Cactus and succulents Gardening Houseplants

A Thorough Guide on Succulent Care

For Beginners to Professionals

Succulent greenhouse.
Greenhouse collection of succulents. Photo: Acabashi, Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Maybe you just want to keep a few succulents as a hobby… or maybe your goal is to grow them commercially. Whatever your reason, though, you’ll want to take care of them.

To help you, we’ve put together here a comprehensive guide on successfully growing succulents. The guide will allow you understand which plants fall under the category of “succulent”. You’ll also see the various types of succulents that are commonly found in nurseries before dealing with the various aspects of succulent care. 

Types of Succulents

Thousands of plant species can be classified as succulents, and it’s therefore impossible to list them all. What we can do however is to place succulents into a few broad categories. Furthermore, we can look at some of the common succulents you will likely find in the nurseries or propagate as you grow them.

Fat Stems, Fat Leaves
Examples of thick succulent stems and leaves.
Succulents store water in their stems, leaves or both in the form of sap. That’s where they get the name succulent! Photo: Forest & Kim Starr, Wikimedia Commons & www.ebay.com

The name “succulent” means “full of sap” (from “succus”, which is Latin for “sap”). They have chubby stems or thick leaves that store moisture in the form of sap. That way they can come through drought unharmed. Some have fat stems, some have fat leaves, some are fat all over. But do expect succulents to be on the pudgy side!


General types of Succulents

You can categorize succulents into two broad groups depending on where they grow.

  1. Terrestrial succulents: These plants grow on various types of soil. They’re the most common.
  2. Epiphytes: These are plants that generally grow on trees. Some people call them air plants. Such plants therefore adapt to grow using very little soil and anchorage when we raise them in our homes. Also, they require just a little water, probably the least of all succulents since the tree they are adapted to growing on held very little moisture.

Common Succulents

There are thousands of succulents in various genera, but a few are popular with plant parents. Their popularity is due to the succulent’s unique appearances, availability, and sometimes ease of care.

The following are some common genera.

  • Aeonium
  • Echeveria
  • Kalanchoe
  • Graptopetalum
  • Haworthia
  • Jade plants

You may also read: Everything You Need to Know About Sedum spurium.

Succulent Flowers

Mammillaria zeilmanniana in bloom.
We grow most succulents for their structure. We grow only a few for their flowers. This one, Mammillaria zeilmanniana, we find attractive in both structure and bloom. Photo: sever180, depositphotos.com

People rarely grow succulents for their flowers. The structure of the plant by itself is usually its main attraction. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that no succulent has amazing flowers that would really stand out. To find out, check some of our profiles about individual succulents.

When a succulent flowers, that will have an important bearing on how you care for the succulent. That’s because the flowering season is the most intensive for the plant in terms of resources. You’ll need to water it more and sometimes add fertilizer, among other interventions at that season.

Flowering, in some instances, means the succulent’s life is coming to an end. Thus, when you see a plant of this type flowering, you’ll know it is approaching death and be able to make the necessary arrangements to propagate it. If you do so, you’ll have replacements for it ready at the appropriate time.

The Toxicity of Succulents

Euphorbia with toxic latex.
Pencil tree (Euphorbia tirucali) has toxi latex sap. Photo: Unusualseeds.com

People usually keep many of these plants indoors and you’re likely to keep them indoors, too. A succulent in your house means it is close to children and pets who might touch or ingest it. Some succulents are toxic to humans and pets, while others are non-toxic.

The level of toxicity varies from plant to plant, and you should find the toxicity profile of your plant on the ASPCA website. Some genera contain both toxic and non-toxic succulents, while you may find an entire genus where all the succulents are toxic. Euphorbia is one of the popular genera where almost every species toxic. All their parts are poisonous to both animals and humans.

Weather Icons

Cold Hardiness

The natural habitat of succulents is in arid and semi-arid areas, including deserts. This means that they are adapted to thrive in desert-like conditions. They require little water, and most of them thrive under direct sunlight. The question of cold-hardiness can confuse things, though.

