Hey! Chances are you’re here because you’re a brand new succulent owner eager to give your new friend the best possible care, or perhaps you’ve a pal who’s not looking so hot. Either way, the below guidelines can help get you on the way to a happy plant.
Keep in mind, these are general guidelines for beginners. There’s a lot more behind each concept and there are many other methods out there, but we feel these are the best intro-level steps to get you starting out on the right foot.
Be sure to check out the FAQ as well.
Pots and Potting
Get a pot with holes in the bottom
There is no substitute to a pot with drainage holes in the bottom! Even a pot with gravel at the bottom traps moisture (and reduces the effective size of the pot), so for beginners, pots with drainage holes are critical. Unless situated in a very hot, dry climate, unglazed terra cotta pots will be your best bet. Failing that, just about any pot with holes in the bottom will do.
Pots without drainage holes can leave roots sitting in damp or soggy soil, greatly increasing the risk of rot or overwatering. Water can also accumulate in the saucer so it is worth checking back on the plants after watering them.
Pot size matters
Pot size is also important when it comes to water retention. Large pots retain more water than smaller pots, and for this reason we do not recommend using a larger pot than is needed. Aim for a pot which allows the root ball to take up 1/2 or 2/3rds of the pot and err on the side of underpotting.
Sometimes, the roots of a succulent will be soaking wet, overly cramped in the original pot, or beginning to rot. It’s best to attempt to remove as much of the old soil from the root ball as possible. Tangled roots are fine and will sort themselves out, but try and break up the large clumps of soil/other material within them.
- “Wet feet”/wet roots: remove the soil, let the roots dry out for a day or so, and then plant. This helps lower the chance of bacteria getting into any accidentally-damaged roots during the repotting process.
- Too many roots: make sure your new pot has adequate size for both the root ball and the rest of the plant (see “Pot size matters” for more information). Entangled roots are normal and will generally not be an issue- don’t worry!
- Root rot: this can be a result of prior overwatering, planting when roots are damaged, or something in the soil. Clean out as much soil as possible from the roots and inspect them carefully. If you notice signs of rot (black or yellow areas, overly mushy or dry/crumbly areas), carefully remove the affected root(s) with a clean, sterile instrument. Do not immediately plant! Let the cut end(s) heal over (a couple of days, or until dry to the touch) and then plant. Planting while the succulent is “wounded” increases the risk of further rot, as bacteria can get into the wound and infect the plant.
Some succulent lovers rinse off the roots of their succulents when they repot. Whether you want to or not is entirely up to you! Be sure to let the roots completely dry before repotting in case of any accidental damage while rinsing. If your plant is wobbly in its pot at first, don’t fret! Roots tend to take some time to get established and work their way into the soil. You can check if your plant is getting accustomed to its new home by gently tugging on it every few days- wiggles mean it’s still settling in, minimal or no wiggles means it’s happily planted!
Terrariums, even those with drainage holes in the bottom, are not recommended for beginners. Being that succulents largely originate from arid desert environments, the damp humidity of a terrarium is almost the polar opposite of what a succulent wants. Great care must be taken to prevent plant failure in this environment, even more so for plants to thrive in it.
A fast draining mix is key
An ideal potting mix for succulents does not stay damp or soggy for days on end, but drains freely and dries quickly. Soil which stays damp for too long can quickly lead to root or stem rot, in addition to harboring things like fungus gnats or (benign) mushrooms. The cactus & succulent soils you find at big box retailers sold in big sacks with recognizable names tend to retain water considerably, despite any “fast draining” verbiage on the package. While plants can survive in these soils, it’s very easy to overwater or lose one to rot in them as well.
Commonly found soil amendments
The quickest and easiest way to get a faster draining mix is to modify a basic cactus & succulent soil by mixing it with perlite in a 1:1 ratio. Pumice, turface (aka fired clay), or chicken grit. Perlite can be found at your local Home Depot or Lowe’s. Turface can be found in bulk (35+lbs) at local auto part stores sold as “Oil-Dri” or oil absorbent (make sure the bag says montmorillonite clay or calcined clay.) Chicken grit can be found at Tractor Supply Co. known as “Manna Pro Poultry Grit” found in 25lb bags. Pumice can be found online or locally. Vermiculite is often confused as an alternative, however it is made specifically to retain moisture, and should not be used with succulents.
Dry thoroughly between waterings
The most important thing to remember is that the soil, and the plant, should dry completely and thoroughly between waterings. You can check if your soil is completely dry by pushing a wood chopstick or skewer down into the center of the pot to check for dampness (sorta like checking if a cake is done). With practice, you can also compare the weight of a completely dry pot against a freshly watered one to get a sense of whether any water remains in the soil.
