Succulents are super rewarding to work with and there’s an endless variety to add to your collection. They come in a kaleidoscope of colors and textures—from the soft and fuzzy ‘Panda Ears’ Kalanchoe to the rough, ribbed Haworthia ‘Fairy’s Washboard’—and many have highly entertaining names too.
You just need to know a few things about your new succulent plant to keep it happy and healthy. You can also learn how to propagate your plant and make new plants! Succulents are truly the gift that keeps on giving if you take a little time to get to know their needs.
For a more detailed and customized QA based on your own climate and plants, check this page out and learn how you can ‘hire’ me as your personal succulent coach 😉
*Some supplies are linked to where to purchase them online- all are listed under the Supplies page.
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(Watch my ‘Wetting Your Plants’ demo here.)
Note the word ‘care’ doesn’t mean ‘kill with too much love.’ Every succulent owner is guilty of it, especially me. We show our overbearing love with overwatering and too much water is the kryptonite of succulents. Why, you ask? They are so juicy looking, don’t they need a lot of water? Nope!
Most succulents are extremely drought-tolerant and their roots don’t actually suck up the water, but absorb it through water particles in the air around their roots. This is why you must use well-draining soil and pots with holes in the bottom to help release excess water and allow its oxygen to enrich the roots.
Water weekly as long as the soil is drying out between waterings. It’s good to let the dirt remain dry for a day or more to reduce the chance of bacterial growth and discourage pests like fungal gnats from laying eggs in moist soil.
If your pots aren’t drying out fast enough, or you live in a humid environment, you may want to give more shallow waterings rather than letting the water run through the soil each time, but it is good to give the occasional deep watering to flush the soil and allow more oxygen to get down to the roots.
Misting the soil isn’t really ideal as it doesn’t provide enough moisture to reach the roots. For smaller pots you can use a smaller container to water with, such as a condiment bottle or any well-rinsed bottle with a pour spout.
I make my own succulent soil by mixing cheap top soil with various drainage amendments like expanded shale, perlite, pumice, and Turface MVP/porous ceramic soil conditioner. Do try to find these ingredients locally if you can!
You can also buy premixed cactus/succulent soil if you only need to fill a few pots, but if you’re in a humid climate, even this mix needs additional drainage materials added.
Top dressings: Refrain from adding a thick layer of pebbles or rocks as a top dressing since it will trap moisture in the dirt. Instead, use pumice, expanded shale, Turface, a scattering of pebbles, larger rocks placed in an attractive way, or nothing at all. You can watch a video demo of how I make my dirt here.
Sucs For You’s Succulent/Cactus Soil Recipe
Since I need a lot of dirt, way too much to have shipped, I pick up the top soil, expanded shale, Turface, and perlite at local hardware stores. I can’t find pumice locally so I order it online. I’ve heard reports of some shale smelling bad, like petroleum, but the brand I get (Soil Mender) is odor-free, so be sure to smell before you buy! In fact, smell any soil or materials you buy for plants before you bring it home. Sometimes it gets compromised with heat, moisture, and bacteria and stinks to high heaven.
I use top soil instead of potting soil as the latter tends to come amended with fertilizer and moisture retaining ingredients, and that’s exactly what we don’t want. Succulents and cacti prefer less nitrogen than most plant foods and making our own mix gives us control over the drainage and nutritional contents.
Pumice is preferable to perlite, but perlite is abundant locally and while it doesn’t double as a pretty top dressing like pumice, it works well for what we need.
Turface is often seen on baseball diamonds – you know, that red dirt looking stuff. Well, up close it’s rather pretty and is also very affordable. Turface is a brand name so you might need to seek it out under the name ‘soil conditioner’ or ‘porous ceramic soil conditioner.’ I get mine at a local store called Southwest Fertilizer and it’s sold as soil conditioner by a brand called Profile.
In a large bin, combine equal parts top soil with perlite and stir until well mixed. Then add more perlite and Turface until you’re seeing equal parts dirt to the other materials. You may come across bark pieces in the mix if you’re using top soil – just toss them into your compost pile. I buy 40lb bags for $2.15 and the cost is worth the few seconds of extra sorting to remove pieces that are too large for the pot I’m working with.
I wait to add the shale, along with more pumice and Turface, to a smaller bin of the dirt I’m working with, then I add another handful or two to the pot I’m filling. Finally, I dress the tops of my pots with pumice, Turface, or shale to keep the soil in place and the bottom rows of leaves dry when I water. This isn’t necessary but it looks nice and adds a layer of prevention against water-related problems.
