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.
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!