How to Care for Succulents

How to Care for Succulents

Succulents have become a popular choice for people who enjoy the beauty and low-maintenance care of these fun and adaptable plants. Unlike many other decorative indoor plants, they tolerate the dry, interior conditions beautifully, which may be part of why they have become such a favorite. Succulents do not suffer the unpleasant side effects of dry air or minimal upkeep that many other plants do.

Although succulents are low-maintenance, they require basic care:

  1. Appropriate watering—thoroughly soak their soil when it becomes dry. 
  2. Sunlight exposure for at least 6 hours a day.
  3. Soil that mimics their natural environment which may include coarse sand to drain water,
    keeping the roots from rotting.

Succulents are such a popular houseplant they are even available in a variety of subscription boxes around the web. Succulents can also be purchased at just about every big-box store’s garden center and at most small-town nurseries. 


About Succulents

The vast popularity of succulent plants has as much to do with their variety, texture, and beauty as it does with the ease of care for these amazing plants. In a busy, overwhelming world, you can keep beautiful plants inside your home or in your outdoor garden with very little effort, and they will survive and thrive.

Succulents are very versatile. There are 10,000 known varieties of succulents currently available worldwide. Of course, some of these varieties have been cross-bred over many centuries. But that cross breeding has led to many interesting colors, shapes, sizes, and textures for plant lovers to continue to enjoy. 

One of the best things about succulents is that they are so easy and forgiving, you can keep them alive even if you make a mistake and miss a watering. Succulents are plants that store water inside of their leaves. The leaves are usually thick and fleshy, which is where the term succulent came from. But since there are so many subspecies of succulents, some have thinner leaves which are still capable of storing adequate water to keep the plants alive. Water storage  gives succulent plants a swollen or fleshy appearance, different from other plants. This trait is known as succulence. The word succulence comes from the Latin word succus which means juice. In addition to succulence, many subspecies of succulents have other water-saving features as well:

  • Succulents tend to have less stomata than other plants. Since stomata are small openings in the leaves, stems, and other plant organs, less stomata means less water loss.
  • Their stems are their central means of photosynthesis instead of their leaves.
  • They generally emerge in small, column or squished shapes which grow slowly from shallow soil.
  • Most succulents have a waxy, hairy, or spiny outer surface which reduces air movement near the surface of the plant, and thereby reduces water loss.
  • A succulent’s roots are very near the surface of the soil, so they are able to take up moisture from very small showers, mist, or fog.
  • They have the ability to retain water even in high temperatures.
  • Succulents have a tough outer skin, keeping moisture in and disease out.
  • Most varieties of succulents recover from bruising or damage very quickly which keeps them healthy longer than other plants.

About 60 different plant families contain at least one succulent. The most commonly known of these families are Cactaceae or cactus family, Agavaceae or agave, and Aloaceae or aloe.

Other than Antarctica, succulents can be found within each continent. It is believed the first succulents were propagated in mild-dry regions in Africa. While it is often thought that most succulents only grow in very dry habitats such as deserts, the world’s driest places do not make good homes for succulents. 

Succulents do not like to be covered in dust or sand, so they would not be at home in a full desert setting. Dust and sand particles would block out the sun from the stems of succulents.

For the creative decorator, a succulent can add some drama to just about any room. You can find a succulent houseplant that is a match for any style you showcase in your home. But the best part of all is that there is a variety of succulent that can fit well in any available space, big or small. 

Succulent houseplants tend to grow to the size of their containers, so even if a certain varietal tends to grow rather large out in the wild, you can contain their growth within their pot, terrarium, or creative vessel in your home. Different types of succulents can fill different spots inside your home beautifully. Some creative places to decorate with succulents include:

  • Hanging from a ceiling hook in a trendy hanging planter 
  • Growing in a dim, tall corner on an edgy corner shelf
  • Resting on a window sill decorated with a picture frame
  • Filling an empty spot in a bookcase or on a bare shelf
  • Decorating a bathroom shelf, preferably with a window nearby

You can create fantastic indoor gardens with succulents. They do not necessarily need to be planted separately. Succulent plants do well together. You can put several succulents in the same container to create an indoor garden. But be sure before planting succulents together, be sure that the varieties you choose share similar growth rates, watering needs, and sunlight needs to keep your beautiful indoor garden healthy.

How to Care for Succulents

Watering Succulents

Succulents don’t need much watering.

They have a unique adaptation that enables them to tolerate limited watering better than most houseplants. Their thick, fleshy leaves and stems, as well as their enlarged roots, allow them to retain water so that they do not need watering on a specific schedule.

While most people automatically expect only cacti to require little watering, this is true of most other succulents as well. Often, you can even allow the soil to dry out between waterings. In fact, you can accidentally kill a succulent houseplant with too much water. So be sure to trust your succulents. They are happy to tell you when they need to be watered. Their shiny outer layer will become dull or wither. You may notice their fleshy leaves beginning to wrinkle or shrink. So while succulents need water, you don’t want to overdo it, either.

