How to Water Succulent Plants in 5 Easy Steps
Watering your succulents can be a bit of an art. It's important not to underwater them, but it's just as critical to make sure they aren't overwatered. In this article, gardening expert and houseplant enthusiast Madison Moulton walks through five simple steps for watering your succulents the right way.
Succulents are a fascinating group of plants known for their plump, juicy leaves and their ease of care. Generally, these plants thrive more on neglect than they do on fussing, accustomed to harsh weather and tough conditions.
Unfortunately, despite their ability to thrive in the worst of environments, many gardeners struggle to keep their succulents alive. As these plants are not at all fussy, the problem to look to is usually in their care. And the primary cause of a succulent’s early demise is often incorrect watering.
Getting watering right starts with an understanding of how succulents work and why they differ from other plants. Then, you can follow the five simple steps below to make sure you avoid any watering mistakes down the line.
Are Succulents Tricky to Care For?
Many gardeners, especially those new to caring for plants, find themselves struggling to keep succulents alive for long periods.
Despite their reputation as the easiest group of plants to care for, I’ve known too many gardeners that label themselves black thumbs for the quick death of succulents under their care. In fact, it is probably this reputation that leads people to give up after killing off a succulent or two, never to pick up their shears again.
What causes the quick demise of these succulents? Most often, it is incorrect watering. There are plenty of other reasons why your succulents may be dying, but moisture is the first issue to look for.
Underwatering and overwatering are both concerns when it comes to growing succulents. However, overwatering is the primary plant killer in this case.
Problems With Overwatering
Succulents are designed to withstand the constant drought and lack of moisture in their native habitats. Their leaves are thick and juicy, filled with water reserves for those occasions when the supply runs out. They are incredibly efficient water savers, happy to sit in dry soil for extended periods without any sign of discomfort.
As a result of their water-wise nature, succulents absorb very little moisture through their roots as they develop. After a quick drench, the roots transport most of the water to the leaves for storage, allowing the soil to dry out.
If that soil doesn’t dry out quickly enough, this excess moisture will hang around the roots, encouraging fungal growth. Not used to constantly wet conditions, the sensitive roots will quickly rot, killing the entire plant if not resolved.
Often, the excess moisture in the soil is caused by watering at the wrong time. Those used to caring for more common potted plants or even houseplants may follow the same schedule with succulents, quickly killing them off.
However, it is not always overwatering that causes the problem. Lack of drainage in containers is also a common culprit, with succulents often planted in decorative pots or glasses without drainage holes and given as gifts. With nowhere to go, the added moisture hangs around in the soil, causing a range of issues including plant death.
Similarly, drainage in the soil is vital when planting or repotting. Succulents cannot grow in regular potting soil. The moisture-holding capabilities of these mixes made to satisfy other plants will quickly kill succulents. They need a gritty, well-draining soil mix no matter where they are planted to prevent early death.
Dangers of Underwatering
Although succulents usually die by overwatering, there are some that suffer the grim fate of underwatering in the long term. If you’ve done your research after purchasing a succulent, you’ll know they need very little water to survive.
This knowledge can lead to the extreme of underwatering if you wait too long before watering again, or worse, if you forget about your succulents altogether.
Underwatered succulents will take far longer to display signs of struggle than overwatered ones. These plants can survive for months on their reserves, depending on age and the size of the plant. However, once those reserves run out, the previously plump leaves will begin to shrivel, and the roots will start to die off.
Succulent Water Requirements
Understanding these two extremes, it’s important to find a balance between overwatering and underwatering to keep your succulents alive.
Exact watering needs will depend on a few factors. Firstly, the type of succulent you have plays a role, with some storing more water than others. If you aren’t sure, look at the leaf thickness to give you an idea of how much water they need.
Size of the plant also plays a role. Smaller succulents in small containers need water far more often than large established plants in heaps of soil or out in the garden. That doesn’t mean that they can last without water altogether – just that you can go longer between waterings than you would with younger plants.
Environment is another incredibly important determinant of watering time. Succulents should be grown in a warm, full sun position to closely match conditions in their native habitats. In less than full sun, the plants will grow much slower and use less water, increasing times between next watering.
As long as the soil is well-draining, you should allow the soil to dry out completely and wait a couple of days before watering again. This could be once every two weeks or even once every two months, varied by these factors.
Five Steps For Watering Succulents
Understanding when to water by reading these few sentences often doesn’t help in practice. There is uncertainty, worry, and concern over when is the right time to water, often leading to mistakes. Technique is also important and influences potential underwatering.