Don’t aim to develop a “watering schedule”, instead, learn to recognize what your plant looks like when it’s thirsty. When in doubt, don’t water. Signs of thirst can include: wrinkled leaves, thinning leaves, curling leaves, rosette forming succulents may close inwards, while bushier genera leaves may droop and feel thin.
It’s not about the amount of water
All of the above sections work together to help ensure you can water your plants without worry of overwatering or rot. There’s no need to give your plant water by the tablespoon, in fact, a full soak can be good for the plant. Saturating the pot until water drains from the bottom can help make sure water gets to all areas of the soil, as well as flushing out any lingering minerals which might otherwise accumulate.
Lithops and other mesembs: Further research should be done to learn about their specific watering needs, as they typically want water much less frequently than other succulents. You can read up on their care here.
Misting – not as useful as you think
Though it seems to be common advice, misting your plants does not do a whole lot to quench their thirst. It’s sort of like spraying yourself in the face instead of drinking a glass of water. In fact, spraying their foliage can trap water between leaves, sometimes leading to rot.
Bottom watering – what is it?
A common way to water your plants would be to “bottom water” or “bottom up water”, this method involves having the plant absorb the water it needs by placing it in a vessel with sufficient water depth. Common vessels include bathtubs, storage totes, anything that allows you to dip the pot into the vessel, let the water rise to near the rim if you’re in a hurry. The water will be forced up through the hole in the bottom, watering your plant and completely saturating the soil. Some will use a more shallow tray with less water and sit all their plants and letting them soak over a longer period, 20-30 minutes is common.
Benefits of bottom watering: Bottom watering is important to use if your soil is very fast draining. If the soil drains well enough, the water may not reach all the areas of the soil.
Etiolation or “Why is my plant so tall?”
By and large, succulents want some amount of direct sunlight each day, and many of them want “full sun” – or direct sunlight for 6 or more hours. Without the desired amount of light, plants will etiolate, or seem to “reach” for the sun. The characteristics of etiolation can vary, but may look like:
- Increasingly large gaps between leaves
- Thinner stems toward the top of the plant
- Uncharacteristically tall succulents
- Elongated leaves
- Leaves which droop, flatten, or fan out
- Underdeveloped leaves at the top of the plant, sometimes leading to a conical or christmas-tree shape
Etiolation cannot be reversed, but new growth will come in compact if you gradually introduce the plant to more sunlight. Sudden increases in light can scorch your plant, so spread any increases in light over a series of days or weeks (depending on the degree of increase).
Direct sunlight refers to light which comes straight from the sun and shines onto your plant without reflecting off anything first (e.g., your plants have line-of-sight to the sun). Windows do reflect some amount of light, but for the purposes of this wiki (and generally in this sub), direct sunlight also applies to indoor plants receiving sun through a window.
Indirect sunlight refers to light reflected off or filtered through something before reaching your plant. For example, a room brightly lit by sunlight coming in through a curtain, or a plant shelved on a wall alongside a window. This does not include general indoor artificial lighting, such as office lights or general home ceiling lights. If the use of artificial light is required, a grow light is recommended.
Getting plants used to sun: for new plants or new-to-you plants, it’s best to try and start them in their previous lighting conditions and, if needed, work upwards to full sun (or as much light as you can give them) from there! Sunburn can happen to plants just like it happens to people, except sunburned succs will generally drop the burned leaves and look sad for a little while. To prevent sunburn and keep your plants healthy, you want to get them used to more and more light every day or every few days. Succulents that are already kept in full sun are fine and may continue to be kept in full sunlight. For anything less than full sunlight, however, here are some quick tips:
- Start out with your plant in a space where it will get roughly the same amount of light it has been getting.
- Within the next day to couple of days, increase the amount of light it gets (either leave it in that space for longer, or give it more full sunlight)
- Continue adjusting the plant to more and more light over time (you can start with 1 hour on Day 1, then 2 hours on Day 2, etc. for example)
- Repeat until your plant is receiving adequate sun for the type of plant it is- remember, all plants are different and something like an Echeveria will generally need more light than something like a Haworthia!
For new or new-to-you plants, try and start them out in a level of sunlight that the plants would have been accustomed to in their previous location- i.e., if you purchased it from inside a store with minimal natural sunlight, take your time getting your succulent accustomed to sunlight, whereas if you got it from a sunny outdoor greenhouse, full sunlight is likely fine.
Grow lights- do I need them?
That’s entirely up to you and your location! People who don’t live in very sunny areas tend to supplement their plants’ growth with grow lights or LED lights. This keeps the plants healthy, vibrant, and compact (prevents etiolation).