Desert temperatures can get very chilly, even dropping below freezing at night. Even so, they only remain that cold for a few hours, and then it’s hot again. Thus, while most succulents can withstand temperatures below freezing for a short while, they can’t survive unprotected for more than a few days in frigid winters. It is important to note, though, that a few succulents enjoy long winters and even flower in that season. They are adapted for it. But they’re exceptions.

Some jade plants, like silver jade (Crassula arborescens), fall in the category of plants that grow and flower in winter, although they don’t tolerate extreme cold. Many sempervivums or hens and chicks, on the other hand, can not only survive frigid winters, but actually thrive in lower temperatures. Find out the USDA hardiness zones these plants are adapted to and use those to determine whether they can grow outdoors where you live.

Read more: Can Gardeners Trust Hardiness Zones Anymore?

Where to Grow Succulents; Indoors or Outdoors

Huge African milk tree outdoors.
The African milk tree (Euphorbia trigona) is an example of a succulent that can grow too big for the average hallway! Frank Vincentz, Wikimedia Commons

You can grow succulents either indoors or outdoors, depending on their needs… and a few other factors, including the size to which it grows. The African milk tree, Euphorbia trigona, for example, grows many feet/meters high and may be unsuitable for growing indoors. Poisonous sap and spines also make it unsuitable for growing near children and pets.

Goldfish plant with orange flowers.
Goldfish plant (Nematanthus sp.) Photo: NewAfrica, depositphotos.com

You can grow smaller, friendlier succulents in the house. Some are small enough to keep as desk plants. There are still others whose morphology suggest growing them in a hanging basket to bring out their beauty. The goldfish plant (Nematanthus spp.) is one such plant. Creepers and climbers have ideal spaces in which you should grow them. It’s therefore important to understand that, if you want to grow a succulent outdoors, you have to take certain factors into consideration.

The first is whether you will grow the succulent directly in a pot or in the ground.

If you are growing it directly in the ground, you need to find out if the soil drains well, because no succulent can survive waterlogged soil. Planting the plant in the ground means that it is permanently fixed in its position. Thus, it should be well enough adapted to survive the area’s weather conditions throughout the year. Growing it in a pot enables you to move the plant to a friendlier environment if the weather conditions demand it.

How to Grow Succulents: A Comprehensive Care Guide

Excamples of succulents in ornamental pots.

Succulents are not fussy, but have a care regime like other plants for best results. There are some nuances from plant to plant and we’ll look at those below.

Light and Placement

Light is a critical factor for the successful growth of any plant. All succulents require light at different levels to thrive. None does well in the dark. Keeping it in the dark is an efficient way to kill the plant.

1. Direct Sunlight

Pink echeveria in full sun.
Many succulents need directly sunlight. Photo: @kazu228728

Some succulents prefer direct sunlight and will neither grow nor flower without it. Others don’t absolutely need it, but their foliage develops a certain hue when exposed to intense sunlight. The changed color is usually a sign the plant is under a bit of distress, but since its foliage is the succulents’ main attraction and the additional color makes them look even more attractive, not many plant owners would complain. Especially since no real harm is done.

Succulents that thrive under direct sunlight require several hours under the sun for the best results. This can range anywhere between four to twelve hours. Due to varying seasons in different parts of the world, you may find it impossible to get this number of sunlight hours throughout the year. Use grow lights to supplement sunlight in such instances.

You can keep the succulents outdoors in summer to enable them to soak in as much sunlight as possible. If you want yours to be a houseplant, when you bring it in, keep it next to a southern or eastern window. These windows will allow sunlight to land directly on the plant. Ensure the succulents are at most one foot (30 cm) from the window.

Furthermore, you should ensure to paint the room in which you keep the plants in a pale color to enhance reflection. Reflection enhances the intensity of light.

A related post: Give Your Succulents a Weekly Walk!

