They have the reputation of being so easy to grow, yet succulent houseplants do need some care… including careful watering. Photo: sukkulentenfee.de
Succulents are plants that store water in their stems or leaves. Some people also include in this group plants that store moisture in swollen roots, especially when those roots are somewhat exposed. That’s what gives succulents their chubby appearance and indeed their name: it comes from Latin succulentus for “full of juice.” Succulents belong to over 25 different families, including 3 that contain almost only succulent species: the Crassulaceae (crassulas, sedums, echeverias, kalanchoes, etc.), the Cactaceae (cactus of all kinds) and the Aizoaceae (living stones and their ilk).
Most succulents come from arid climates or at least climates with a prolonged dry season. Some are epiphytes, growing on trees with no soil to help them catch and hold on to water. And all prefer to more on the dry side than the damp one.
What Do Succulents Need to Thrive?
- Plenty of light, of course; most even prefer full sun. In fact, more indoor succulents die—ever so slowly!—from insufficient light than any other cause.
- Soil that drains thoroughly. That can be cactus and succulent mix, but most modern houseplant mixes also drain perfectly well.
- Temperatures above freezing. (I am talking about succulent houseplants here. There are indeed cold hardy succulents usually grown outdoors, but that would be a different discussion.)
- Possibly some fertilizer, but certainly not much.
But proper watering is also vital. And it’s easy to water them too much or too little.
So, what exactly do succulent plants need in the way of H2O?
Five Simple Rules
Here are a few simple rules I follow and that have brought me (mostly) success over 40+ plus of growing succulents.
Step one is always the same: I stick my index finger into the potting mix. I do so fairly frequently, maybe every 4 or 5 days in the spring and summer, not so often in the fall and winter: about every 2 weeks.
1️⃣ If the soil is humid, I don’t water.
2️⃣ If it’s spring or summer and the soil is dry to the touch, I wait 2 more days, then water, the idea being to give them just a bit more time to really dry out than other indoor plants.
3️⃣ If it’s fall or winter and the soil is dry to the touch, I wait 7 more days, then water.
4️⃣ If it’s fall or winter and the soil is dry to the touch, plus I’m also growing them cool (32 to 50˚F/1 to 10˚C), I wait at least 3 to 4 weeks before I water, even up to 2 months. Under those circumstances, most will either fully dormant or nearly so and water will not be, for the moment, a priority.
5️⃣ And when I water, I water thoroughly. Enough so that water drips out into their saucer. And in the spring and summer, I may even leave them soaking in it … for an hour or so, but always pour away any excess beyond that.
If you follow the above rules, don’t be surprised to see the need for watering can vary widely between different succulents and even the same succulents under different growing conditions. Especially, as you might expect, they dry out much more quickly in hot, sunny spots and in summer than in cool or shady ones and in winter.
How Not to Water Succulent Houseplants
- Putting them on a strict watering schedule of any sort (once a week, once every 10 days, etc.). Their needs change too readily according to growing conditions and their state of growth.
- Exclusively watering them when it rains in Phoenix, Arizona. (Yep, I know a lady who claimed to do that. Some of her succulents even thrived!)
- Only giving them a spoonful or two at a time under the pretense of “Well, that’s all they get in the desert!” (In actual fact, in many deserts, when it rains, it really pours!)
- Leaving them soaking in water for days on end.
- With ice cubes (people do the strangest things!)
Try applying the five simple rules above and your succulents will be forever grateful.