Succulents include all plants that store water in thick stems, roots or leaves. That includes plants in the cactus clan. Succulents vary from small-as-Tom-Thumb to big-as-Jack's-beanstalk, and they grow and flower in a rainbow of shades. Have a succulent that's not looking its best? It probably needs a little TLC to bring it back to life.
Succulent Care and Feeding
Succulents are low-care plants, but don't confuse that with no-care. Like all other plants, succulents have specific needs. Meeting those needs keeps the succulent looking healthy and vibrant. When a plant droops, take a look at the different needs to make sure you're giving it proper care.
Watch Your Watering
If your succulent droops, puckers, shrivels or changes color, irrigation may be the problem. Watering too much contributes to rot diseases. Too little water can put the plant into survival mode and prevent flowering. The symptoms often look similar whether you give the plant too much or too little water. An overwatered succulent often feels mushy and might fall apart as it rots and breaks down. Underwatered succulents tend to dry out and turn brown.
Succulents have the reputation for drought tolerance because they store water, but that doesn't mean they can bake all summer long without a drop to drink. While succulents are growing from late spring through fall, they need adequate water. The exact amount depends on sun exposure and planting location. A potted succulent in full sun needs a deep, daily drink, but irrigation once or twice a week is sufficient for a plant with roots in the ground in partial shade. Reduce irrigation in winter, watering thoroughly but infrequently, just enough to keep the plants from shriveling up.
Lots of Light with Limitations
If your succulent looks thin and stretched out, it may be getting too little light. The color may also fade. Succulents need light to thrive. Many succulents can stay alive in constant shade, but the plant often starts to stretch toward a light source to the point that it looks drawn. Move the plant to a location with more light if it's planted in a pot. If it's in the ground, trim overhanging tree branches to let in the light.
Most species can take direct sunlight, but some cannot. For example, donkey's tail thrives in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zone 11 but needs a shaded, wind-protected location. If your succulent looks washed out or pale, it may be getting too much light. Scorching can happen when a succulent is suddenly exposed to lots of direct sunlight after being in partial shade. In a very hot climate, plant succulents in sunny garden locations that get shade at the hottest time of the day.
Soil Drainage Is Important
Succulents need soil that drains well. For potted succulents, use a container with built-in drainage to keep the plant from rotting. If a potted plant begins to wilt or suffer, fill the top of the pot with water and see how quickly it drains. You may need to transplant it into a container with better drainage.
Succulents planted in soil that retains water decline quickly. Some species, like cobweb houseleek that thrives in USDA zones 5 through 8, are particularly sensitive to poorly draining soil. To increase drainage, add coarse matter like lava rock, sand or perlite to the soil, so excess water drains away rapidly.
Less Fertilizer Is Better
Because succulents don't need heavy doses of nutrients, they generally grow best in poorer, less fertile soil. This is not true across the board, though. Firesticks, the red version of pencil tree, is more tolerant of ordinary soil than other succulents. It grows in USDA zones 9 through 11.
Given their general preference for poor soil, you shouldn't fertilize succulents very often. Cactuses only require a light dose of fertilizer during late spring or summer. Pick a water-soluble fertilizer higher in phosphorus than nitrogen, and mix in two or three times as much water as the directions suggest. Other succulents also benefit from watered down fertilizer, but you can fertilize them three or four times during the growing season.
Succulents usually don't have issues with serious pest infections. If you notice the cottony coverings of mealybugs or the tiny, raised spots that indicate scale, wipe the bugs off the plant with cotton dipped in alcohol. You can keep succulents free of rot, both fungal and bacterial, if you are careful about succulent care. Improper watering and not enough light are major factors in rot issues.
- Timber Press: What's Wrong with My Succulent?
- Cactus and Succulent Society of San Jose: Cactus and Succulent Care for Beginners
- Gardening Australia: Reviving Succulents
- Sloat Garden Center: Basic Succulent Care
- Fine Gardening: 10 Outstanding Succulents
- Pistils Nursery: Pistils Rx: Troubleshooting Succulents and Cacti
From Alaska to California, from France's Basque Country to Mexico's Pacific Coast, Teo Spengler has dug the soil, planted seeds and helped trees, flowers and veggies thrive. A professional writer and consummate gardener, Spengler has written about home and garden for Gardening Know How, San Francisco Chronicle, Gardening Guide and Go Banking Rates. She earned a BA from U.C. Santa Cruz, a law degree from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall, and an MA and MFA from San Francisco State. She currently divides her life between San Francisco and southwestern France.