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