Watering on a schedule is not necessary for succulents. You can simply use your fingers and feel the soil for moisture. If it is moist, do not water. If it is dry, water thoroughly. But only water the soil. Do not water your succulents directly.

Be aware of year-round care. It is essential to the health of your succulents to water more in spring and summer than in fall and winter. Succulents thrive in warmer months, and therefore they use up more energy and need more water. They rest in the cooler months and will use less energy. So water wisely according to season.

Watering too much can kill your succulents. If you’ve been there, then you understand that this can be devastating. Luckily, understanding the correct watering methods for succulents is really quite simple. These are a few recommended, effective watering methods to keep your succulents healthy:

  • Water only when the soil mixture is dry clear through the top 1.5 inches of soil. Make sure to water thoroughly, or until the water runs through the drainage holes.
  • Water using ice cubes. This method is recommended for smaller succulents and for succulents that live in a container or environment without drainage holes. This may be helpful if you are strapped for time, but it is recommended to keep your succulents in a properly drained pot.
  • Place pots with proper drainage holes into a tub or water and allow the water to absorb into the soil upward. Once the top of the soil feels moist to the touch, the pots can be removed from the tub.

Never use a mister to water your succulents. This can cause the leaves to mold and the roots to become weak and brittle.

How to Care for Succulents

Sunlight for Succulents

Succulents love light, but not too much. Indoor succulents may enjoy indirect sunlight, near a window with a sheer curtain or otherwise slightly out of direct sunlight exposure. 

Also, succulents will need to be rotated frequently so each side can enjoy an even amount of sunlight. Too much direct sunlight may lead to scorching. Succulents will tell you when they need more light, as they tend to lean toward the light. They will remain stronger if they are not allowed to be crooked for too long. Depending on the types of succulents you have, they generally need around six hours of sunlight per day, but always double check your particular subspecies to be sure that is enough or not too much light.

Soil for Succulents

Succulents are picky when it comes to their soil. You’ll either want to choose a proper cactus soil or mix plain potting soil with sand or gravel. The sand you choose should not be superfine like play sand. You may also consider using perlite or pumice to mix in with your soil. Because of the rough texture of cactus soil, be very gentle when repotting succulents.

Terra cotta pots with good drainage at the bottom are recommended for novice succulent growers. These pots are inexpensive, support the loose, rocky soil well, and drain beautifully to tend to the unique watering habits of succulents.

succulent plant

Fertilizing Succulents

Succulents need only a small amount of fertilizer each year. Fertilizer should be added to your succulent’s pot only during spring or summer months when they are more active and thriving. Overfeeding can cause them to grow too quickly which may lead to weak stems and brittle leaves. 

Since succulents tend to grow in the spring and summer and go dormant in the winter, this means you can skip the expensive fertilizers. Your succulents will remain vibrant even if you’re not feeding your plant during the entire winter. Autumn is known as a dormant time for succulents, so it is also not recommended to fertilize most varieties at this time. However, check your specific subspecies to make sure they do not need extra care in the fall, as some differ in their feeding needs. Overall, when it comes to fertilizing succulents, less is more.

A light feeding of manure tea, diluted fish emulsion, or a balanced fertilizer blend are recommended options for feeding succulents. If you are using a liquid fertilizer, make sure it is properly diluted so it does not damage your succulents’ roots.

You only need to fertilize succulent plants a total of three or four times during the warmer months of the year. Because they don’t require a lot of feeding, you can use about half of the fertilizer you would normally feed to a non-succulent houseplant.


Cleaning Your Succulents

Yes, you need to keep succulents clean. Indoor succulents are known to attract household dust. It is recommended to keep your succulents free of any dust, dirt, and debris at all times. You can treat your succulents just as you would treat an artificial plant by wiping the leaves gently with a damp cloth or sponge to remove the dust. Dust is not good for plant growth because it inhibits the absorption of sunlight through the leaves.

Pests Common to Succulents

Indoor succulents generally do not succumb to bugs, but occasionally you may have to deal with an issue. 

Common pests that can become an issue for indoor succulents may include:

  • Gnats
  • Mealybugs
  • Wooly aphids
  • Spider mites

All of these pests can be handled by applying Neem oil or any horticultural oil that controls unwanted visitors. Neem oil is inexpensive and available at most home and garden stores. It comes in a handy spray bottle, so keeping it on hand just in case can’t hurt.

It may not be part of their natural diet, but certain animals love to eat water-filled succulent leaves. The list of succulent-eating varmints varies depending on where you live, but the most common animals that succulent gardeners complain about are squirrels, possums, cats, and birds.

Small outdoor pests that may bother your succulents tend to be scale and aphids, but this happens rarely and can also be easily controlled. 

