Care of Succulents Indoors

Succulents are a popular group of houseplants but their care looks a little different than the typical tropical foliage houseplant.  Succulents are plants with thick, juicy stems and/or leaves.  Succulents are found in many different plant families.  Popular succulent species are found in the stonecrop family (Crassulaceae) spurge family (Euphorbiaceae) and the cactus family (Cactaceae) among others. All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.

Succulents generally make good houseplants because they require little care.  They are grown for their attractive leaves, stems, growth habit, and/or flowers.  The many different colors, shapes, and sizes of succulents and the fact that many are small in size make them highly collectible.  Regardless of the species, nearly all succulents thrive in the same environmental conditions.  This makes them good plants for dish gardens since all the plants in a multi-plant container, such as a dish garden, must prefer the same growing conditions to grow well. 

 


Growing Succulents Indoors

Light

Succulents like this Sansevieria (Dracaena trifasciata laurentii) need bright light when grown indoors
Succulents like this Sansevieria (Dracaena trifasciata laurentii) need bright light when grown indoors

Light is often one of the most limiting factors when growing succulents indoors.  Look for the brightest location you can find indoors, ideally providing ten or more hours of bright, indirect light.  Some species will tolerate lower light levels, but most will not thrive with less than six to eight hours of bright light.  Providing this amount of light is often difficult to do indoors.  Rotate plants often to keep them from growing lopsided.  When light levels are too low, plants will develop lanky, pale growth.  Move plants to a brighter location or provide supplemental light utilizing a grow light. Look for high-output, full-spectrum lights. Fluorescent and LED fixtures work particularly well for home gardeners. 

Succulents can be moved outdoors for the summer but should be placed in part-sun and protected from the bright afternoon sun.  Light levels are much higher outdoors and the intense light can damage and burn the leaves and stems.

Soil

Soil is one of the most important considerations for growing succulents because it is one of the factors that differs the most from other indoor plants.  Succulents require sharp-draining soil that dries out quickly and does not hold too much moisture.  Typical potting soil mixes hold too much water for too long and can cause root rot and death of succulents.  Soil mixtures that contain one-third organic material and two-thirds mineral material are good choices for succulents.  To make your own succulent potting mix, combine one part organic material, such as potting soil, pine bark, compost, or coir, with two parts mineral material, such as perlite, coarse sand, pumice, or fine gravel.  Commercial “cactus mixes” can be purchased at stores, but often even these soil mixes benefit from added perlite, sand, or pumice to increase drainage. 

Container

Containers can range from a wide range of materials including glazed pottery, ceramic, terracotta, clay, plastic, and glass.  They must contain a drainage hole.  Succulents do not tolerate staying wet and even if a “drainage layer” or coarse gravel is placed in the bottom of the container, they often stay too wet for plants to thrive.  If you cannot create a drainage hole consider using a different container or use a double pot. Double potting consists of a plant growing in a slightly smaller container with drainage holes and setting that container down inside the desirable container that does not have drainage. 

Clay or terracotta pots work well for succulents because they are porous and allow the soil to dry out more quickly than plastic or glazed pottery. Succulents often do well in small or shallow containers because the volume of soil is small and will more quickly dry out.  Dishes, trays, and other large containers also work well for planting a variety of succulent species in the same container.  Since most succulents have the same light, water, and soil requirements, they can grow well alongside each other in the same container.

A burros tail succulant, with strands that look like the tail of a burro.
Burro's Tail (Sedum morganianum). 

Temperature

While many succulents are native to hot climates, they do not need to grow in above-average temperatures.  The average temperatures of a home are great for nearly all succulents.  Most succulents naturally grow in areas that see big temperatures swings from day to night.  When growing indoors, succulents tolerate and sometimes prefer to have cooler temperatures during the night and warmer temperatures during the day.  In general, keeping succulents between 55°F and 75°F is best. Many species will tolerate temperatures as low as 45°F and as high as 85°F.

