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How to care for succulents

March 5, 2020

Succulents have a reputation for being easy to care for. And they look like they ought to be, right? But while they do tolerate a bit of neglect, it’s also easy to go wrong — especially if you tend to over-tend your plants. No worries. Even if you’ve killed your share of this species in the past, you can learn to care for succulents so they’ll thrive and make you proud!

Provide plenty of light.

Most succulents like bright light — at least six hours of sunshine daily. A south- or east-facing window is often ideal. Like most plants, succulents in general appreciate a bit of filtering (through a sheer curtain, for example). Baby succulents, in particular, can get sunburned in strong, direct sunlight. 

Rotate the pot now and then so all angles of the plant can bask in the sun. If your succulent starts stretching its stems in one direction, it probably needs more — or more evenly distributed — sun.

There are exceptions. Sanseveria (mother-in-law’s tongue), for example, does well even in low light. So always check the plant or look up specifics when you bring home a new variety.

Don’t overwater or overfertilize. 

Despite the fact that succulents hold water in their leaves and stems (making them pretty drought resistant), they do thrive on regular watering. At the same time, overwatering is the most common method of killing them. It’s not as tricky as it sounds. Here’s what you need to know:

• Let the soil dry out between waterings. Use your finger to determine that the top inch or so of soil is dry before watering. I test mine once a week, and they’re usually ready for a drink. 

• Water more in hot weather than in cold weather. You probably drink more in the summer, too, don’t you? 

• A good long drink is better than a bunch of sips. As with most houseplants, I like to take my succulents to the sink on watering day. Then I water the soil (not the leaves of succulents) until the water runs out the bottom of the pot. 

A little bit of all-purpose houseplant fertilizer in the spring and summer months (once a month should do it) is perfect for most succulents. You may even get yours to bloom! Don’t overdo the fertilizer, though — your plants don’t need it when they’re not actively growing (in winter), and too much can tax them.

Use pots with drainage.

different varieties of succulent plants in terra cotta pots

Succulents look adorable in quirky pots — some of which aren’t even technically plant pots. But the roots will rot, and your plant will die if the soil stays wet. So choose pots with holes in the bottom for the water to flow on by. Or place a pot with drainage holes inside the pot without. Remove for watering, then plop back in when it’s finished draining.

Though succulents look lovely in glass jars and terrariums, these containers don’t allow the water to drain or the roots to breathe. Keeping them happy in these non-porous containers is a challenge. If you’re up for it, Cassidy at Succulents and Sunshine has some great tips for maintaining succulents in glass containers.

Teracotta pots are my fave for most potted plants. They’re especially good for beginners, because they dry out well and allow roots to breathe. I also love how they look. Classic earthy.

Use soil with good drainage, too.

The potting soil that’s perfect for most houseplants isn’t ideal for succulents. That’s because it will hold too much water. Succulents crave good drainage. Cactus soil (which you can find at most plant shops) is a good choice for succulents. (Cacti are one type of succulent.) You can also simply add some sand, perlite, or pumice to your regular potting soil. Though it looks appropriate, plain sand isn’t ideal for potting succulents. Sand can become compact and retain water. Besides, succulents need the nutrients soil provides. 

Problem solving for succulents

Dirty leaves

My favorite way to clean succulent leaves is with a small, soft, makeup brush. This is especially handy if the leaves are fuzzy. For smooth leaves, you can use a damp cloth if you’d rather.

close up of fuzzy-leaved succulent

Gnats and mealybugs

What a nuisance! If your plant seems to be attracting gnats or mealybugs, spray the soil with isopropyl alcohol (70 percent — which is what the bottle you pick up at the drug store contains). Gnats and mealybugs like wet soil, so if they’re a problem, you might also want to repot your plants in soil with better drainage. And, again, don’t overwater!

Leaf drop

Your succulent will grow up and shed its oldest leaves as it grows new ones. So if low-lying leaves are dying and falling off, don’t fret. If top leaves are dying, though, make sure you’re not overwatering. Check your plant for bugs, too. 

Great indoor succulents

There are so many kinds of succulents — from cute, plump varieties to thorny ones, trailing ones, and long, spiky ones. Here are some easy-to-grow varieties for indoors that you might like to check out:

African milk tree (Euphorbia trigona)

Aloe vera. Many varieties. Check out the beautiful lace aloe (Aloe aristate)  

Cathedral window plant (Haworthia cymbiformis)

Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi)

Crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii)

Donkey’s tail or Burro’s Tail (Sedum morganianum) 

hen and chicks succulent care

Hens-and-Chicks (Echeveria elegons and Sempervivum tectorum)

Jade plant (Crassula ovata)

Panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa)

Ponytail palm or elephant foot (Beaucarnea recurvata)

Snake plant, or mother-in-law’s tongue (Many varieties, such as Sansevieria gracilis) 

String of bananas (Senecio radicans)

Zebra plant (Haworthia fasciata)

BTW, succulents make great outdoor garden plants, too. I have some tucked among the rocks on my rock wall here in Iowa. Depending on the plants and where you live, you may need to bring them indoors or provide them with cover over the winter months.

Do you have a favorite succulent to add to our list? Tips or questions about growing succulents?

You might also like: African violets — How to care for them for pretty blooms year round and TLC for your Tilly — How to care for your air plants

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