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Debra's Succulent Q&A

Find Answers to Your Questions About Succulents

Free Succulent Resource

Debra's 7 best succulents

In this free PDF exclusively for subscribers to my "Celebrating the Joy of Succulents" newsletter, you'll learn the 7 best easy-care succulents that thrive in pots and landscapes. Whether you're new to growing succulents or an experienced succulent "parent", you'll love these 7 beautiful plants!

About This Q&A Page ...

Many readers have questions about growing and caring for succulents, and I often get asked similar questions many times. On this page, I've pulled together answers to many of the common questions. There are also answers to questions about interesting, unusual or good-to-know topics. I've sorted them by topic area for your convenience but I encourage you to browse through them all; you never know what you might learn!

  • The Basics

    Common questions most beginners ask

  • Watering

    How much is too much?

  • Propagation

    Make new plants from old

  • Soil & Amendments

    Happy roots = happy plants

  • Pests & Problems

    Bugs, burns and bites

  • Floral Arrangements, Centerpieces & Crafts

    DIY craft projects & floral designs

For detailed FAQs on all succulent topics, see the Succulent Care Basics page.

Succulent Basics

Portulacaria afra 'Minima', Echeveria agavoides 'Lipstick'

Where should a succulent newcomer start?

My book, Succulents Simplified gives a good overview for beginners and helps you select and care for the best succulents for your lifestyle and location. Also see my YouTube playlist, Get Started with Succulents.

Do succulents even need their roots?

Yes, they're essential for growth. In their native habitats, succulents may lose their roots altogether as the ground dries out after months without rain. When the rains come, the plant forms new roots from its base and begins growing again. 

Which succulents contain harmful sap?

Those in the genus Euphorbia have milky sap that can cause skin irritation, and if (God forbid) it gets in your eyes, it means a trip to the ER. Fortunately, it's easy to tell if a plant is a euphorbia…scratch it with clippers or snip a branch. If it oozes white liquid, move it well out of reach. 

How can I handle or work around agaves with sharp points?

Snip the leaf tips to blunt them. 

How do you remove tiny cactus spines from skin?

Certain cacti look fuzzy---and even have sweet names like bunny ears---but that fuzz consists of tiny hooked, translucent hairs called glochids. Remove by dabbing with rubber cement, then pulling off the glue when dry. 

Are any succulents edible?

Many cacti have edible fruit and pads. Aloe vera is edible, but bitter. Portulacaria afra (elephant’s food) is as well, but sour. And of course, tequila is made from agaves.

What do I do when a succulent's rosettes, over time, sit atop tall, thick stems?

Snip off the rosettes, leaving about an inch of stem each, and treat them as cuttings. Use their nubbins of stem to anchor them in fresh soil. If an old plant is all stems, uproot and discard it. 

I notice that most succulents shown on this website are out West in Arizona, California and other areas. I live in South Georgia where it’s hot and humid. Can I grow these in my area too?

Great question! It’s challenging for you to grow most of these plants in anything but a climate-controlled greenhouse. The problem is not the heat but humidity, dampness and summer rainfall. These are dry-climate plants adapted to living off the moisture in their leaves during periods of drought. They don’t know what to do with excess moisture. Pests and problems set in—like fungus, mildew and rot.

There are, however, tropical succulents that you might try—such as hoya—but even those won’t be able to handle your cold winters.

But I’m no expert in the horticulture of South Georgia. The best things to do is to talk to members of your closest Cactus & Succulent Society chapter, observe what’s growing in neighbor’s gardens, and see what’s available in local nurseries.

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Watering Succulents

Floral style succulent arrangement in art pot

What's the best way to water succulents?

Keep soil about as moist as a wrung-out sponge, and let it go nearly dry between waterings. If goes completely dry, the plant’s roots desiccate, and growth ceases. This isn’t as serious as it sounds. It merely forces the plant to live off moisture stored in its leaves (the definition of a “succulent”). 

How much water should I give at each watering?

If a container has a way for water to drain, water it thoroughly so water flows through the soil. This helps flush salts that build up—important if your area has hard water. Salts inhibit the roots from taking up nutrients. 

