Common Problems Caring for Succulent Plants

A succulent is any plant, including a cactus, that has the ability to store water in its roots, stems and leaves. Due to their unusual shapes, succulents are statement pieces in container gardens and hanging baskets. They are extremely hardy, experience few to no problems with pests and diseases, and need almost no maintenance. Keep your succulents problem-free by eliminating common missteps in succulent care.

Too Little Sunlight

Most succulents originate from hot, sunny deserts and need lots of sunshine to thrive. Provide the plants with a minimum of four hours of direct sunlight every day. Succulents that do not get enough sunlight may appear pale, have weak stems and leaves, and experience slow or stunted growth.

Move succulents growing in containers indoors or outdoors to an east- or west-facing side of your home to maximize their sun exposure. If succulents grow directly in the ground, trim back nearby trees, shrubs and other tall stands of vegetation that may shade the succulents.

Improper Drainage

Succulents do not thrive when they have constantly wet roots. They need well-draining soil. Poor drainage causes root rot and, if not corrected, can kill the entire succulent.

A potted succulent needs a container that has drainage holes in its bottom. Additionally, don't use traditional potting soil. It's too heavy and moist for succulents. Instead, use a potting mix labeled for cactuses or make your own succulent-friendly mixture by combining equal portions of potting soil and powdered pumice or sand.

Never plant succulents grown directly in the ground, such as sedums used as ground cover, near other plants that may require lots of water. If your garden has heavy, claylike soil, then mix a minimum of 4 inches of compost or similar organic matter into the top 8 to 10 inches of the soil to improve drainage.

Too Much or Too Little Water

Even succulents grown in well-draining conditions can experience root rot if they are watered too much. On the flip side, succulents that aren't watered enough experience a loss of foliage and drought stress, to which they eventually succumb when not irrigated quickly.

During spring and summer, when succulents grow actively, water their soil about once every two weeks or as soon as the top 2 of inches of their soil has dried out completely. During the rest of the year, when succulents do not actively produce growth, water the plants just once each month.

Improper Amount of Fertilizer

Succulents do not need much fertilizer to thrive. If you choose to fertilize your succulents to boost their growth rate, then follow general best practices:

  • Fertilize succulents only when they actively produce new growth. Do not fertilize them in fall or winter, when the plants stop growing.
  • Use any general houseplant fertilizer but at one-quarter the rate recommended on the fertilizer's label. If, for example, you use a 24-8-16, water-soluble houseplant fertilizer with label directions to use 1/2 teaspoon of the fertilizer dissolved in 1 gallon of water, then reduce the fertilizer amount to 1/8 teaspoon dissolved in 1 gallon of water.
  • Do not do foliar feeding, which is the practice of spraying a fertilizer solution on plant leaves. Keep succulent foliage dry at all times.

Occasional Pest Infestations

Similar to their disease risks, succulents rarely, if ever, experience pest problems. In rare cases, the plants may occasionally experience an infestation of soft-bodied pests, such as mealybugs or aphids. Dip a cotton swab in alcohol, and dab it on pests to kill them without harming the succulents.

If manually dabbing the pests with alcohol sounds like too much work, make a homemade insecticide spray using liquid dish detergent from your kitchen.

Step 1

Pour 2 teaspoons of liquid dish detergent into a plastic spray bottle. Add 1 pint of tap water to the bottle. Shake the bottle, mixing the ingredients thoroughly.

Step 2

Spray the soapy solution directly onto pests on the succulents. Wait two to three hours.

Step 3

Spray the succulents with fresh, clean water. The water rinses away the soap solution and dead bugs.

Step 4

Increase air circulation around the succulents to help their leaves dry as quickly as possible. For example, open windows or doors near indoor potted succulents. If the plants are outdoors, set a room fan outside, turn it on and let its air blow on the plants for a few hours.

Joshua Duvauchelle

Joshua Duvauchelle is a certified personal trainer and health journalist, relationships expert and gardening specialist. His articles and advice have appeared in dozens of magazines, including exercise workouts in Shape, relationship guides for Alive and lifestyle tips for Lifehacker. In his spare time, he enjoys yoga and urban patio gardening.