Barrel cactus fell over (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

25 Succulent Mistakes and Solutions

The "What Not to Do" photos in my presentations invariably get a response from the audience. People groan or laugh as though only an idiot would do such things. Yet chances are, we've all done at least a few of these. In fact, some of the info that follows originated with mistakes I made myself.

These 25 what-not-to-do's are simple to avoid, but not always easy to remedy. A smart succulent owner learns beforehand what may be expensive or a hassle to fix, and could cause prized plants to look dreadful or suffer ill health.

Note: My earlier article, "A Dozen Beginners' Succulent Landscape Mistakes" has twelve more not included here. 


Not anchoring potentially heavy plants

Succulents by definition store moisture in their tissues to survive times of drought. A cactus the size of a beach ball can weigh hundreds of pounds. Yet such cacti tend to be shallow-rooted. The barrel cactus shown above shouldn't have been planted in soft soil on a steep slope. [See examples of well-planted specimens: Why Your Garden Needs Golden Barrels.]

Letting aeoniums get leggy

Leggy aeoniums (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

After a few years, aeoniums grow into tall stems topped with small rosettes. It's time to prune and replant.

Aeoniums tend to get leggy over time. Cut off the tops, leaving an inch or two of stem, and toss the rest of the plant, roots and all. Replant each rosette as a cutting: Insert it into the soil, so the stem can root and the rosette sits just above the ground. The best time to do this is in the fall, after the weather cools, when the plants emerge from summer dormancy. [See how in my video: "Prune and Replant Leggy Aeoniums."]

Watering succulents incorrectly

You probably thought my first what-not-to-do would be "overwatering." There's so much angst about watering succulents! Yet watering is one of the simplest things about succulents: Forget to do it and the plant will be fine.

That said, succulents do appreciate regular water, and will be healthier and happier if if given it. Water thoroughly, wait until dry or nearly, then repeat. When in doubt, don't water. [See: How to Water Succulents.]

Assuming pebbles create drainage

Pebbles don't provide succulents with drainage

A layer of pebbles will NOT provide drainage!

Does a layer of pebbles in a nondraining pot provide the drainage succulents famously need? No! In fact, just the opposite. A layer of pebbles traps stagnant water, creating a microbial soup that eventually rots plant roots. However, you CAN grow succulents in nondraining containers, providing you keep soil dry and water only enough to moisten the roots. [Here's how.]

Planting a euphorbia where it'll need pruning

Pruning Euphorbia tirucalli (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

From my video on how to safely prune euphorbias

Euphorbias, from Africa, are easy to grow in coastal areas of Southern California and Mexico where temperatures stay above 32 degrees. Over time, certain species, including popular and colorful Euphorbia tirucalli, get large. Euphorbia sap can cause irritation of the skin and is especially painful and dangerous to the eyes. Learn more, see a gallery of garden Euphorbias.

View my 6-min video: "How to Prune & Handle Euphorbia tirucalli 'Sticks on Fire'/Cómo podar y manipular árbol de los dedos"

Doing a dish garden of succulents with different needs

Mis-matched succulent combo (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

The cactus wants all the sun it can get; the haworthia and gasteria, bright shade only (they sunburn easily).

If you combine cacti in a pot with shade-loving succulents, you're making a temporary floral display; those plants want very different amounts of sun. Also, in general, keep in mind fat succulents want less water than thin-leaved ones. Such pairings may be pretty and appealing, which is fine, but don't expect them to last.

Starting your collection with challenging succulents

Lithops (living stones)

Lithops (living stones) can break a beginner's heart.

Succulents with personality are extremely appealing to owners who are nurturers, but such plants are challenging even for seasoned collectors. I'll never forget the trauma of having my baby toes (Fenestraria, a type of living stones) go squishy. I was 11, and yes, I overwatered them. Other desirable succulents that inevitably disappoint are moon cacti and spiral aloes.

Assuming dormant aeoniums are dead

Dormant aeoniums (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Left: Aeonium shrub at end of summer dormancy. Right: Same plant after winter rains.

In southern and coastal CA, aeoniums thrive; the climate is similar to their native Canary Islands. Aeoniums go dormant during dry, hot summers, then perk up and grow lushly after winter rains. So in March, aeoniums tend to be vibrant like the one at right; in Sept. the same shrub (in full sun with minimal irrigation) looks nearly dead. But it's not; it's fine. Don't yank it out! [Learn more about aeoniums.]


Not watering cactus in summer

Drough-stressed opuntia (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Drought-stressed opuntia

I assumed my paddle cactus (Opuntia sp.) needed no water other than rainfall. Imagine my surprise when a pad folded after six dry months, causing a top section to bend over horizontally. After I deep-watered the cactus, hydraulic pressure made it stand upright again. Would it have died without water? I doubt it. In fact, if the top pad had touched the ground, it may even have rooted!

