Do Succulents Need Water? Sometimes

Do succulents need water is a common question and concern for people. Succulents are different from other houseplants, therefore, need a few different things to keep them looking their best but yes, they do need water. We have talked about watering in general here but this article will go more in-depth.

First Things FirstVariety of Succulents

Let’s talk about how succulents/cacti differ from other houseplants and why it matters.

Succulents and cacti

  • Most (not all) come from the dry, hot desert
  • Store water in their thicker leaves
  • Have short root systems so they can get as much water as possible when it rains (which isn’t often)
  • Are used to grittier soil (more inorganic matter)
  • Release oxygen at night

Houseplants

  • Usually, come from the tropics (lots of rain)
  • Do not store water
  • Have longer root systems which allow them to go deep for water (it rains a lot, their roots are almost always wet)
  • Are used to rich soil (organic material)
  • Release oxygen during the day

Right away we can see two important differences – the soil they are used to and the amount of water they receive. Let’s start with water.

The desert goes long periods of time without water and then it gets a lot of water very fast. So fast that most of it doesn’t sink in to the ground but just runs along the top of the ground. What does sink in, isn’t much and it doesn’t go deep.

Tropical plants are used to a lot of water that really sinks into the soil. The soil stays damp most of the time, it’s never really dry, it is instead damp and then wet.

Desert soil is not rich, it is dry with room between the particles for the root system to breathe. The roots do not sit in water.

Tropical soil is very rich, dense, and stores a lot of water. The roots do sit in water.

Knowing how they normally receive water and the type of soil they are used to puts things in perspective when it comes to watering.

We talked in-depth here about how succulents grow and in-depth here about their soil.

Another Important Factor – The Pot/Planter

Succulents are used to fast-draining soil, their roots do not sit in water, they get water, it is gone, and then they get it again. During the dry time, the succulent is growing new roots so it is ready for more rain.

In order to mimic their natural environment, the pot must have drainage holes in the bottom. This allows the water to drain and the soil to dry fast. Without drainage holes, the roots are sitting in water and they are drowning (they need oxygen) which may lead to root rot.

Now the WateringWater from watering can

As we mentioned above, succulents get water, then go without water and this repeats. In order to keep them healthy, we need to mimic this as much as possible.

The entire plant gets water, not one section of the pot. This can be achieved by either a watering can that mimics rain (like this) or, what I have found easiest. Take the plants to a sink and turn the water on to a consistent small stream. I make sure the entire pot has gotten water and it is watered through and through by letting water drain from the bottom for about 10-15 seconds. The key is getting the entire root system wet. I find it difficult to leave succulents where they are in our home and water them because the soil drains fast. I end up making a mess.

Now, let them dry out completely, totally dry, and repeat. It is always best to err on the side of under watering vs overwatering.

So, how can you tell if your succulent is totally dry (or wet through and through)? There are a couple of ways that will work.

  • Put your finger in the soil, as deep as you can and see if comes out with dirt on it. If it does, it means the dirt is wet and sticky which means it is watered all the way through. I’m not a huge fan of this, I think it leaves a bigger hole in the dirt that is necessary and if you are checking several pots, you need to dry your finger off in between.
  • Use a popsicle stick or craft dowel to see if the dirt is wet. These don’t leave as big of a hole, can go deeper, and they are easier to wipe off before moving on to the next succulent.

This is opposite of how you test to see if a cake is done. If you are testing a cake, you insert a knife or cake tester and you know it is done if it comes out clean. When watering succulents, you want the tester to come out dirty.

How Often

That depends. Succulents also get water from the humidity in the air and they store water in their leaves so they can go longer between waterings. The main thing is the soil must be completely dry for at least a few days between waterings. If your succulents are in a humid environment, they will need less water, if it is dry, they will need more. Temperature and light will also play into the equation, along with the time of year.

The most important thing, as always, is to keep an eye on your succulents. Start by watering them every 5-7 days and check the soil to make sure it is dry before watering again. You can adjust watering as needed. Some plants need a little more, some a little less but by following this general rule of thumb of water thoroughly and then let dry thoroughly, you will be watering correctly.

