How to Water Succulents

Succulents—fleshy-leaved plants from hot, dry regions—are designed to live off water stored in their leaves and tissues in order to survive periods without rainfall. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t water them at all. In their native habitats, succulents can look pretty ratty during times of drought, and those that are not yet established may not survive.

Succulents do appreciate water and look best if given it regularly…up to a point. Their roots simply aren’t set up to handle too much water. They certainly won’t survive in mud. Don’t assume that adding rocks to the bottom of a nondraining pot provides drainage. This basically creates a bacteria-filled soup that can rot roots. On the other hand, don’t assume that a pot must have a drain hole in order for succulents to be healthy and happy. (I know it’s counterintuitive…but when you read why, you’ll see it makes sense.)

How to water succulents in pots and in the ground

Aim to keep soil about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. About once a week should do it. Water thoroughly to soak the roots and flush salts. For succulents in containers, that means until water drips out the bottom of the pot. Let common sense prevail: water more during hot, dry spells and less or not at all during periods of high humidity, cool temperatures and rain.

Do succulents need drainage? Not necessarily!

How to water succulents in non-draining containers

They’ll be fine if they’re not overwatered. It’s not drainage that’s important so much as avoiding root and stem rot, which succulents are prone to if they sit in water. When given less water than is optimal, they’ll draw on moisture stored in their leaves (which is the very definition of a succulent).

I water my terrarium succulents by dribbling water onto their centers or inserting a medicine dropper full of water at each one’s base. As soon as I see through the glass at the bottom that the sand is wet, I stop. Underwatered succulents tend to grow very little, which is a good thing because they don’t outgrow the container. You could never do this with most other plants, which when given too little water, dry out and die.

For more about growing succulents in nondraining containers, see my videos, Succulents in Silver (3:58) and Succulent Desk Buddies, DIY (4:15).

What about rain?

Succulents do best in areas of winter rainfall that falls intermittently and doesn’t exceed 20 inches a year (of course there are exceptions). When rain threatens to be excessive, move potted succulents beneath your home’s eaves. Place patio umbrellas with concrete bases for stability in the garden to keep rain from soaking your in-ground succulents. Channel runoff away from garden beds. Move and replant succulents in low-lying areas where water puddles. Topdress the soil around the plants with several inches of pumice to absorb excess moisture.

See my videos, Why Rain is Good for Potted Succulents (0:53) and Post-Rain Must-Do’s for Succulent Gardens (3:51)

Overwatering concerns

The rule of thumb is to let the soil dry out (or nearly so) between waterings. An occasional overwatering won’t harm most succulents providing the soil is fast-draining. If water has collected in a pot saucer, remove it so roots don’t sit in water.

How to tell how much water a succulent needs

The fatter the succulent or the fleshier its leaves, the more water it stores in its tissues and the less water it needs (and will tolerate). Cacti in general are less tolerant of overwatering than smooth-leaved succulents. See my video, Why Succulents Rot and How to Prevent It (2:01)

The more susceptible an in-ground succulent is to rotting from excess moisture, the higher it should go on a berm or mound of soil.

Also on this site:

See my article: Watch How You Water! How to water succulents during summer heat waves. 


Succulent Desk Buddies, DIY
“Desk buddies” are simple succulent terrariums that look good on your desk and require almost no care. They’re cute and classy, and visitors invariably ask about them. All you have to do is…  [Continue reading]

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Watch How You Water!

OK, we all know that succulents are low-water plants. But they’re not “no-water” plants. Although they may survive without irrigation during the heat of summer, they’re unlikely to be lush and healthy.

I suggest that you ~

— Check your automatic irrigation system. Trust me, it needs it, and maintaining it can mean life or death to prized plants. Watch for leafy growth blocking sprayers, clogged riser heads, and plugged drip lines.

— Pay keen attention to soil moisture during heat waves and desiccating winds.

— If the root zone goes dry, supplement auto irrigation with hose watering. (See my canary-in-the-mineshaft way to evaluate evaporation in my latest video, Succulents, Sun and Summer.)

— Water early in the morning or late in the day. Note to desert gardeners: Watering in midday heat can literally cook roots. (Eek!)

— HOWEVER, aeoniums, dudleyas and other succulents that have closed their rosettes should be watered minimally or not at all, lest dormant roots rot. The plants will revive when the rains return. (They may not make it until then, though, if in full sun. So, shade them.)

— If the ground is concrete-hard, leave a hose dripping overnight to create an underground cone of moist soil.

— Trees and shrubs want water where their canopies would naturally direct rainfall: around the perimeter of the plant.

— Add gravel topdressing around succulents (or use organic mulch for woody plants) to help hold moisture in the soil.

— Take the opportunity, when hose-watering, to blast pests, fallen leaves and dirt out of leaf axils and the centers of rosettes.

— Use a hose-end sprayer—ideally one with multiple settings—to direct water where you want it.

— A hose lying in summer sun may contain scalding water. You already know this, but your house-sitter may not, so be sure to mention it.

— If you have a hose-full of hot water, aim a fine spray skyward. Droplets will cool by the time they hit leaves.

What about potted succulents?

From my website’s FAQ’s:  Aim to keep soil about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. About once a week should do it. Water thoroughly to soak the roots and flush salts. Let common sense prevail: Water more during hot, dry spells and less or not at all during periods of high humidity, cool temperatures and rain.

ALSO SEE: Page 56 of Succulents Simplified, pp. 219-222 of Succulent Container Gardens, and pp. 134-135 of Designing with Succulents (second edition).