Humidity

Humidity is not typically an important factor to consider when growing succulents indoors because most homes have low relative humidity, especially during the winter months.  Succulents do well in this low humidity.  Lower humidity levels allow the soil to dry more quickly, which is beneficial to succulents.  Occasionally, humidity levels can get too low, even for succulents.  Utilize a humidifier or pebble tray to raise humidity levels if the air is too dry and plants are shriveling, wrinkling, or developing dry leaf edges or tips.  It is rare for succulents to be in conditions indoors where the relative humidity is too low.

Watering

Apart from light and soil, watering is probably the most important and sometimes misunderstood factor when it comes to the care of succulents.  The best approach to watering succulents growing indoors is to set up a wet-dry cycle.  When you water, water plants thoroughly making sure the entire soil volume is fully wetted and water runs out of the drainage holes in the container.  Then allow plants to dry thoroughly, making sure the entire volume of soil is dry before watering again. Succulents do not tolerate staying wet for long periods of time.  Never allow water to sit for more than a few hours in trays, sleeves, or double pots.

Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)
Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)

The frequency of watering is difficult to prescribe as it is based on many environmental factors such as the amount of light the plant is exposed to, the type of soil and container it is growing in, as well as the temperature and relative humidity it experiences.  In general, it is best to start with watering succulents every 2 to 3 weeks.  Check the soil before watering, if it is dry to the touch several inches down, water.  If it is damp, wait to water.  If you are questioning it, wait to water and check again in a few days.

While succulents prefer low amounts of water, they do still need water from time to time to grow and flourish.  In fact, growth can be greatly accelerated when they are provided with regular moisture utilizing a wet-dry cycle of watering. 

Fertilizer

Most succulents do not require much fertilizer to thrive.  Provide a balanced fertilizer in the spring and summer months at a rate of one-half to one-quarter the rate listed on the label.  A water-soluble fertilizer can be applied every three or four waterings when the succulents are actively growing or a slow-release fertilizer can be applied to the soil early in the growing season.  Do not fertilizer succulents in the winter months when they are not actively growing. 

Air Circulation

Succulents benefit from good air circulation.  Moving air helps dry soils, lower humidity, and can reduce the risk of insect pests like mealy bugs and spider mites.  Space plants appropriately to allow for good airflow around the plants and if succulents are cramped, consider a small fan to help circulate more air.

 


Propagating Succulents

Most succulents are easy to propagate vegetatively by offsets, stem cuttings, or leaf cuttings.  The type of propagation you choose depends on the species of plant and how it grows. 

Offsets & Division

To propagate succulents by offsets, the species must have the appropriate growth habit.  Those species that grow in clusters of rosettes, produce “pups”, or have runners that readily root and grow are often the best candidates for this type of propagation.  Gently pull or cut the offset or side shoot being careful to separate the pieces with both leaves/stems and roots attached.  Sometimes sharp clean pruners or scissors may be needed to cut and separate runners or other pieces holding the offsets to the parent plant.  Pot-up the propagule in a well-drained growing media, such as cactus potting soil, in a container with a drainage hole.  Lightly water plants and after a few weeks the new propagule will establish and begin growing on its own.  This type of propagation works well for Sempervivum, Agave, Aloe, Lithops, Gasteria, Haworthia, Manfreda, Sansevieria (Dracaena), Bryophyllum, and all of the cactus (Cactaceae family).

Stem Cuttings

To propagate by stem cuttings, remove a section of stem 3 to 6 inches long using clean, sharp pruners or scissors.  Remove the leaves from the lower half of the stem and allow the cut end to dry and callus over by letting it sit on a tray or plate, or by suspending it in an empty pot or cup for several days.  By callusing the cut end, the propagule is less likely to rot before it develops advantageous roots.  Place the callused propagule in a well-drained media, such as cactus potting soil or perlite.  Once new roots develop, it can be potted in a container and grown.  Most succulents do not root well in a glass of water.  While rooting hormone can sometimes help the propagule develop new advantageous roots faster, most succulents root quickly and easily without rooting hormone.  This type of propagation works well with Aeonium, Cotyledon, Echeveria, Graptopetalum, Pachyphytum, Sedum, Euphorbia, Crassula, Senecio, Kalanchoe, Adenium, Epiphyllum (Disocactus), and Schlumbergera.

