Succulents and Care – A Step by Step Guide

Succulents are, in general, very easy to take care of. They need less attention than most houseplants and can be neglected for a bit of time. What usually confuses people is how succulent’s needs differ from the needs of other houseplants. When all plants are treated equally, some will thrive and some will suffer.

This guide – succulents and care – will highlight the specific needs succulents have and how that may differ from what you are used too with other plants.

Basic NeedsMaslow's hierarchy of needs

Most living things have certain basic needs to survive. We humans need food, water, shelter, air, and warmth according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Plants need basically the same things…food (soil), water, shelter (the pot/planter they are in to protect their roots), air, and warmth (light).

The difference between “regular” houseplants, like the peace lily or philodendron, and succulents is their native habitat and how they are “built” for that environment.

Houseplants have thin leaves and succulents have thicker leaves so they can store water. The root systems are also different for each. Houseplants produce oxygen during the day, succulents at night (so water doesn’t evaporate during the heat of the day).

Think of it this way, polar bears (Alaska) are used to cold temperatures, hunting for other mammals in frigid waters, hibernating, and all things snow. Armadillos (Florida) are used to sunny skies, relatively warm to hot temperatures all year, hunting for insects during the morning and evening, and are nocturnal.

If they switched locations they would not thrive and probably would not survive for very long. Both thrive in their native habitat because that is what they are suited for.

Plants have a native habitat too, the philodendron is native to tropical rain forests, swamps, and river banks. The peace lily originates from the tropical rain forests of Columbia and Venezuela. Notice both locations are very wet and hot.

Succulents, for the most part, are desert plants. They are used to hot and dry conditions.

By keeping succulents in environments that are more like their native habitat, they can thrive. When succulents are treated like philodendron’s, they will die.

2 houseplants, 2 succulentsPhilodendron, Peace Lily, Snake Plant, Zebra Plant

Food (Soil)Soil

Most regular houseplants like the peace lily and philodendron need soil that is:

Succulents need:

  • Fast draining
  • Inorganic Matter
  • Soil that does not hold moisture
  • A soil specifically made for succulents/cacti

This post reviews succulent soil in more detail.

WaterWater drops

Regular houseplants can be watered every week all year long and it is rare to overwater them (it can happen but is rare). Succulents on the other hand, only need to be watered every 7-10 days (depending on the time of year and temperature) and they must be watered thoroughly (let the water run out of the drainage holes for several seconds) then given time to completely dry out between waterings.

This post on watering succulents goes into a little more detail, click here.

Shelter (Pot/Planter)

This is similar for both regular houseplants and succulents, both need a pot/planter with drainage holes so the roots aren’t sitting in water. When roots sit in water, it causes root rot (which is basically drowning the roots) and that is hard to overcome. The key takeaway here is drainage, the water must have a way out.

Here is a post that discusses care in general and has a longer section on choosing the right pot.

This one talks about preventing root rot.

Air

Good air circulation is important because it keeps pests away, helps dry out the soil, and allows them to take in carbon dioxide so they can make their own food (they also need light for this). A fan (not blowing directly on them) or circulation from a heating and/or cooling system is fine.

Also, the roots need oxygen from the air so they can pull nutrients and water from the soil and stay healthy. This is the main reason a soil made for succulents is important. Healthy roots equal a healthy plant.

Warmth (Light)

They are similar here too but individual plants may vary. Most houseplants and succulents aren’t cold-hardy (but there are a few) and most can’t handle direct sunlight (they get sunburned). Each specific houseplant and succulent will have different minimum temperature thresholds and minimum needs for light.

For succulents, a general rule of thumb is 4-6 hours of bright indirect sunlight per day. There are plants that do well in low and less light (Sansevieria trifasciata, snake plant, for example) but as a general rule, stick to the 4-6 hours. If you are in zone 10, you can probably grow certain succulents outdoors all year. If you are in other zones, you will want to bring them inside once temperatures hit around 55° F (during the day or night).

There Are Always Exceptions To The Rules

Which is always a pain! Most succulents are desert plants but there are a few that are from the rain forest (Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Cacti for example), these can handle a little more water but as always, err on the side of under watering vs. overwatering.