This rule is the same for indoor and outdoor succulents/cacti.

If the leaves are looking wrinkled, they need water (give it a little at a time so it can adjust). Once it has bounced back, increase the watering frequency.

If the bottom leaves are mushy and yellow, they have been overwatered (and may not be able to be saved, instead, grow a new plant from a cutting).

The only time you should water your plants less is if your plants are dormant or you want to bring out a pop of color.

Are You Saying I Can Never Have a Terrarium?Succulents in a Terrarium

No, not exactly. I’m saying that it is easier to care for succulents that are in a well-draining pot. You can grow succulents in a terrarium (or other pot with no holes) if you follow these steps.

  • Use an open terrarium, it has a large opening to allow air to circulate and you to easily care for your succulents. Closed terrariums (those with a lid that is kept closed) are very difficult to successfully grow succulents in
  • Use a shallow terrarium, a fishbowl is fine but a deep mason jar can get moldy and cloudy
  • Light and temperature requirements are the same for succulents no matter what container they are in, read this.
  • Use a good succulent soil as you would for any succulent or if you want it to be prettier, you can mix in more pumice
  • It doesn’t need a layer of pebbles or pumice underneath the dirt for drainage. Having a drainage pool can actually prevent evaporation (remember, there is no drainage hole and a smaller opening)
  • You can use all pumice for the “soil” if you want a very clean look
  • Don’t overcrowd the terrarium, the plants need room to breathe and the air circulation isn’t what they are used to
  • Water, let dry completely for a few days and then water again. If the leaves begin wrinkling, water more often
  • In general, water 1/2 the amount of soil, meaning, if there are two cups of soil in the terrarium, give them one cup of water
  • You may not be able to water with a rain-like effect depending on your terrarium, that is fine in this case, use whatever works to get water in there

As always, keep an eye on them and err on the side of under watering unless they tell you they need more. Because the humidity may be different in the terrarium, you may need to move it around in your home until you find its happy place.

Succulents ROCK

It may seem with all the instructions that succulents are hard to take care of. Not true, they are very easy and forgiving! They are just different from houseplants so require different things. People run in to trouble with them when they try to treat all plants in their house the same. By understanding their difference, you can grow beautiful and healthy succulents.

Questions or Comments? Leave them below, I love to hear from you!


16 Responses

  1. Wow! Thanks for widening my scope on succulents. You have really cleared my misconceptions concerning succulents and I would have never truly known that they are this much easy to try out in planting if not because I read this post. Due to the other gardener friends I have, I never thought that I could consider planting them. Having read this, all I want to do is just to give this a trial too because they seem fascinating to me. Do they need composts too for growth?

  2. Hi, 

    I have shied away from having Cacti as I always thought they were really difficult to look after. I have house plants which require watering on a regular basis but have always wanted to have some cacti to give a different vibe to the house.

    One of the things I’ve always wanted to know is how many different types of Cacti are there? What size can they grow too? Do they flower regularly or even at all?

    Thanks for the great advice and I look forward to learning more about these plants.

    Tony

    • Hi Tony,

      Great questions! There are over 2,000 different types of cacti so there is a very wide range of styles and sizes! They are slow-growing and most do not grow as large indoors as they would in their native habitat. Yes, they do bloom and flower if conditions are right and the conditions would depend on the type of cacti.

      Some of the most popular to grow indoors are (I’m listing their scientific name along with their nickname): 

      Astrophytum ornatum – bishop’s cap

      Schlumbergera bridgesii – Christmas cactus

      Euphorbia trigona – African milk tree or cathedral plant

      Happy cactus hunting and please let me know if I can help in any way!

      Lisa

  3. Hello there, thanks for sharing this wonderful post. There have been cases where one do not really understand how to water succulent, and that’s a friend of mine who had a as succulent and was watering it twice a day. However he may seem wrong doing it, but I want to know how often I’ll need to water a succulent when the plant is young?

