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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 moist, 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, will dry out and die.

DO NOT add a layer of pebbles or activated charcoal to the bottom of a nondraining container, assuming that this “provides drainage.” Water that pools at the bottom of a planted bowl becomes a microbial soup that leads to rot. It’s OK to add lava rock (pumice) to soil or sand to help absorb excess moisture, but don’t assume that it “provides drainage” either. Remember, the point isn’t to provide drainage, but to water the plants so minimally that it isn’t needed.

A member of the Succulent Dreamers Facebook group summed it up perfectly:

How to water succulents

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: 

How to Fertilize Your Succulents 

Fertilize succulents when they’re emerging from dormancy and beginning their annual growth spurt, which for most is [Continue reading]

Watch How You Water! Summer Care for Succulents 

OK, we all know that succulents are low-water plants. But they’re not “no-water” plants. Although they may survive without… [Continue reading]

Prepare Your Succulents for Rain Storms
Succulents, which come from arid climates, may rot. Stems or trunks turn squishy and collapse… [Continue reading]


All the info you need, all in one place:

 

How to Kill Succulents

How Not To Kill Succulents

What IS it with New Yorkers? Whatever we’re cheerfully crazy about on the West Coast is dismissed by somber-clothed subway sprinters as idiotic. Or at least that’s the vibe I got from a reporter with New York Magazine, who disguised her weather envy with a lot of polite questions. Evidently what she really wanted was yet more reasons to diss succulents.

Jamie Lauren Keiles emailed that she was researching an article on how to kill succulents, and would I be available for a phone interview? I responded that I had killed plenty and would be happy to explain how.

I figured she was kidding.

SHE WASN’T. An excerpt:

“What kind of asshole hates a plant? Me, I guess. A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a coffee shop in Bed-Stuy, glowering at a jade plant in a ceramic mug, unable to get the phrase benign uterine polyp out of my head. The surge of disgust took me by surprise. For most of my life, I believed myself to like succulents. I loved them, even. In the same way that a baby’s oversize head and round eyes provoke empathy, the plump and whimsical leaves of these desert plants felt undeniably cute. But as with babies, more plants does not necessarily equal more cute. One baby? Adorable. Hundreds of babies in twee upcycled teacups atop every coffee-shop table and windowsill in your neighborhood? A nightmare.”

I emailed her: “just read your article on killing succulents, and would like you to know that they forgive you, sappy plants that they are.”

To not leave the question begging—and because succulent lovers (as well as haters) need to know—

“But what if one did want to kill a succulent? Or many succulents? Hypothetically speaking.

‘Their roots are not set up to deal with too much water,’ Baldwin told me. ‘So the No. 1 way to kill a succulent is to love it too much.’

With this in mind, we succulent-haters wait in hiding. It’s only a matter of time.”

Btw, I had told Jamie, “Every reporter’s favorite quote from me seems to be, ‘People used to say they hate succulents. Now they say they love them.’ So would you please use a different one?”

She wrote:

“Baldwin worked with succulents before the current fad, in an era when plant-lovers considered them ‘common’ and ‘for poor people.'”

But hey, she did mention my books. Even linked to them…more or less. (After the article appeared without links, I sent her a heart-rending reminder.)

 

For another East Coast reporter’s opinion and perspective, you might enjoy my post: Why Are Succulents So Popular?

 

Also see: How to Keep Succulents Happy Indoors