succulents when fallen, broken leaves begin rooting right on top of the soil. The steps to propagate a succulent are simple and just require a bit of patience.
- Pull off or use clean, sharp scissors to cut off succulent leaves. Make sure you get the entire leaf or it may not root. Don't cut too many off the mother plant at once or it could kill the plant.
- Air dry the leaves for a few days, then fill a container with well-draining cactus or succulent soil mix. Place the leaves on top of the soil.
- Now just wait — it may take a few weeks before you finally see roots sprout from the leaves. Once the roots sprout, water very sparingly until you see baby succulents forming.
As the plantlets grow, the mother plant leaf will eventually wither and fall off. You can either gently separate the babies and put them in individual pots or move the mother leaves with the babies still attached into new pots.
How to Propagate Succulents
Don't buy another plant—creating new succulents from existing leaves couldn't be easier.
You can also propagate succulents from tall, leggy stems. Just take off all the leaves and follow the above instructions.
How to Transplant Succulents
Succulents are easy to transplant due to their shallow and fibrous roots. Here's are a few tips to remember to have the best success when replanting succulents.
Succulent plants are very easy to transplant into different garden settings and are perhaps the easiest plants of all to grow from cuttings, division, stem cutting and rooted leaves.
- Let any succulents you've dug out rest a few days before replanting in soil. This allows their roots to heal.
- Succulents thrive in well-drained soil. Amend the soil with organic matter such as compost or use potting soil. Adding coarse material such as pumice to a container will help with draining.
- Replant succulents at the same depth at which they were originally grown. Tamp the soil to support the plant and allow the plant to settle for a day or two before watering.
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