Letting utilitarian objects stand out

Garden design mistake (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

The only thing that would make this drip tube more obvious would be if it were white.

It's mostly a matter of aesthetics, but unconcealed pipes, drip lines, utility boxes, tools---anything utilitarian---detracts from the look of a garden. Because the most prominent color in any landscape is white, irrigation tend to stand I spray-paint mine khaki-green or brown. All this spot, above, needs is a topdressing of gravel, mulch, or oak leaves the gardener removed earlier with a noisy blower (!)


Not bothering with seasonal maintenance

Seasonal maintenance needed

This garden needs routine maintenance to look good again.

Surprise: succulents, like all living things, grow. Three or four times a year, a succulent garden needs pruning, weeding and controlling pests. Gaps need filling and leggy succulents cutting back and replanting. The garden above also looks like it may need the irrigation checked, and would  certainly benefit from replacing ratty-looking bark with crushed rock. [Learn more: Succulent Garden Maintenance, Part One: Tasks and Succulent Garden Maintenance, Part Two: Referrals]

Not knowing how big plants get

Mistakes with agaves

These Agave americana (century plants) look great but will eventually triple in size.

I see it all the time: Agave americana planted too close to a curb, walkway, steps or driveway. Century plants get as big as Volkswagens. Just because pups are plentiful and often free doesn't mean they belong in your garden. What to do? Remove misplaced century plants and any offsets before they get any bigger (which they will). [Learn more on my YouTube channel and in my book Designing with Succulents (2nd ed).]

Pruning agaves badly

Succulent garden maintenance task

To preserve the plant's beauty and symmetry, agave leaves should be pruned all the way back to the stem. Avoid chopping them off midway.

This Agave americana 'Marginata' pup probably looked good for a couple of years, but eventually its pointed, fanged leaves threatened passersby. So the poor thing got chopped, which ruined the plant's appearance and only briefly solved the problem. [Find someone who can do it for you.]

Not controlling agave snout weevil

Snout weevil damage (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Agave showing snout weevil damage

The agave snout-nosed weevil is a half-inch-long black beetle with a downward-curving proboscis that enables it to pierce an agave’s core, where it lays its eggs. Grubs hatch, consume the agave’s heart, then burrow into the soil to pupate.

Once prevalent only in desert regions and Mexico, the weevil is spreading rapidly throughout the US and abroad, earning it the dubious distinction of being one of the "Top 100 Worst Global Invasive Species." So get it before it gets you! [Go to my agave snout weevil prevention page.]

Growing Eve's needle

Eve's needle

Can you imagine a worse place for a cholla?

Eve's needle (Austrocylindropuntia subulata) nearly put my hairdresser out of business. She was pruning an overgrown patch of it and got a spine under a fingernail. The hooked barb required surgical removal, and the healing process was long and painful. Unfortunately, this lush cholla is common in Southern CA gardens. It roots readily from cuttings, grows fast, and gets 6+ feet tall. When top-heavy, it falls over, breaks apart, and creates its own cuttings. The plant's needle-like spines are a threat to passersby, dogs, and kids who careen into it. I loathe it. [See it in my short Instagram video.]

Letting garden pots get waterlogged

Waterlogged jade plant

Waterlogged jade plant

Potted succulents that sit atop soil can become waterlogged due to plugged drain holes, causing roots to rot. Prevent this by setting pots atop paving stones. Ironically, the jade plant in the photo survived standing water, only to fall victim of our next don't-do:


Exposing vulnerable succulents to frost

Frost-burned jade

Frost-burned jade

Jade (Crassula ovata) is resilient, often the last plant standing in a neglected garden. Despite being one of the easiest succulents to grow, it does have an Achilles heel: Frost. When temps are forecast to drop to 32 degrees F, throw a sheet over jades exposed to open sky. Better yet, don't plant one in a vulnerable location. (Apologies to my next-door neighbors.) [See: Frost and Succulents, What You Need to Know.]

Not topdressing bare dirt

Bare soil needs topdressing

Exposed soil benefits both practically and aesthetically from topdressing

Succulent gardens and pots look better and plants benefit if you cover bare soil with gravel or pebbles. In addition to aesthetics, topdressing slows moisture evaporation, moderates soil temperature, diffuses rain, helps prevent weeds from sprouting (and make them easier to pull if they do), and conceals utilitarian items, like pipes. [Learn about top dressing for succulent pots and gardens.]

Not acclimating new plants

Sunburned agave

Sunburned agave

If your newly acquired succulent was under shade cloth at the nursery or in a greenhouse, don't immediately set it in full sun. It may sunburn, and the resulting beige patches won't heal. Introduce new plants to greater sun gradually. [Learn more about sun and succulents.]

Giving succulents too little sunlight

Aloe nobilis, low light vs full sun

Aloe nobilis, low light (left) vs full sun (right)

Put a red- or orange-leaved succulent in the shade, and it'll revert to green. The plant will be OK, but you'll be disappointed. This is especially noticeable with aloes, crassulas, echeverias and kalanchoes. Sun is essential for color...and for flowering as well. [See: How Much Light Do Succulents Need?]

Not treating pests early

Aphids on a succulent flower stalk

Aphids infest a succulent flower stalk

Suddenly bugs are everywhere, especially on new growth and flower spikes, or on potted succulents crammed together. Check leaf axils for white bits (mealy bugs) and buds for aphids. Spray pests with Isopropyl alcohol (70%). [More info: Go to this site's Pests, Diseases and Problems page and also the "Pest and Damage Control" section of Designing with Succulents (2nd ed), pp. 137-143]

Assuming you don't have snails

Snail damage

Snails chew permanent, unsightly holes in leaves

Snails are tiny in early spring, but by summer they're big enough to do serious damage. Snails chew holes in succulent leaves, so bait early! I use Sluggo because it's environmentally friendly and affects only snails and slugs (it doesn't harm beneficials).

Ignoring glochids

Bunny ears Opuntia microdaysis copy

Bunny ears (Opuntia microdaysis) is deceptively fluffy

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, glochids detach from the plant and imbed skin. Bunny ears (Opuntia microdasys) is polka-dotted with glochids. Despite its cute name, this is NOT a plant for Easter baskets.

Not treating cochineal scale

Cochineal scale on paddle cactus

Cochineal scale on paddle cactus

Opuntia is arguably the easiest succulent to grow, getting by on rainfall and tolerating poor soil, high heat and frost. However, pads tend to get infested with cochineal (ko-CHIN-ee-al) scale, which compromises the appearance and health of the plants. Scrub off scale two or three times a year, using a soft-bristled, long-handled brush dipped in a solution of horticultural soap such as Safer. [See Cochineal Scale on Paddle Cactus: What to do.]

Installing a dry stream bed above ground

Dry creek bed

Imagine if those rounded rocks were below grade. Makes a difference, doesn't it?

This is a surprisingly common aesthetic error: After having a load of rounded river rock delivered, homeowners arrange them to "flow" atop of the ground...never mind that this never happens in nature. Sure, water flows atop soil, but (have you noticed?) rocks seldom do. A stream bed in nature is lower than surrounding terrain...often significantly so. So, dig a swale first! [See: A Colorful Succulent Garden to Copy.]

Not knowing a succulent's origins

Desert Southwest map

Succulents from the desert Southwest have different requirements than those from South Africa

You may not be able to provide your cacti with a desert climate, but understanding that the plants 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 growing any succulent successfully (any plant for that matter) is to try to replicate its native habitat. [Learn more in my books.]

Note: My previous article, "A Dozen Beginners' Succulent Landscape Mistakes" has 12 more common errors not included here. 

Related Info on this Site

Debra Lee Baldwin (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

A Dozen Beginners’ Succulent Landscape Mistakes 

As a succulent garden consultant, I often see these dozen common landscaping mistakes made by well-intended homeowners. Correcting them makes a big difference aesthetically. Do any apply to you? If not, applause!

Enjoyed this article? Please share it!
Cochineal scale on Opuntia (paddle cactus) (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Cochineal Scale on Paddle Cactus, What To Do

White fuzzy lumps on paddle cactus are cochineal (coach-en-ee-al) scale, a parasite that pierces the plant’s skin and consumes its juices. It’s used to make carmine dye.

Enjoyed this article? Please share it!
Garden store horrors (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Silly Succulents and Garden Store Horrors

Succulents that make me want to scream are proliferating at my local garden center…which I’m now calling The Big Box of Horrors. I suspect these appeal to kids and newbies who are unaware that fake-and-flashy succulents are doomed to fail, and also to anyone who assumes if a plant’s for sale, it must be OK.…

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Enjoyed this article? Please share it!


  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.

    • Pam E. on December 6, 2020 at 8:42 pm

      I read online to spray my skin with a fine mist before handling cacti with glochids. I sprayed te glochids instead, & when the back of my hand inadvertently brushed against an entire pd, it felt like glochids always feel. However, I found that I was able to brush them right off! The moisture had softened the ends of the glochids so they were unable to penetrate my skin! . . . Using newspaper &/or cardboard (I used cereal boxes) to move pokey cactus around are both excellent choices!

      • Debra Lee Baldwin on December 7, 2020 at 8:12 am

        Oh gosh, I’d say you were lucky. Glochids invariably “win” no matter what I try, LOL.

      • Marilyn Needham on September 9, 2023 at 9:25 am

        Hi Pam, I’m across the pond in the UK. When I repot my prickly cacti, I use oven gloves. Cheers Marilyn.

        • Debra on September 9, 2023 at 1:53 pm

          And then, dear Marilyn, you throw away the oven gloves? LOL

          • Paydon on January 20, 2024 at 7:05 pm

            Excuse me DEBRA i have a question i got a new golden barrel cactus last Saturday and i over watered by accident it and now dark spots are all over it and its squishy to now and i’m wondering if i can save him or am i just doomed i need help please.

          • Debra on January 20, 2024 at 7:24 pm

            Hi Paydon — I don’t think you could kill it that quickly, not in less than a week, even if you soaked it. After all, in its native habitat of Mexico, it would get drenched by seasonal rainstorms. I don’t think it can be salvaged, but maybe ask the nursery you got it from for a replacement. The rot had to have started before you brought it home. Don’t delay, the longer you wait, the more it looks like your fault.

  4. Roger on August 29, 2019 at 9:39 am

    Great post! I myself have made these mistakes when I was a beginner, but now I’ve learned a lot of things over the time. Here are a few more mistakes that seem stupid, but I’m sure beginners do make these mistakes:

  5. Tina Cremer on April 9, 2020 at 11:43 am

    Hi Debra,
    I was given an Agave tequiliana by a sweet friend and planted it in a space where it had plenty of room to grow. I did not know that it pups extensively. What is the best long term method to get rid of the pups or curb them?

    Thank You.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on April 9, 2020 at 1:46 pm

      Hi Tina — Treat agave pups like weeds, and get them early. The bigger they get, the harder to remove. Or keep mom confined to a large pot.

      • Pam E. on December 6, 2020 at 8:36 pm

        I had a variegated Agave americana in a 5 gal pot, with several pups. I removed the pups, then planted the mother in the ground. I then planted a dense succulent ground cover (Drosanthemum floribundum or it”s look-alike Delospermum) all around it which grew several inches thick. For several years no more pups appeared . . . until a year after I removed the ground cover . . . and then 3 pups popped out of the ground almost simultaneously!

        • Debra Lee Baldwin on December 7, 2020 at 8:14 am

          I’m not surprised. I still have pups popping up where I removed their mother five years ago. The best and the worst things about Agave americana is that it’s a survivor. Thanks for your comments, Pam!

  6. Amanda on May 13, 2021 at 1:41 am

    Hi, I live is South Africa, and here the Bunny ears as well as Eves Needle are categorized as invasive plants, you are not even allowed to have them in pots, as they can totally take over cattle and sheep grazing lands. Amanda

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on May 13, 2021 at 9:06 pm

      Thanks, Amanda. So interesting!

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on September 5, 2022 at 6:34 pm

      Hi Amanda — I’ve heard that cacti from the American desert Southwest is horribly invasive in Australia. Makes sense it would be in South Africa, too.

  7. Nancy Mumpton on September 5, 2022 at 9:24 am

    Such an essential list for succulent growers! Problems I see all the time! Thank you for pointing them out, Debra!

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on September 5, 2022 at 6:32 pm

      You’re welcome, Nancy. LMK if you think of any I missed!

  8. Mark Evans on September 5, 2022 at 3:46 pm

    Hi Debra
    One thing about agaves, you can plant them in a plastic pot then plant the pot in the ground. The agave doesn’t grow too big and the pups are inhibited by the close quarters. I planted four on the beach in our place down in Baja and they are still small enough to stay out of the way when walking by the area. AND they still look groovy!

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on September 5, 2022 at 6:32 pm

      I did that with Agave americana ‘Marginata’ (the yellow-and-green striped century plant). It still insisted on pupping, but it stayed small for a long time. Good tip!

  9. Paydon Amann on January 20, 2024 at 7:41 pm

    Excuse me Debra i have a question i got a new golden barrel cactus last Saturday and i over watered by accident it and now dark spots are all over it and its squishy to now and the bottom is yellowing can save him or am i just doomed i need help please.

    • Debra on January 21, 2024 at 5:24 pm

      Hi Paydon — If you’ve only had it for a week, it’s unlikely anything you did to it caused it to rot, including overwatering. Rot had probably set in before you bought it, so take it back to the nursery or garden center (with the receipt, because it has the date you purchased it) and ask for a replacement plant or a refund.

      • Paydon Amann on January 22, 2024 at 7:14 am

        okay thank you i thought i did something

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