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The Basics of Succulent Care


Succulents are popular plants in both containers and landscape—and for a good reason. They are low maintenance, drought-tolerant, and super easy to maintain. Even "brown thumb" types can keep a succulent alive.

Succulents are also popular because they are so beautiful in their own surreal way. Succulents may come from all over the world, but most of them look like they come from outer space—or from deep beneath the sea. Their strong, architectural forms, gorgeous colors and intriguing textures will bring out your inner artist–and their seemingly infinite variety will tempt you to become a collector. Very few people can stop after just one succulent!


All succulents require excellent soil drainage—this means the water should run through the pot fast, so the plant's roots don't get waterlogged. Succulents can die from being planted in ordinary potting soil. When potting succulents, use a bagged soil labeled as being especially for Cacti and Succulents—this is easily found at most nurseries.

If you want to mix your own soil, you will find many recipes available in books and on the Internet and will have to decide which one works best for you. Some of the most common recommendations are mixing potting soil 1:1 with perlite. You could also mix ordinary potting soil 1:1 with sharp sand (also called builder's sand). Or you could try 2 parts potting soil to 1 part perlite to 1 part tiny gravel. If you squeeze a handful of moist soil in your fist and let it go, it should not hold shape but fall apart.

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Succulents are adapted to survive in harsh, dry conditions by storing water in their flesh. However, this doesn't mean that they don't like water when they can get it. (They're a little like camels in this way!) The one major tip for growing succulents is simply that they don't like being soggy. You are far more likely to kill your succulent by overwatering it than by under-watering it.

It's important that you let the soil in the pot dry out a little between waterings. In general, you'd want to give your plants just enough water to keep their leaves plump, and no more. It's hard to generalize, but this may mean giving potted plants a drink once every week or so, depending on conditions. A pot on a hot patio may appreciate more water than one kept indoors. A small pot dries out faster than a big pot. Plants need more water in summer than in winter. Touch the soil to find out if it's dry or not. Succulents in the ground will want water every two weeks or so, again, depending on conditions. Remember, it's better to let them get a little dehydrated than to overwater them.

When you water, water until the water soaks through and comes out the bottom of the pot. It's important to have fast-draining soil and drainage at the bottom of the pot, so the bottom of the pot doesn't get waterlogged.

Signs of over-watering: Leaves become squishy and change color, becoming paler, even white, or perhaps brown. If you lift the plant out of its pot, you will see the rot in roots. To rescue the situation, cut off the healthiest looking parts, and repot them in dryer soil.
Signs of under watering: When stressed for water, succulents begin to use the water in their leaves and stems, giving them a thin, wrinkled appearance. This is not as serious as the rot from overwatering. They will plump up again after a good watering. They are amazingly resilient—but they're not indestructible, and if they go too long without water, they will drop all their leaves.
Note: Some succulents go dormant during portions of the year and do not want to be watered during this time. Succulents, like Dudleyas, go dormant in the summer, growing only in winter, in conjunction with the rains. They'd rather not be watered in the summer.


Succulents evolved in dry climates, but shouldn't be confused with tough desert cactus. Generally speaking, full sun outdoors is okay for Aloes and Agaves, but Echeverias (many of the rose or cabbage shaped succulents are Echeverias) prefer a bit of shade or dappled sunlight. Most succulents appreciate some shade during the hottest part of the day.

You can keep potted succulents indoors, but they don't do well in dim light situations. Try to find a sunny window for them, and give them "sun vacations" outdoors.

Signs a plant is getting too much light: The leaves may scorch, have brown, black or white patches, or just look burnt or withered. Green succulents may turn pretty shades of red and yellow when stressed by the bright sun. This is attractive, but also a signal that you should be paying close attention to make sure they don't get too stressed. Consider moving the pot to a less sunny location.
Sign a plant is getting too little light: A plant desperate for the sun will reach or lean toward the light. Sometimes it will throw a lot of energy into elongating its stem to as if it would stretch out the window to better light. This is what is called "getting leggy."

Legginess is a sure sign of light starvation. Leggy plants can be trimmed into a more attractive form and repotted, then moved somewhere brighter. Light deprived plants can also become just generally sickly and will be more susceptible to insect infestation.

If you do decide to move a pot to brighter light, particularly if you're moving it from indoors to outdoors, give it some time to adjust. Let it spend its first couple of days outdoors in the shade, then in dappled sun. Moving it straight into full sun might shock the plant and cause it to burn.


Succulents are pretty tough, but they can still have problems with insects and other pests: snails and mealybugs are two common foes.


Succulents adapt well to many types of containers, from fancy ceramics to funky found art objects. They are shallow-rooted as a rule, so they can thrive in containers too shallow for regular plants. The one important rule for containers is that they should have drainage holes. It's trendy these days to pop succulents into all sorts of containers, like canning jars or antique vases, but if the container does not have a drainage hole at the bottom, you will be at high risk for overwatering your plants.

The good news is that you can make a drainage hole in almost anything with an electric drill — there are specialty drill bits different materials, including glass and ceramics. Ask at your local hardware store for a bit, which will match your container. While you're at the hardware store, buy some 3 in1 oil—use this on ceramic bits to keep them from smoking. Metal containers are perhaps the easiest to work with: you can make holes in tin cans and old metal containers with just a hammer and nail.

If you decide to skip the drainage hole, water sparingly and hope for the best. In such cases, taller containers work better than shallow ones, because the water tends to gather in the low parts of the pot, so short-rooted succulents have some hope of keeping their feet dry if all the water sinks to the bottom of a deep pot. It's also okay to treat your succulents more like cut flowers and put together arrangements which are meant to be temporary—a table centerpiece, for instance. In these cases, you don't have to worry about drainage, or light, or anything else.


Your outdoor plants should be fine down to 40°F (4.5°C) or a bit lower. Freezing temperatures can damage succulents, except for certain Stonecrops and Sempervivums, which are cold tolerant. If you hear there is going to be a frost, bring your potted succulents inside, or into a shelter, like a garage. In places, with frosty winters, succulents need to be potted up and moved to shelter from the entire winter.



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