How to achieve thriving succulents
If you don't keep reading, remember at least this: water your succulents when the soil is entirely dry!
If you think succulents can be neglected and still bring a trendy green accent to your decor, you may be disappointed by what I have to say here. Succulents are living things. Sure, they’re native to many deserts, but being water-storing plants doesn’t mean you can deprive them of water. Surviving isn’t thriving. You don’t need a green thumb to keep their thick and fleshy leaves looking healthy, you just need to provide them basic conditions that will keep them happy—and easier to care for, I promise!
Soil, water and sunlight. It’s easy, right? While studying horticulture, I spent entire semesters on ideal soil conditions alone, with individual needs varying from one species to the next. The same goes for all the species of succulents; their needs vary. There’s so much I could cover here, but I’ll focus on the most common mistakes I hear from clients. Note that I won’t get into outdoor succulents as the focus here is on indoor succulents. But know that there are hardy perennial succulent varieties that can survive our winters to happily come back every spring in your flowerbeds.
Buying a Cute Succulent Before Thinking About Where It Will Live
I’m guilty of this too. I’m a plant hoarder and an impulsive buyer—it’s not always a good combination for thriving plants. Before you bring your happy little succulent home, stop to consider where it will grow in your home. Do you have enough light? Will you forget to water it if it’s nestled in your bookshelf? Choose wisely!
In my house, there’s one sweet spot. It’s in my kitchen. The problem is, there’s only one wall that can house all the plants. So I hoard a bunch of plants there and they thrive. A Christmas cactus and an Easter cactus (Schlumbergera) that like to give me vibrant flowers, multiple times a year; too many spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum); an array of Devil’s Ivy (Epipremnum aureum), which is your best bet if you keep killing plants; a few English Ivy species (Hedera helix), which you must absolutely steer clear of if watering plants is not your strong suit; Beefsteak begonia (Begonia 'Erythrophylla'), whose common name irks me, but I just love their dark lilypad-like leaves; a funky hart’s-tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium); a panoply of succulent varieties, too long to list here; and my favourite, which always attracts the attention of guests, my Madagascar jewel (Euphorbia leuconeura) plants—they spit seeds and propagate themselves as easily as succulents! That’s just my kitchen—so yes, I am indeed a crazy plant lady!
Many plants go there for rehab, before going back to a room with conditions that aren’t ideal, but that the plant can tolerate for some period of time. I’m certainly not asking you to move plants around your house to keep them alive (like this crazy plant lady), but the point is, if succulents don’t have the basic environmental conditions they require to survive in your home, you should look into another type of plant. You can of course, buy a succulent and watch it slowly die, but I don’t encourage such wasteful plant purchases. If you’re going to buy a succulent, be sure you have the conditions it needs wherever you intend on housing it. You can’t buy a plant on a whim, place it in the prettiest spot in your home, and expect it to grow happily. You might get lucky, but odds are, over time, your plant won’t survive. No plant can go on forever in survival mode.
Buying Succulents From Big Box Stores
I won’t name names. But if the store you’re purchasing your succulent from doesn’t specialize in plants, you probably shouldn’t buy it there. It truly hurts me to see succulents withering away on store shelves, without sunlight, infested with bugs, and rotting from the ground up due to careless over-watering. I once returned an infested plant to one of these big box stores—sure, they refunded me, but they also put the sick plant right back on the shelf to spread its infestation among the other plants. If the salesclerk can’t tell you what variety of succulent you’re holding in your hand, it’s generally a good indicator that it's not the place where you should purchase your succulent. Please, go to a plant store. Go to a local florist. Go to the garden centre. It might cost a little more upfront to buy from a specialized shop, but buying a quality plant that was continuously handled with care will definitely increase your chance of having a healthy succulent in your home.
Using Pretty Containers That Don’t Drain Water
There’s such an array of delightful little plant containers out there. You can find them just about anywhere and DIY lots of cute little succulent arrangements. The problem is, the container needs to drain water. A good draining soil made for cacti and succulents is essential, but it isn’t enough; your container should have at least one drainage hole. I can't stress this enough. You can easily find inserts at reputable garden centres, which you can trim to fit most containers. Alternatively, you can place pebbles at the bottom of your container—the more the better, I say. These will prevent water from accumulating at the roots which are extremely sensitive and susceptible to root rot. You have to adjust the amount of water you give succulents that are in containers that don’t drain—pebbles help, but you still don’t want water pooling in the bottom. My advice, stick to containers that can drain water completely. Keep reading, I'll discuss watering a little more.
Placing Succulents in Sunny Windows
What?! That's right, placing them in sunny windows can be risky. High heat and full sunlight can actually damage succulents. Are they sitting in a sunny south-facing window all afternoon? That might be fine for the winter in our northern hemisphere (as long as you have good windows that don't freeze!), but leaving them there year round can actually put them at risk for sunburn. They’ll start drying up or lose leaves, and you’ll probably compensate by over-watering, which will inevitably kill them. And while I won’t get into all the details of putting indoor plants outside during the summer (we’ll save that for another time), you need to consider sunlight exposure if you plan on temporarily leaving your potted succulents outside—they need sun protection! For your home or office, a south-facing window is good, just don’t sit it directly in the window all summer long if the sunlight is direct. Keep it a few feet away from the window so it gets plenty of sun without burning. Dimly lit rooms are a complete no-no for succulents. Aim for 6 hours of sunlight.
Too Much Water, Too Little Water
Watering succulents once a week throughout the winter is too much. Once in a blue moon is too little. A mist or a spoonful here and there is too little. Watering before the soil completely dries out is too much. Can you see where I’m going here? There is a juste milieu when it comes to watering succulents. Spring through summer, aim to water once a week. Always check the soil before watering. If the soil is still damp, wait until it dries out COMPLETELY; depending on your home or office conditions (light, heat, humidity, etc.), this might be every two weeks, instead of weekly. During the winter months, succulents have a dormant period and require much less water. If it’s getting colder and we’re getting less sunlight, you need to take your watering routine down a notch. Aim for a monthly watering routine during the winter months.
When it comes to watering succulents, it is definitely the trickiest of tasks. It requires practice and observation. Succulents expect drought periods, which is why I stress the importance of letting the soil completely dry out before watering them again. But when they get water, they also expect a downpour. You want to water your succulent until the water runs out from the drainage holes. For these reasons, among others, misting succulents really isn’t recommended unless you have accessibility issues, like in some terrarium arrangements. If you really want to become a pro at watering your succulent, head over to Succulents and Sunshine; you’ll find loads of helpful information and tips to keep your succulents thriving!
Succulents for Weddings and Events
You’ll see on Instagram that I love working with succulents, especially for weddings. Succulents bring such a natural, unique and eclectic look to floral designs. Since they continue to grow and are so easy to propagate, they make great keepsakes for you and your guests after the event. If you’re thinking of adding succulents to your wedding, be sure to book a consultation with me—I’d be thrilled to design a succulent-filled event for your big day!
Share this with your succulent-killing friends and be sure to send me pictures of your succulents so I can guide you towards the thriving succulents you’ve always wanted in your home or office!
I design things. I grow things. I'm passionate about flowers, horticulture and everything botanical. I'm a recent graduate of Université Laval's Horticulture and Greenspace Management program. I have a degree in social work from McGill University and remain passionate about social justice issues and volunteer work. Along with floral designing for weddings and events, I'd love to share floral knowledge and experiences with you.