Watering your succulent plants

By Rosario Douglas

Watering of succulents is a tricky business.  The #1 item to keep in mind is that succulents are adapted to survive with much less water than non-succulent plants (e.g. tomatoes, lettuce). The “one size fits all” approach to watering does not really work because there are many factors to consider. These include your types of succulents, the type of pot and soil, how hot and sunny your location is, and whether the plants are outside. Is it a very wet year?  Do your plants actively grow during our winter?

All succulents will need soil with excellent drainage and a pot with a drainage hole. All succulents need sunlight to varying degrees.  The growing season is not the same for all succulents. For example, many rock plants (Lithops and others) grow and flower during our winters. The rest of the year they are dormant and are unable to deal with water.

Lithops sp. – a succulent from South Africa

Here are some considerations and advice:

a.  To select the right pot for your plants consider your type of plant: stem succulent (e.g. cacti) or leaf succulents (e.g. Crassulas or other leafy succulents). Cacti tend to be better adapted than other succulents to survive with little water and this makes them susceptible to rotting when we give them more water than they can handle. Clay pots allow the soil to dry faster than plastic pots so you may not want to grow your cacti in plastic pots unless you are very good at determining when and how much water you need to provide.   Plastic pots are best for leafy succulents although you can have them in clay pots – but you may have to water more often.

Below the cactus Echinocereus reichebachii and a Dudleya sp, a leaf succulent.

b.  Light is required by all plants in order to grow and succulents are no exception. Some succulents need more sunlight or warmth than others. Rhipsalis, Epiphyllum and Peperomia can do well in part shade but most succulents need a fair amount of sunlight.

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Rhipsalis baccifera.  Photo by Michael Douglas

c.  Soil that allows quick drainage is important. There are commercial mixes or you can mix your own but regardless of your materials less organic matter and more rock, sand, or vermiculite should be in your mix.   See this article about soil and succulents.

d.  Your succulents should not be watered if the soil is not completely dry.  A watering meter is the best tool to use for this.  However, even if the watering meter reads very dry but your plant looks plump, turgid and succulent, it is probably best not to water.  If you do your plant may start to split due to too much water.   Remember it is much harder to kill a succulent by underwatering it than by overwatering it.  Thus, regular watering schedules like twice-monthly etc. needs to be revisited and you have to treat each plant differently depending on the variables.  Every plant is different, some may be dry but will look pretty succulent, others may not grow during our summers and are dormant in which case watering is not a good idea.  Others may be dry and look like they could use some water (wrinkled or shriveled plants including cacti which can swell or shrink depending on water availability).  If that is the case water well.

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Moisture meter

e.  If your plants are outside and it is a very wet year it is wise to bring yours plants in at least until the rainy time passes.  Always remember that your succulents will rarely die from lack of water but providing more water than each individual plant can handle might lead to the plant splitting or rotting.

Succulents are supposed to be easy plants to have precisely because they do not require watering very often.  Unfortunately, most of us are accustomed to other types of plants that do need frequent watering and we have to unlearn what we know about watering if we want to be successful at growing and keeping our succulents happy and healthy.