2. Indirect Sunlight

Cactus near a window with sheer curtains.
You can draw a sheer curtain to protect your succulents from the sun on the hottest days. Photo: NewAfrica, depositphotos.com

Some succulent have foliage so delicate that it can’t withstand direct sunlight. Direct exposure to UV rays would scorch the leaves and kill the succulent if you don’t moderate them. These plants need to be protected from direct sunlight.

Build a shed over them if you keep them outdoors and keep them away from windows that allow direct sunlight if you use them as houseplants. Sometimes all you need to do is put a sheer curtain between the succulent and direct sunlight. By so doing, you will give the succulent enough light while protecting it from UV rays.

Moving your succulent to a place with more favorable lighting conditions should be possible. This is especially necessary if your location experiences frigid winters with short days that block light for significant periods. Don’t choose a succulent that can’t move indoors in such places; you’ll eventually lose it to the weather. 

Watering

Woman watering a crassula.
Careful watering is important. Overwatering can lead to root rot. Photo: Vika200581.mail.ru, depositphotos.com

Watering is one of the most important care considerations for succulents. That’s because root rot, the commonest and most lethal disease in succulents, comes from excessive watering. These succulents’ natural habitat is invariably arid and semi-arid land, and they are adapted to conditions found in such places.

Depending on weather conditions, a plant’s water needs vary from season to season. The physiological processes going on in the plant also determine the amount of water needed. For example, a succulent will require more water in blistering summer weather because heat causes water to evaporate.

The plant also needs more watering during its growing and flowering season. A succulent dormant in winter hardly needs watering. There will be no evaporation worth mentioning and the plant isn’t using any water for physiological processes.

Avoid root rot by not watering the succulent until it has exhausted moisture from the previous drink. How do you tell the succulent is ready for the next drink? Simple! Do a soil wetness test. Insert your finger into the substrate from the top. Now, how does it feel? Don’t water the plant if there is still moisture in the top three inches (7.5 cm). But do water if the soil is dry.

You can water directly onto the soil if the structure of the plant allows it. If the succulent is a climber, you may find it practical to dip the pot into a tub of water. This will allow water to soak up through the pot and water the soil.

It’s always advisable to avoid wetting the leaves when you water any succulent.

Pots and Repotting

Unpotted cactus with tongs used to hold it. Spoon ladels soil.

Spiny succulents like this cactus require careful handling! Photo: AnSyvan, depositphotos.com

You will probably grow your succulent in a pot. Pots enhance the plant’s appearance and make it possible for you to move it as and when necessary. The appropriate size of a plant’s pot depends on the plant’s size and other factors, such as the root system.

You may need to change your plant’s pot every so often. The frequency with which you need to repot a succulent depends on how fast it grows. Some slow-growing plants hardly ever need repotting, while others may need it every two years.

Make the next pot at least 10% bigger to allow space for growth every time you repot. A succulent pot must have sufficient drainage holes to allow excess water to pass through when you water. It also helps if the pot is breathable, allowing air to pass through the side walls and get into the soil. With all these factors in mind, an unglazed terracotta pot is the best for growing succulents.

That said, you can make succulent pots from virtually any material: rock, metal, wood, porcelain, etc. Choose one that facilitates the growth of your succulent and enhances its beauty.

Soil

Cactus and Succulent growing mix.
You can use a commercial succulent or cactus blend. Photo: succulentcity.com

You can summarize the right potting product for a succulent in one word: well-draining. It’s a basic element of succulent care. Earlier, we mentioned the perils of overwatering a succulent. Soil permeability is a critical enabler for watering. There is a slight variance in the ideal permeability of soil from one succulent to the next. However, the soil should still have at least a 50-50 mix of loamy and sandy soil.

You can buy a commercially blended substrate (growing mix) designed for succulents, probably consisting of loamy soil, pumice or ground coconut shells. A substrate of this nature doesn’t get waterlogged. The substrate you plant your succulent in should also have enough nutrients to sustain it.