Choose a succulent that best suits the environment you have. Do you have low light? Choose a snake plant. Do you have a small space? Choose a slow grower (Haworthia fasciata, zebra plant). Choose one that can thrive in your environment.

If you stick with the above guidelines, you are on your way to having a very healthy and beautiful succulent. As always, the closer you watch your succulent, the faster you will notice if it is having problems and the faster you can make adjustments.

This post talks a little more about choosing a succulent.

For a quick reference, check out this infographic.

Questions on succulent care? Comments or observations about succulents or plants? I love to hear from you so, go ahead, comment below!

12 Responses

  1. I’m looking at getting some indoor plants and never really understood the differences between the different types so this post has been really helpful. I think succulents will suit me well as I’m not very good at remembering to water plants (why I don’t have any at the moment), but if I can set a reminder for once a week that will be great! I’d really like to put some plants in my bathroom, but since succulents are usually a desert plant would that be a bad idea?

    • Hi Emily,

      Great question! 

      Succulents need light, 4-6 hours of indirect light per day so if your bathroom doesn’t have a window, it wouldn’t work.

      It would also depend on how humid your bathroom gets, I tend to take hotter showers and really steam up the bathroom. Succulents are used to drier conditions so a lot of humidity wouldn’t be healthy for them either.

      If your bathroom has a window and it doesn’t get too humid, you could try it for a few weeks and see how it goes.  Just keep an eye on your succulent to see if it seems droopy or “sad”. If it does, just move it to a different room.

      Good luck and let me know if I can answer any other questions!

      Lisa

  2. Awesome! I always saw these plants in different spaces (like offices and during church functions) but I never knew what they were called. Also, I always thought succulents were easy to take care of because they required little to no maintenance but now you have enlightened me that they can die from overwatering. Additionally, there are several species that can best serve your environment.

    This was very informative! I know that succulents are generally large plants but can they come in small pots?

    • Hi Tyranique,

      Oh, yes, there are many that come in small pots and a lot that are either small or grow very slowly. For example, the zebra plant I referenced grows only about 5 inches tall and grows very slow, it is perfect for a smaller space! 

      I am convinced there is a succulent suitable for every type of space! 🙂

      Please let me know if you have other questions!

      Thanks,

      Lisa

  3. This post is filled with relevant pieces of information about growing succulent successfully. 

    It gave me ideas about which soil, temperature, light, zone selection idea.

    I had 4-5 plants died for lack of education and knowledge.

    This site taught me everything I need to grow the plants inside and out.

    It helps my family and the environment.

    Thank you for sharing this informative article.

    • Hi Anusuya,

      I’m so glad you found the article helpful! 🙂

      Please let me know if I can answer any questions!

      Thanks,

      Lisa

  4. Thank you for this great post!

    I’ve never done well with these types of plants.  I think I over water them…  The soil I used probably had something to do with it too.

    I think I might give my not-so-gree thumb another try now that I’ve read this.  I’ll keep it bookmarked just to be safe.

    Thanks again,

    Scott

    • Hi Scott,

      You can do it, I know you can!

      Glad you learned something from the post, please let me know if I can answer any questions.

      Thanks,

      Lisa

  5. Excellent information about succulents! I know when I first got my plants I didn’t pay attention to how often I watered them and how much, and unfortunately they ended up dying. But my second plant has done much better now that I follow a strict watering schedule and limit time in the indirect sunlight. Thank you for your posts, they are airways so helpful! 

    • Hi Travis,

      You are welcome and I’m happy to hear your second plant is doing better!

      Please let me know if I can answer any questions!

      Lisa

  6. Thanks for the great article on succulents. I need plants that are easy to take care of and I think these fit the bill. I can’t seem to keep regular houseplants alive with low light in my apartment. Or my cat tries to eat them so I have to keep them up high. I’d like to add more ‘green’ to my place but it’s small. So I’ll check into the Zebra plant. It looks perfect. Thanks for creating this site. It’s very helpful. 

    • Hi Paula,

      Thanks for commenting! Yes, I love “green” indoors, it just makes me feel better.

      The zebra plant should totally work for you!

      Please let me know if I can answer any questions.

      Thanks,

      Lisa

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