    • Hi Dane,

      Young and old, you can treat all succulents the same as far as watering goes. It is always best to under water than to over water because under watering is an easier fix. Your friend may want to re-post the succulent and check for root rot.

      Please let me know if I can answer any other questions.

      Thanks!

  4. I got two cacti plants from a visitor and I have been wondering how they can be best taken care of. The explanation of pot planting and how to go about is is very important. I must admit that I do not have any holes in my pot, and the water seem to always stay intact. I hope my plants do not develop root rot. Thank you for the advice on watering succulent plants and how to test if they are wet or dry. I am learning a lot of pointers from this article.

    • Hi Carol,

      I’m so glad this article helped! Yes, I would suggest repotting them to a pot with holes in the bottom and making sure the soil is good quality.

      Please let me know if I can help in any other way!

      Lisa

  5. Thanks for sharing interesting article about succulents, its really nice and informative. Succulents need enough of water because of the nature of it’s root, it absorbs water and it often grow new ones rapidly, whenever water is in the soil, if doesn’t stay for a long time before it gets absorbed so that’s why water is very essential to succulents. Please, how much light does succulents required? ??? And I don’t think all succulents have the same characters, how do they react to water ratio?? Thanks.

    • Hi Jones,

      Most succulents need about 6-8 hours of bright indirect (if they are in hot direct sun, they can get sunburned) light per day but some, like the Mother in Law’s tongue, can handle less light. I’ll post some links below that will help with your lighting question.

      As far as water, it is best to err on the side of under watering vs overwatering.  If you give them too little water, their leaves will look a little shriveled and that is easily fixed by giving them more water.  If you give them too much water, it can lead to root rot and that is not easy to fix (link below).

      If you have succulents in a terrarium and the terrarium has one cup of soil, give them 1/2 cup of water.

      For regular succulents, whatever water you give them, the soil should be completely dry within 2 days of watering.  If not, water them less often and/or get faster draining soil.

      https://homesucculents.com/how-to-take-care-of-succulents-4-easy-steps/

      https://homesucculents.com/mother-in-laws-tongue-plant-what-a-name/

      https://homesucculents.com/succulent-root-rot-preventing-and-saving/

      Hope this helps and please let me know if you have additional questions.

      Lisa

  6. Succulents definitely need water too and sometimes, they need it massively and they need a container that can retain water too for them. But we just have to be more considerate when attempting to plant a succulent or watering them. It doesn’t just work like every other plants. The tips you shared here are spot on and would definitely be of help to anyone considering whether to water a succulent or not.

    • Hi Rodarrick,

      Yes, there are some rain forest succulents that can handle more water.  Very true, we do need to be more considerate and know what they need.  Just by knowing and watching our plants we can help them thrive.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Lisa

  7. So happy I happened onto this post, my apartment doesn’t get much sun and I’ve been looking for a way to still enjoy plants so that I can still have as much oxygen in my place as possible.

    I think succulents are the perfect solution for my shadowy apartment.  The fact that they require as much water as regular plants will come in handy as well.  I often forget to water my plants.

    Thanks for the tip about watering them and about the mess that can result in the watering process.

    I’m excited to get my hands on some succulents and liven up my sunless apartment.

  8. Hi, Lisa and thanks for this article.  I’ve been doing a google search about succulents and came across this article.  

    You see, I have some “Hens-n-chicks” plants growing in a couple of spots in my outside garden and I have noticed that some of the leaves at the bottom of the plants have started to yellow and go brown.

    At first, I thought it was just a normal thing but now, after reading this, I think it was because I was overwatering.  I have been watering them the same way I water the rest of the plants in my garden, every couple of days or so.

    I think I am going to have to isolate these plants from the rest of the garden so that they don’t get so much water.  Would this be the right approach?

    Wayne

    • Hi Wayne,

      I love hens and chicks!  Yes, if they are getting water when you water the rest of your plants, it would be best to isolate them.  They do not need near as much water.  Also, make sure the soil drains fast and they aren’t sitting in water.

      Hope this helps and let me know if you have other questions!

      Thanks,

      Lisa

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