You need to find on which blend your succulent grows best and provide the same conditions. Most succulents are comfortable with plain potting soil, but a few prefer a little more humus.

Fertilizer

Cactus and succulent fertilizer.
Pretty much any dilute all-purpose or succulent fertilizer will do. Photo: succulentcity.com

Some succulents need additional feeding during physiologically intensive times. These times include when they flowering and during the growing season. Most will need fertilizer only after a season or two in the same substrate. Only then will the substrate’s fertility be depleted.

Experts often recommend liquid fertilizer, diluted to half strength, since concentrated fertilizer can accumulate to harmful levels in the form of chemical salts in the soil. Furthermore, you should never add fertilizer to the soil during the plant’s dormant season. The plant cannot utilize fertilizer at that season, and the chemical salts will accumulate and can easily harm the succulent’s root system.

Propagating Succulents

There are several ways of propagating succulents, including;

  • Seeds
  • Stem Cuttings
  • Leaf Cuttings
  • Air Layering
  • Offsets

All these methods may apply to certain plants while only some are available to a few. Even so, propagation by seeds, cuttings, and offsets are the most common.

1.     Propagation by Seeds

Saguaro cactus seedlings.
These tiny seedlings are baby saguaro cacti, able to reach more than 40 feet (12 meters) in height at maturity! Photo: Peter Bauer, flickr

To succeed in this venture, ensure you have quality seeds by obtaining them from reputable suppliers. Plant the seeds shallowly in moist, well-draining potting mix. You should sow by seeds in a shallow tray. Keep the tray in a well-lit place, but away from direct sunlight and keep the soil moist. The time it takes for your seed to germinate varies from species to species.

2.     Propagation by Stem Cuttings

Echeveria cuttings being inserted into a pot of soil.
 Stem cutting of an echeveria. Ill.: needlesandleaves.net & hiclipart.com, montage: laidback gardener.blog
What You Need:
  1. A sharp knife or other cutting tool
  2. Methylated spirit or rubbing alcohol
  3. A pot with drainage holes
  4. A cactus mix or locally mixed loamy and sandy soil
  5. Rooting hormone
Steps
  1. Sterilize the cutting tool with methylated spirit or rubbing alcohol to avoid infecting the parent and daughter plant with diseases.
  2. Choose an appropriate mother plant. It should be healthy-looking. Cut a stem from the best and heathiest mature part. 
  3. Remove leaves on the lower part of the cuttings to free up some bare stem. Sometimes this leaves the cutting with no leaves and that’s alright.
  4. Let the cutting callous for about three days. Keep it in shade at this time.
  5. Apply rooting hormone to the part of the cutting that will go into the soil
  6. Pour the already prepared substrate into the pot.
  7. Insert the cutting into the substrate. Keep it under indirect sunlight and keep the substrate moist.
  8. The cutting typically roots anytime between one and two months, depending on the environment and the species.
  9. Continue with normal plant care practices after the cutting has rooted.

3.     Propagation by Offsets

Mother plant in a pot, one daughter plant in a pot and one daughter plant unpotted, showing her bare roots.
You can easily separate offsets from the mother plant and pot them up. They already have roots, so are basically good to go! Photo: 1odinmig.gmail.com, depositphotos.com

Some succulents, especially the monocarpic ones, produce offsets to ensure the species’ survival. Offsets (baby plants) form from the root system and appear above the ground. They are the easiest propagation method, because the offset already has roots. You only need to detach it from the main plant using a sharp, clean cutting tool and plant it in suitable potting soil.

Pruning

Echeveria with lots of offsets on stolons.
This echeveria (Echeveria prolifica) could certainly use a bit of pruning! Photo: @concrete_gardens

Pruning can help keep your succulent healthy and beautiful. How often and intensively you prune your succulent depends on the plant. Some, like the huge euphorbias, can bounce back from a severe pruning of over 50%.

