How to Care for Succulent Plants

By Victoria Lee Blackstone

Succulents are a diverse group of plants that flourish under some of the same conditions that cause other plants to go belly-up. Adapted for drought and low fertility, succulent plants are bothered by few pests and diseases. Caring for them is a snap as long as you have a light watering hand, fertilize minimally and make sure they have good drainage.

Succulent Plants Growing
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Drought Adaptability

A little water goes a long way to maintain healthy succulent plants. Commonly called "the camels of the plant world," succulents have specialized tissues in their stems and leaves that store water. Some succulents such as jade (Crassula ovata), also called dollar plant, which grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 11 through 12, have thick, fleshy leaves that serve as water reservoirs. The gel inside the leaves of aloe (Aloe vera), USDA zones 10 through 12, is its water-storage system. Because of the water-retentive adaptability of succulents, overwatering typically causes their roots to rot. Water these plants sparingly, only enough to keep them from withering. The Washington State University Chelan County Extension recommends watering when the leaves become indented.

Ongoing Nutrition

Succulent plants need only infrequent fertilization. When new growth starts in spring, fertilize them with a water-soluble fertilizer diluted to half-strength, which is typically one teaspoon to one gallon of water. Kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana), a flowering succulent that grows in USDA zones 10 through 12, benefits from half-strength fertilizer doses every few months. Some succulents, such as Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), a perennial in USDA zones 10 through 12, respond best to weaker fertilizer that you apply more often. During the growing season, use a water-soluble fertilizer diluted to one-quarter strength once monthly, which is typically one-half teaspoon to one gallon of water. Always follow label instructions for the particular fertilizer product you are using.

Pinches and Snips

Succulent plants have many forms, including upright, spreading and trailing. Typically, they need pruning only if you want to keep them from becoming leggy or to take cuttings. The best time to prune is in spring, as plants move from dormancy to active growth. Jade and showy sedum (Sedum blossfeldiana), which is a perennial in USDA zones 4 through 9, respond to pinch pruning, which is pinching the growing tips to encourage lateral branching. Aloe and house leek, also called hens and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum), which grows in USDA zones 3 through 8, produce offsets or pups around the mother plant. Simply snip the offsets from the mother plant if the plants become crowded. Disinfect hand pruners by soaking them in a solution of 1 part bleach and 3 parts water for five minutes and rinsing them with water or allowing them to air-dry before cutting plants.

Bothersome Pests

Succulent plants are rarely bothered by insect pests. When they are assaulted, the usual culprits are mealybugs and scale insects. Although they don't resemble each other, mealybugs and scale insects are covered with waxy cuticles, and they pierce the succulent plant tissues to feed on the leaf and stem sap. Scale insects typically are hidden from view, living under a protective armored cuticle. Mealybugs are crawlers that look like white, cottony growths on plants, but they jump if you disturb them. Remove both insects by dabbing them with an alcohol-saturated cotton swab.