How often should I water succulents?

About once a week should do it. 

Water more during hot, dry spells and less or not at all during periods of high humidity, cool temperatures, or rain.

Also, the fatter the succulent or the fleshier its leaves, the more water it stores in its tissues and the less often it needs to be watered (and the less water it will tolerate).

Cacti in general are less tolerant of overwatering than smooth-leaved succulents; water them less often.

What should I do if I've overwatered my succulent?

Let the soil dry out (or nearly so). 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.

Do all containers need drainage? Can I grow succulents in a container without drainage?

Ideally, succulents should be grow in a container that has a drainage hole. However, that isn’t always possible, and using only pots that have holes in them limits your creative design options. If a container lacks drainage, succulent roots may rot from sitting in water. So give plants very little—barely enough to keep the roots hydrated. If they do go completely dry, they’re still better off than being overwatered. 

The weather forecast is predicting a lot of rain. Should I be concerned? How do I protect tmy succulents from too much rain?

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 away from low-lying areas where water puddles. Topdress the soil around the plants with several inches of pumice to absorb excess moisture.

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Propagating Succulents

Seed-started gymnos from Amazon

How do I take succulent cuttings and plant them?

From a stem succulent, cut from the top. The cutting should have one or more bands where leaves once were attached and where roots will form. Stick the cutting upright in soil so that a band is covered. If a succulent is jointed like link sausage, roots will form from connection points. 

How long should you wait before planting succulent cuttings?

If a cutting is important to you, it makes sense to let the raw end callus (which takes a day or two), because it protects the plant from soil microbes and fungus. To be honest, I usually don't bother, and it hasn't seemed to have made a difference. 

Can you start succulents from leaves?

Succulents that start from leaves include graptopetalums, sedums, graptoveria, graptosedum, sedeveria, pachyveria and pachyphytums. Also many kalanchoes. The baby plant’s roots and leaves grow from the leaf’s stem end. Wait until the mother leaf has shriveled before planting. 

What's better, using cuttings from succulents or starting with rooted plants?

Since roots are essential to growth, a rooted plant will grow faster. But sometimes for a project, that's not what you want. Growth tends to deconstruct a tightly packed composition. Cuttings are useful for filler, form roots over time, and---depending on the variety---may look good longer. 

Does it hurt a succulent to take cuttings?

It won't regrow if all that's left are stems and trunks. Plants need leaves in order to photosynthesize (derive energy from the sun) which fuels new growth. If you want to salvage the parent plant, take less than half in cuttings and leave the rest. Depending on the variety, it may even branch where it was cut.

How soon do you water cuttings?

Wait until after they’ve rooted—a week or more depending on the time of year (tug gently on the plant to see if it’s anchored). If you water a plant that lacks roots, it may rot. 

How do I take and plant cuttings from a succulent that has aerial roots?

So many stem succulents produce aerial roots, it’s difficult to generalize, but if you keep in mind that roots want to be in the ground, that’ll help.

Although the rule of thumb is to only cut as much stem as needed for the cutting to stand upright when planted, I sometimes will dig a shallow trench and lay a longer cutting that’s feathered with aerial roots into it, root side down, then bury it with the rosette at the tip above the soil.

As with most succulents, it's always a good idea to let it callous before planting (although not the end of the world if you forget)!

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Soil & Planting Advice for Succulents

Pot-bound aloe

How do you neutralize salts that have built up in the soil?

Add 1 teaspoon of vinegar per gallon of water. 

You recommended Ironite for in-ground succulents. All my succulents are in pots. Do they need Ironite as well?

No. Ironite is for lush green growth come spring, and is primarily for newly installed, in-ground plants.

Let your potted succulents rest over the winter and feed them in the spring.

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Succulent Pests & Problems

Dry lower leaves on succulent

I have squirrels chewing on my succulents. Any advice?

If you live in an area where predators like coyotes are kept out (like a gated community), bunnies and squirrels may be prolific. Some measures that can help include:

Also there are solar- and battery-powered electronic devices that emit a high-frequency sound that repels squirrels and the like. This one, for about $30 on Amazon, can be set for cats, dogs, skunks, squirrels and raccoons.