To keep smaller succulents such as jade plants healthy, you only need to remove dead leaves and branches. Sometimes you may need to remove healthy succulent branches to allow air to circulate.  

 Pest and Disease Control

Part of succulent care involves controlling their enemies. Mealybugs, scale insects, aphids, and slugs are some common succulent pests, but not all attack the same types of succulents. The best approach is to protect the succulent from infestation, but there are ways to treat them if they become infested.

Prevention

  1. Keep the plants healthy: Strong and healthy succulents may be able to repel pests naturally.
  2. Prune the plant: Dead leaves are one of the bugs’ favorite hiding places—they lodge and breed there, especially when there is moisture.
  3. Keep the plant dry: When watering your plant, always direct the water to the substrate.
  4. Where possible, consider using systemic pesticides: Plants absorb systemic pesticides and carry their anti-insect properties throughout the plant, making the environment uncomfortable for bugs or preventing them from reproducing if they do attack the plant.

Treatment

Woman spraying echeria.
Normally, you rarely spray succulents, but when they are attacked by insects, that’s one rule you may have to break! Photo; NewAfrica, depositphotos.com

One way to treat them is by spraying the affected parts with soap. You can use pure soap mixed with water at a ratio of 1 tablespoon per quart (15 ml per liter). Or just buy insecticidal soap (which is pure soap!) and follow the instructions. Soap irritates insects, dislodging them from the plant. You can also use the following plant-based pesticides.

  1. Neem oil: Unlike the other pesticides listed, neem oil is a systemic pesticide. Pure neem oil, an organic product, is made from the neem plant.
  2. Hot pepper spray: Hot pepper is quite irritating when it gets on your skin and eyes, and it has the same effects on the bugs infesting your succulents.
  3. Garlic spray: A concentrated garlic spray can have the same effects on the bugs as pepper spray.

Common Succulents Problems and Possible Solutions

  • Yellow Leaves: It could indicate a lack of important nutrients in the soil or a lack of sufficient sunlight.  
  • Shriveled Leaves: This can be caused by a pest infestation or exposure to direct sunlight.  
  • Brown/White Spots: They indicate that the plant is too exposed to sunlight. Exposure to too much cold can also cause these spots.
  • Soggy Stems: Stems become soggy when a case of root rot has gotten to the stem. It is usually impossible to salvage a succulent when this happens.
  • Wilting Succulents: Wilting has many possible causes including lack of water, pests, diseases, and exposure to direct sunlight. Find out the exact problem and remedy it.
  • Leggy Plants: Leggy plants are usually a result of a lack sunlight. The plant is likely to grow abnormally tall and thin as it tries to reach for the light.

Conclusion

Succulents are relatively easy to take care of. While they are different, certain care practices cut across the board, and we have listed them above. And the right soil porosity is also a vital factor for success. So, water them and provide them with the appropriate amount of light and you should have great success with your succulents!

5 comments on “A Thorough Guide on Succulent Care

  1. Good advice for beginners getting into succulents. Haven’t found one I didn’t like.

  2. Thank you for such a comprehensive guide. I love succulents – they’re such interesting and attractive plants.

    • Mary L Discuillo

      Just thought I’d ask Incase someone
      out there can help regarding my big very pretty cactus (dont know what kind but grows like rosettes ) Anyway over the summer alot of the leaves on the inside of plant turned black. Too much sun ( ie sunburned?) Was in a southeast exposure so got a lot of sun and the heat wave this summer meant over 100 for the whole month Aug and early Sept) I was traveling so came home to it. He was top watering(weekly I think). Just want to try to correct if I can -see if I can salvage it Thanks! Mary

  3. Granny Pat

    His words live on!

  4. Jt Michaels

    Brilliant! Thank you. Definitely bookmarking this article.

Leave a Reply

Sign up for the Laidback Gardener blog and receive articles in your inbox every morning!

%d bloggers like this: