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.
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.
Watering is usually the top question we receive when it comes to succulent care. Unfortunately, there’s no perfect watering schedule. Watering requirements for all plants, not just succulents, will change by the season, and even by the week. Plants won’t need to be watered as frequently in the winter as they will need in the summer because most plants go dormant during winter; likewise, your plants will need less water during a string of cloudy, overcast days.
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. Another option, especially if your planter doesn’t have a drainage hole, is to water your succulents is by using a spray bottle. Mist the leaves, and then get in close to the base of the plant and spray the top layer of the soil so the roots can take in some water, too.
Oops, I Overwatered My Succulent
Because of the nature of how succulents grow and store water, the number one mistake home gardeners make is overwatering. One key sign a succulent has been overwatered includes yellowing, translucent leaves that may be mushy due to the excess water causing the plant’s cell walls to burst. They tend to fall off easily if touched.
Succulents should never sit in standing water; it quickly leads to root rot, so proper drainage is essential. Self-watering planters have built in drainage trays and are a novice gardener’s best friend. 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.
If the damage is already 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 any bacteria that formed from infecting your succulent. After the succulent has had some time to dry out, replant in fresh soil.
Too much water and not enough sun are big-time problems for succulents.
Succulents are basically indestructible, but you have to play by their rules.
Here’s how to give succulents the amount of water they need to keep them thriving.
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 the rest of the plant looks healthy but there are shriveled leaves at the base of the plant, these 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 the ground. Smaller containers naturally dry out quicker.
Choosing the Right Planter for Your Succulents
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.
You’ll want to follow some guidelines, however, especially if you’re a novice. As mentioned before, try to always make sure your planter has a drainage hole. A terra-cotta pot is always reliable, as it retains water extremely well. Ceramic is another good, breathable option. Self-watering planters are a great since they have a built-in reservoir that collects excess water. Both terra-cotta pots and plastic self-watering planters are also 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.
No two gardeners use the same potting mix for succulents, but they all start with similar basic ingredients.
Succulent plants are perhaps the easiest plants of all to grow from cuttings, division, stem cutting and rooted leaves.
Keeping succulents in pots makes it a snap to bring them indoors when cold weather hits, giving them a second life as easy-care houseplants.
Soil for Succulents
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).
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.
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.
Lighting Requirements for Succulents
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that succulents exclusively like hot weather and full sun. Too much hot sun can burn those fleshy leaves and drain them of their unique, beautiful color patterns. They do best with cooler morning sun and afternoon shade. When growing them indoors, they prefer the bright light of a south-facing window.
Low-Maintenance Does Not Mean Pest-Free
Watch your succulents carefully for signs of pests. Make sure to trim dead, old growth that pests can live and breed in. Succulents are susceptible to aphids, spider mites and mealy bugs, feeding on tender new growth.
Aphids tend to be the least offensive 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. 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.
Our Favorite Succulents
Now for the fun part: choosing which succulents you’ll bring home.
These striking specimens add a little something different to the xeriscape garden.
Succulent season doesn’t end when summer does.
Add water-wise pizzazz with these succulent container garden plant picks.
DIY Succulent Sphere 01:24
Easily turn a faux or fresh pumpkin into a rustic planter for assorted succulents that looks great on a Thanksgiving table.
Create a one-of-a-kind, organic centerpiece for an indoor or outdoor dining table using a thick branch and a variety of succulents.
Nashville designer Sara Fried demonstrates why a blend of catci, crystals and geodes makes for tabletop BFFs.
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