How do I stop those insidious weeds from growing underneath the spines and between the ridges of my golden barrel cactus?

Around the bases of barrels I spread “pre-emergent,” a granular herbicide that prevents weeds from germinating. (One brand is Preen.) You have to apply it before the rains, because once weeds sprout, it’s too late. I wouldn’t be without it.

As to its environmental impact, I checked with the director of horticulture at the San Diego Botanic Garden, and he’s fine with it, in fact, they use it too. But if you're concerned, try a natural alternative like corn gluten. It's not as effective and takes more applications, but it can help prevent many weeds from germinating.

If you already have weeds, extract them with long-handled tweezers, a hand weeder with a V-shaped metal tip, or—recommended by the Ruth Bancroft Garden for weeding around cactus—a Stainless Steel Fish Hook Remover Extractor, around $8 on Amazon.

Why are the tips on my aloes turning brown?

Leaf tip desiccation is usually an aftermath of frost or scorching sun. It can also be related to under-watering…the plant can’t manage to pump water all the way to the tips (not enough hydraulic pressure).

Succulent tip browning is not caused by overwatering…that’s when the core rots, not the tips.

Some species are prone to leaf-tip desiccation, especially spotted ones (A. maculata and hybrids) and IMHO the way the dry tips curl looks kind of cool.

If you don't like the look, you can cut off the dried up tips. When trimming any pointed succulent leaf (including agaves), make two cuts to create an outward-pointing “V,” so the cut isn’t as noticeable as straight across

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Floral Arrangements, Centerpieces & Succulent Crafts

Succulents in silver floral style combo

How do you care for a floral-style succulent arrangement?

Keep it in partial shade and rotate the arrangement every few weeks a half circle so plants and cuttings get balanced light exposure.

I'm making a succulent centerpiece for an upcoming event. How much time before the event should I plant my succulents?

It depends on what you’re making and the time of year (succulents root faster in the spring), but you could pot them 2-3 weeks prior. This will give them sufficient time to recover and root so that they are thriving and looking gorgeous on the day of the event.

Just make sure they get adequate light so they keep their color and form. Without several hours of bright (not hot) sun daily, rosette succulents will flatten and those with stems will elongate, potentially spoiling the symmetry of the composition. However, cuttings are also more prone to sunburn, which could be disastrous.

If this is more of a floral arrangement than a potted one, I’d wait until immediately prior. Cuttings don’t need to root to look good, they’ll be at peak color and best form, and they'll have enough moisture in their tissues so they don’t wilt. They’re fine without soil so you don’t have to deal with wet dirt and saucers under pots at the event. Plus, they weigh less too.

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Can You ID My Succulent?

The volume of email I receive makes this difficult. The good news is I'm working on website pages for each genus. Here are the types of succulents I've covered so far (with lots of photos and labels for each plant with full details):

Moreover, the hundreds of succulents shown in my books are ID'd in the captions.

There's a lot of inaccuracies about succulents online, but San Marcos Growers site is a reliable one for IDs and descriptions.

MORE INFORMATION...

Companion plants (those with similar cultivation requirements as succulents) have an entire chapter in Designing with Succulents.

Practical aspects of landscaping are covered in Designing with Succulents (except for complexities best left to architects and contractors: structures, grading, retaining walls, irrigation installation, water features, etc.)

Learn about exceptional public and private succulent gardens, what's trending in container garden design, my own gardening experiences, and interviews with succulent experts and designers in succulent articles here on my website.

Please subscribe to my newsletter (click "Sign me up!" below), "like" my Facebook pages (Debra Lee Baldwin author and Succulent Container Gardens), follow me on Instagram (@debralbaldwin) and enjoy the 100+ videos on my YouTube channel.

In San Diego or planning a visit? See my list of San Diego succulent destinations and nurseries. 

For specific advice regarding succulents that thrive in your area and how to care for them, contact your local chapter of the Cactus & Succulent Society of America.

 

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