Click here to find links to the ingredients I use in the recipe. Again, definitely buy locally when possible, but if you purchase online, using the links on my Supplies page will help me keep helping you and others with your succulent and cacti care needs. So thank you!
Succulents thrive in bright indirect/filtered light. Most want at least 8 hours a day, but some do well with less time and more shade, like Haworthia, Aloes, and Euphorbia.
Full sun: Six or more hours of unfiltered sunlight per day. This is intense and coupled with high heat, most succulents will be at risk for sun damage and overheating.
Bright indirect/filtered light: The ideal middle ground for most sun loving succulents and cacti.
Partial sun: Four to six hours of unfiltered sunlight per day, towards the high end if filtered or indirect.
Partial shade: Two to four hours of filtered/indirect sunlight per day.
Shade/Full shade: Less than four hours of unfiltered sunlight per day. (Don’t get excited—there aren’t very many sucs that will do well in the shade. I know, I know.)
Never pot in containers without drainage holes unless it’s a very temporary arrangement. Definitely don’t water pots that don’t allow the water to flow through the bottom. Be mindful of pots left in saucers where excess water could be standing after watering.
Unglazed terracotta clay pots are ideal for keeping succulents as the material is highly porous which means soil dries more quickly than glazed or painted clay. As long as your pots have ample drainage holes and fast draining dirt, you can pot in a variety of containers, but the risk of rot is increased when using glass, metal, and plastic pots so keep an eye out.
Most succulents are cold hardy to 45-50F, but it’s important to look up each plant’s high and low temperature preferences. Protect from extreme heat, frost, and freezes, and keep their soil dry during these times.
While you can feed your succulents a standard balanced fertilizer diluted by half or more, I suggest you buy a low nitrogen fertilizer made specifically for cacti and succulents. You can offer most succulents a meal with each watering during their growing seasons. Give them the normal amount of water during feedings and avoid splashing the leaves as it can cause spots and increases the possibility of sun damage. Don’t feed them before stretches of overcast weather to avoid abnormal growth from insufficient light. You should stop feeding by early fall to allow time for the nutrients to be used up by winter when the daylight hours decrease.
Succulents given rainwater may be fine without food, but many still appreciate a nutrient boost during their growing seasons. On the other hand, skip feedings if you’re using a potting mix that already contains fertilizer (despite best ‘succulent practices’) as too much nitrogen and other nutrients can really freak succulents out.
(Video playlist about propagation can be found here)
Most succulents are super easy to propagate by cuttings and leaves. and of course offsets, aka babies!
Via cuttings: Trim a cutting and remove the lower leaves so 2-3″ inches of stem is freed to plant. Let the cutting callus over for anywhere from 1 day to a week or longer before potting in dry soil. This helps prevent water from getting inside the cut which will cause them to rot before they root. You can begin watering once a few roots have formed.
Via leaves: Simply twist a leaf from the bottom row from left to right and side-to-side like you’re turning a key, or wiggling a loose tooth. Be sure not to snap the tip off that attaches to the stem as this is where the roots will sprout. Allow the cut end to callus over and lay on some soil in a fairly shady location. They usually fall off mother plant and nestle beneath her shade so keep that in mind.
When roots begin to show, then you can start watering a little bit while helping to guide the roots into the dirt. The leaf will continue to nourish the new plant so leave it attached until it starts to look like it’s not really helping being there anymore. Remove the new plant from the leaf in the same manner as you took the leaf from the mother-stem then pot it up!
Via Offsets: Succulents such as Sempervivums and Graptopetalums are notorious baby-makers. To remove the baby, grab as close to the mother-stem as possible and twist off the offshoot in the same way you twist off a leaf for propagation. You can look at the break and judge if it’s too big or wet from the separation. Let it callus over for a day or two if necessary. Otherwise, pot it and love it! I guess you could give it to someone really cool too, but only if they’ll love it as much as you.
You’ve got this! Keep an eye on how much sun your plants like and get up in their business every now and then to check for pests and root health, etc. Before you know it, you’ll be surrounded with a collection of happy, beautiful succulents.
Just remember, too much water is like too much junk food for sucs, so stick with kisses between waterings! And you can always find the answers to most of your questions in my book ‘The Succulent Manual: A guide to care and repair for all climates.’