Garden Myth: You Don’t Need to Water Succulents


Succulents may store water in their leaves and stems, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be watered! Photo:

Question: I bought three succulent plants last July. The guy at Ikea told me they didn’t need any watering. Just to put them on my windowsill and they’d do fine. But they’re not growing at all. They’re even shrinking and I actually think one might be dead. A friend tells me they’re dying of thirst. Who’s right?

Brown Thumb

Answer: Your friend! 

The idea that any living plant needs no watering at all is ridiculous. All plants need water. Yet I too keep hearing that strange bit of bad advice that succulents (and cactus, which are a kind of succulent) don’t need watering.

True enough, by definition, succulents store water in their tissues (stems or leaves): that’s what makes them so thick! They can then use that water during times of drought. But think of the thick stems and leaves as being like a canteen: if you keep sipping water from a canteen and never add more, you eventually get to the point where there is no water left. So it goes for succulent stems and leaves. They can go for long periods without water, but do need watering eventually. 

Little Dab Won’t Do It!

Watering can pouring water into pot of succulents.
When you water a succulent, always water thoroughly. Photo:

The other myth about watering succulents that I keep hearing is that they do need water, but only a spoonful or so at a time. That is a step up from no water at all, but is still no way to treat a living plant. 

The proper way to water a succulent or cactus is to pour on water abundantly, totally soaking the root ball. This replicates the conditions found in nature: even arid climates get a soaking every now and then. You can even let the roots of houseplant succulents soak in water for a while: say, 10 to 30 minutes, even overnight, but then empty any excess water from the saucer underneath and wait until the soil is thoroughly dry before you water again. (You can test dryness by touching the soil.) 

That can still take quite a while, depending on the conditions in your home: perhaps 10 to 14 days in the summer when your plants are growing actively (succulents grow slowly, but they do grow), maybe after a month or so in the winter. Even 3 or 4 months if the plant is kept very cool. 

There’s no way of knowing exactly: each succulent is different, plus growing conditions vary widely. Let your finger will tell you when!

No Drainage Hole?

Succulents planted in teacups with no drainage hole. A red X points out the error.
Never plant succulents in a container without a drainage hole. Photo: Albert & Moo

If you’re presently feeling a bit confused, because your succulents are growing in a pot without a drainage hole and therefore don’t have a saucer to catch excess water, you have a worse problem. Never grow a plant, succulent or otherwise, in a pot without a drainage hole: it just makes no sense. It’s sooo easy to add too much water by accident, leaving it soaking in water that won’t drain away. 

Drill and pot with hole drilled into it.
You can simply drill a hole in containers that don’t have a drainage hole. Photo:

If your succulents are growing in a pot without a drainage hole, it’s more logical to either unpot them and replant them into a true plant pot or take the plant out of its container, turn the latter upside down and drill a hole in the bottom. (Use a ceramic drill bit if it’s a terra cotta or ceramic container.)  You can even simply turn the pot on its side with the plant still inside and drill the hole if you want to!

Succulents in grow pots ready to be inserted into a cachepot.
If you don’t want to drill, simply insert the “grow pot” into an ornamental cachepot. Photo: &

If you don’t want to drill, you can use the container as a cachepot: an ornamental receptacle used to conceal a flowerpot. Plant the succulent in a regular pot small enough to fit into the container, then slip the pot into the container. That way, after watering, you can take the pot out and empty the cachepot of any excess water. Problem solved!

Drainage layer at bottom of a Mason jardin, succulent nearby.
Adding a drainage layer to a container with no drainage hole changes nothing: water will simply move up from the drainage layer to the plant’s roots, leading to rot. Photo:

Some ill-advised people justify planting succulents in containers with no drainage hole by claiming that as long you put a drainage layer of gravel or pebbles at the bottom, no drain hole is really necessary. That’s ridiculous! Drainage layers simply don’t work. If excess water ends up in a drainage layer at the bottom of a pot, the water will simply move up into the potting soil by capillary action, leaving the soil soggy and leading to rot. 

Growing succulents in containers with no possibility of drainage is a sure way to kill them. Just don’t do it!

Succulents and cactus are indeed low maintenance plants, but they do need watering—thorough watering!—occasionally.