To resolve each of these issues, I’ve come up with five simple steps to follow that will help you get it right. This eliminates the guesswork and gives you concrete actions instead, easy to follow each time you’re considering watering.
As succulents are typically grown in containers to cater to their environmental needs throughout the year, these steps are geared toward potted plants. However, the general principles can also be applied to species planted out in the garden.
Step 1: Test The Soil
Your first step is to test the level of moisture in the top layer of soil. This will give you an idea of how much moisture remains in the mixture. From that, you can tell whether it is time to water or not.
This is where it’s time to get your hands dirty. Simply dig your finger into the top inch of soil, moving away some of the top layer to get to the soil lower down. If the soil is still moist, it will be trickier to move and slightly cool, compared to dry soil, that should retain warmth better.
If you feel moisture in the top one to two inches of soil, you can hold off on watering. This indicates the soil lower down is likely moist enough to keep the plant happy, and that watering won’t be required for a while. Wait a few more days to test the soil again and start the process from the top.
If that top layer of soil is completely dry, you can move on to the next step.
Step 2: Lift The Pot
With many herbaceous potted plants, a dry top layer of soil indicates it is time to water again. However, that is not the case for succulents. These plants prefer dry environments to moist ones and need the soil in their containers to dry out completely before you can consider watering again.
Unfortunately, it can be quite tricky to determine the levels of moisture lower down in the soil. We can’t use our hands to avoid the risk of disturbing the roots and potentially sacrificing our fingers on a few spiky leaves. Instead, you can simply lift up the pot.
Moist soil is much heavier than dry soil. Lifting up the pot, although an incredibly simple test, gives a small indication of how much moisture is still sitting in the lower levels of the soil. You’ll need a reference point before watering and after watering. This way, you’ll feel the average weight in your chosen container.
If the pot still has some weight to it compared to when it is completely dry, you can replace the container and wait a couple of days to test it again. But, if it is light and easy to handle, it’s likely nearing time to water.
For soil that has only recently dried out, you can usually wait a couple more days before watering again. This stops the roots from getting used to moist conditions and better replicates the drought-like conditions of their native habitats. However, look out for signs of underwatering as well, so you don’t wait too long.
Step 3: Remove From Any Pot Covers
Since we’ve covered the importance of drainage, I should hope your succulent is planted in the right pot with enough drainage holes. However, you may be using a decorative pot cover or container, especially if your succulent is planted in a plastic pot.
If this is the case, all you need to do is remove the plant from this cover before you start watering. If the pot is left to sit in water, the soil will remain soggy, leading to the same problems as when overwatering. Drainage holes and well-draining soil cannot make up for a pot sitting in water.
The same principle applies to drip trays. If you are watering your pot on a drip tray, you’ll need to empty it after around 10 minutes once all the excess moisture has left the container. Never leave the pot sitting in a full drip tray for long periods.
The same can be said for areas of your patio or garden where water collects after rain. Essentially, the bottom of the pot should remain dry at all times.
Step 4: Water Lightly
Next is the most important part – watering. You can either use a watering can or move the container to a sink or bucket to catch any draining water. Using room temperature water – never scalding hot or freezing cold – watering gently and evenly around the entire container until water runs through the drainage holes.
As succulents don’t like moist soil, some choose to only add a small amount of water to the pot. However, this will only add moisture to the very top layer of soil – the area where roots typically don’t reside.
The soil needs to be completely drenched to reach all parts of the container and, by extension, all of the roots at once. This replicates the quick and heavy rains many species experience where soil is drenched and quickly drains away to dry out once again.
When watering, always direct the stream at the soil and not the leaves. Succulent leaves are especially prone to rotting when water collects between leaves and stems. The water will likely evaporate if your succulents are in the recommended full-sun position, but it’s best to avoid the risk and focus the moisture where it is needed.
Step 5: Replace
The final step in the process is to move the pot back to where it was originally. I am guilty of forgetting a few pots in the sink after watering, only to realize later on that they’ve been there for hours.
While this won’t do too much damage to your plant, it’s best to limit changes in their environment as much as possible, especially when watering. Move them back to their original spots as soon as the excess water has completely drained from the container.
Succulents may be slightly different from the other plants in your care, but that shouldn’t mean they are more difficult to maintain. In fact, by following these simple steps, you should find this interesting plant group much easier to manage overall, growing best when largely left alone.