Scale can be contained by spraying the outdoor succulents with a spritz of isopropyl alcohol daily until the scale is gone. While this method works for hardy plants like succulents, this method is not recommended for other plants. Aphids can be controlled with soap and water. Simply mix a gentle dish soap with water and rub directly on the plants to control aphids. 

Because succulents heal themselves, you don’t need to worry if a bug has created an injury on your succulent. That’s just another reason why these plants are so easy to maintain.


Growing Succulents Outdoors

Outdoor succulents generally thrive in warmer temperatures and in drier climates. They grow well in full sun conditions, though too much direct sunlight, more than 6 hours, may lead to scorching in certain varieties. Otherwise, sunlight makes succulents happy, and they show you that happiness through their full, colorful leaves. 

A lack of proper sunlight will cause succulents to reach awkwardly toward the sun. This may result in flimsy, discolored, or unbalanced plants.

If you live in a warm climate year-round, you may want to plant your succulents in your garden bed directly. When planting succulents in-ground, always provide them with well draining soil to keep their roots healthy. Succulents love rocky gardens, and they should be planted near one another. Planting them separately isn’t necessarily good for them to thrive. A succulent section of your garden should contain several succulents and should not be planted in neat rows for aesthetic purposes.

In-ground doesn’t always translate to in the garden bed. You’ll often find succulent plants uniquely tucked into cracks and crevices. Some fun ideas for outdoor succulent gardens include:

  • Adding them in unlikely spots like in stone walls or between brick pavers
  • Nestling small succulents between patio stones or planting rows of alternating succulent varieties
    between slabs
  • Planting colorful succulents as visual interest accents in rock gardens
  • Creating a hanging succulent garden out of wood pallets 
  • Digging an interesting succulent garden inside an old dresser on the porch

Their versatility makes them perfect for any outdoor home space from a large, English-style rock garden to a small urban patio space.


Outdoor Succulents in Cold Weather

Very few succulents thrive outdoors in cold weather regions where temperatures drop below 32° F or 0° C for long stretches. But there are a few hardier varieties of succulents that will survive the cold.

Hardy succulent varieties can be overwintered in their containers or in-ground as long as the soil remains well-drained and there is some protection from harsh conditions and extreme dips in temperature, like dark mulch or garden tarps.

Tender succulent varieties are not going to survive outside in colder growing zones. It’s best to bring them indoors during the winter months and place them in a window with plenty of sun exposure, preferably one that faces south. It may also be a good idea to place them under indoor grow lights to assist their growth through the winter.

However, certain species of sedums and sempervivums are able to withstand temperatures below freezing, although they are still better off in warmer temperatures. A great example of a hardy winter supervinum is the Cobweb Houseleek which has an intricate pattern like a cobweb on its thick, reddish-green rosettes. The Sedum Rubrotinctum or Growing Jelly Bean is a small but hardy species that looks like a cute bouquet of jelly beans growing from the ground.

How to Care for Succulents

Edible Succulents

You may be surprised to learn that certain varieties of succulents are edible. Dragon fruit grows on a spiky cactus, as does prickly pear. In fact, the pads on a prickly pear plant are just as edible and delicious as the fruit itself.

Aloe is also edible, but just the gel. And aloe should only be eaten in small amounts because it can act as a laxative if overdosed.

Saguaro is a beautiful flowering cactus that grows in the deserts of the southwest US and in Mexico. But it’s more than a pretty decoration. Its white flowers, which are the state flower of Arizona, produce a greenish-pink colored fruit that contains bright red, slightly sweet pulp and small black with nutty black seeds. These seeds have been used by Native Americans to create everything from jams and syrups to ceremonial wines.

Nopales are also found on a succulent cactus. They are commonly used in Mexican cuisine, and they are packed with vitamin C.

While some varieties of succulents are edible for humans, there are many that may be toxic to animals. Aloe, which is edible for people, is toxic for pets, so keep them away from your aloe plants. Most succulents are not poisonous to people, but several euphorbias are known to be toxic when touched or ingested, so gardeners should take extra care when handling them.


Fun Facts About Succulents

The Discocactus subterraneo-proliferans are the rarest succulents in the world. This plant is critically endangered. There may be fewer than 50 Discocactus being grown in private gardens in the entire world.  

Cactus are by definition succulents. However, they are usually classified separately from other succulents. 

Succulents are so versatile that people have made jewelry out of them. And yes, they actually grow on the jewelry as they’re being worn.

Vasco de Gama discovered his love for succulents while traveling in southwestern Africa and India. Also, the Spanish missionaries who colonized Central and South America decided to send these impressive plants back to Europe on trading ships.

Succulents can be found in just about every color of the rainbow. While most varieties commonly found in home and garden stores are pale green, there is no limit to the colors or textures of succulents.

One of the amazing qualities of succulents is their ability to propagate. While some species propagate more easily than others, many can grow new plants from a leaf that has fallen off. In fact, you can cut off a succulent leaf, let it dry out in the sun, then plant it in the dirt and let a new succulent rise.