Overgrown euphorbia

12 Mistakes Beginners Make with Succulents

When you saw "mistakes beginners make with succulents," you probably though the first would be "overwatering." There's so much angst about watering succulents! Yet watering is one of the simplest things about this type of plant: Forget to do it and it'll probably be fine.

So, are we good? No? All righty, let's start with Mistake Number One:

Desiccated cactus

Desiccated paddle cactus. It'll plump when the rains come.

1. Assuming they're no-water plants

Succulents are low-water plants. Water thoroughly; wait until dry or nearly; repeat. When in doubt, don't. If they shrivel, they're trying to tell you something.  See How to Water Succulents.

2. Misting the plants

Hm. To what end? Succulents come from arid climates, not foggy ones...except for a very few that grow on coastal cliffs. Most don't collect, absorb, need or want moisture-laden air.

3. Adding pebbles to nondraining pots

This supposedly provides the drainage succulents famously need. Yet what it does is create a microbial soup that eventually rots the roots. This may be counter-intuitive, but most succulents do fine without drainage if you keep soil dry and water only enough to moisten the roots.

Euphorbia and sedum

The euphorbia needs less water than the sedum. Pick one, because the other probably won't make it.

4. Combining succulents that have different needs

If you put mammillarias in a pot with sedums, you're basically making a floral arrangement. Stonecrop needs more water and less sun than cactus. Enjoy the pretty pairing, but don't expect it to last.

Fenestraria (baby toes)

Fenestraria (baby toes)

5. Starting out with living rocks or moon cactus

Succulents with personality make owners nurturers, but such plants are challenging even for experts. I'll never forget when my baby toes died. (I was 11.)

6. No top dressing

Gardens and pots look better if soil is covered, and gravel or pebbles also have practical purposes: They slow moisture evaporation, moderate soil temperature, diffuse rain, help keep weeds from sprouting (and make them easier to pull if they do). Learn more about top dressing. 

Sunburn on kalanchoe

A sunburned kalanchoe.

7. Not acclimating nursery plants

If your new succulent was under shade cloth or in a greenhouse, don't immediately place it in full sun. It'll burn, and you'll wonder what those beige patches are. Introduce new plants to greater sun gradually. Read more about sun and succulents.

Mistakes with agaves

These century plants may look great now, but they'll eventually triple in size.

8. Not knowing how big it'll get

The header photo shows Euphorbia ammak 'Variegata' encroaching on a home's eves. But arguably a worse mistake is planting Agave americana pups alongside a curb, walkway, steps or driveway. Learn more. 

Same aloe, different light.

Aloe nobilis in low light and in full sun.

9. Giving succulents too little light

Put a red or orange aloe in the shade, and it'll revert to green. The plant will be OK, but you'll be disappointed. Same for crassulas and echeverias: Sun is essential for color...and flowering.

8. Ignoring mealy bugs

Suddenly they're everywhere, especially when potted succulents are crammed together. Check leaf axils for white bits, spray pests with Isopropyl alcohol (70%), and isolate or discard infested plants. See the "Pest and Damage Control" section of Designing with Succulents (2nd ed), pp. 137-143.

Glochids on Opuntia microdasys

Bunny ears (Opuntia microdasys) is polka-dotted with glochids.

9. Being unaware of glochids

Opuntia (paddle cacti, prickly pear) typically have spines you can see plus glochids ("glock-ids")---hairlike, hooked ones you almost can't. With the slightest touch they detach from the plant and imbed your skin.

10. Not knowing plants' origins

You may not be able to give your cacti the desert Southwest, but understanding that they come from a dry, hot, sunny region with cold winter nights will go a long way to making them---and you---happy.

The Secret to Happy Succulents

The secret to happy succulents is to duplicate their native growing conditions as much as possible. The more you know about where a succulent comes from, the easier you can do this…up to a point. Occasionally (not often) it’s nearly impossible. No matter what you do, saguaros don’t thrive beyond the Sonoran Desert, where they…

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Succulents and light

How Much Light Do Succulents Need?

How much light do your succulents need? It depends on the type of plant and where you live. Most haworthias and gasterias prefer shade but can handle some sun along the coast. Many but not all cacti are fine in full desert sun. As a general rule, the majority of soft-leaved succulents want half a day’s sun (in mild climates) and dappled or “bright” shade.

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Use Crushed-Rock Top Dressing to Enhance Your Succulent Designs

Do consider using crushed-rock top dressing to enhance your succulent designs. In the ground or in pots, your succulent compositions will look and perform better if bare soil doesn’t show. Top dressing lends a finished look, and plants benefit from the way it disperses water. In the open garden, soil exposed to sunlight is likely…

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  1. Barbara Bandhauer on May 30, 2019 at 8:49 am

    Thank you, many questions were answered. I’m thinking to pot my prickly pear to control size and finger exposure (if you know what I mean)
    Hope to see you June 10 at the SD fair grounds.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on May 30, 2019 at 10:19 am

      Hi Barbara — That’s wise. I grow treacherous cacti only in pots. Doing so let me pick up my bunny ears and overturn it into a trash bag—I was glad I didn’t have to remove it from the garden! Yes, I’ll join the SD Hort Society in celebrating Jim Bishop being Horticulturist of the Year. See you there!

    • Noelle Murphy on June 22, 2019 at 12:59 pm

      Always learning. The battle against Mealeybugs.
      Spray with alcohol is a great idea Thanks

  2. Marie Pham on May 30, 2019 at 11:57 am

    We all love you so much Debra. This article is a perfect reminder and actually all your articles are super helpful to me. I failed before with living rocks and after trying again, they are now loosing their (foreskin) and growing bigger and blooming. I am so glad after reading about bunny ears, I will be extra cautious when I pot them this week. Now I realized what not to do regarding placing rocks at the bottom of a non draining pot , my succulent did rot. I learn a lot from failing and with your teaching and encouragement, I have many beautiful succulents and still find this hobby addicting in a healthy way. I get many friends to follow you and are now addicted to these beautiful plants. Thank you and God bless you and your family. Marie Pham

  3. Jennifer on May 30, 2019 at 12:44 pm

    I was gifted a prickly pear cactus. I didn’t like the pot it was in, so, armed with rose gloves and a long-sleeve shirt, I transplanted it. When I felt a bit of burning in my fingers, I discovered the glochids embedded in the gloves & a part of my sleeve. After a long tweezer session on my fingers & wrists I trashed the Rose gloves & the shirt, and stuck the potted culprit in the corner of my patio where no one will brush up against it accidentally. Lesson learned, the hard way! I wish I had used newspaper to grab the cactus like my Grandma taught me.

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