A variation of stem cutting propagation that is often used for succulents with rosette growth habits that produce few offsets is called “beheading”.  The entire rosette is cut off with an inch or two of stem attached.  That piece is callused and then rooted just like a stem cutting.  In many cases, multiple side rosettes will develop on the stalk left behind.  After several months, the small rosettes that form on the stalk can be cut off and rooted, producing more plants.  They can also be allowed to grow to create a plant that has a stem with a cluster of rosettes on it instead of just one.  This type of propagation often works well for Aeonium and Echeveria.

Leaf cuttings must be the entire leaf cleanly taken from the stem like the leaf on the left, not a partial leaf like the leaf on the right
Leaf cuttings must be the entire leaf cleanly taken from the stem like the leaf on the left, not a partial leaf like the leaf on the right

Two leaf cuttings growing roots placed on a wooden table.
Leaf cuttings will root and grow new shoots after several weeks.

Leaf Cuttings

Propagation by leaf cuttings is done by cleanly removing a leaf from the stem.  For this type of propagation to be successful, the entire leaf along with the cells that attach that leaf to the stem must be removed.  These cells contain the meristem tissue needed to produce new growth.  Partial pieces of leaves will not root.  Lay leaves flat on slightly damp, well-drained rooting media, such as cactus potting soil, and gently settle them into the soil so the end of the leaf that was attached to the stem is sitting right at the soil surface, but not covered in soil. Keep the soil surface damp, but not wet.  A spray bottle is an effective way to wet the soil surface without getting the soil too wet. New roots and leaves or rosette will form in several weeks.  This type of propagation works well for Graptopetalum, Pachyphytum, Sedum, Crassula, and Kalanchoe. 

A few succulent species, namely Sansevieria (Dracaena), will propagate successfully with a section of leaf.  For these plants, cleanly cut a 3 to 5-inch section of the leaf with sharp, clean pruners or scissors.  Allow that section to callus for a day and insert it into a well-drained potting mix.  Take special care to keep track of what end of the leaf was down and what end was up, as new roots and leaves will only develop on the “down” side of the leaf.  Cutting the bottom of the leaf straight across and the top at an angle is one method to make sure you can easily keep track of which end is up and which end is down.  After several weeks new roots and shoots will develop.

 


Succulents can be easily grown in small containers, like this tea cup
Succulents can be easily grown in small containers, like this tea cup.  A drainage hole was drilled into the bottom so the saucer can collect excess water.

Planting & Repotting

It is not necessary to frequently repot succulents.  Most species thrive in containers that are slightly smaller because the soil dries out more quickly.  Over time, however, soil can break down into smaller pieces allowing it to hold more water.  Additionally, as plants get larger they may become top-heavy and need a larger, broader container to keep them stable. 

When planting or repotting, select a container that is just big enough to comfortably fit the root system and hold the plant stable and upright.  Containers that are too large hold more soil and take longer to dry out.  Succulents do not tolerate long periods of wet soil.  Containers must have a drainage hole to allow excess water to drain away. 

When potting succulents carefully lift the plant from its old container at the base.  The succulent stems may break easily and some species have leaves that will readily break off when handled so handle plants with care.  Gently remove any loose soil from the rootball and place in the new container.  Fill in around the plant with new well-drained soil and lightly water plants to help settle the soil.  A folded band of paper or newspaper can be wrapped around spiny or thorny plants to make them easier to handle.  Repotting is an excellent time to propagate plants.  Cut back leggy stems and remove crowded offsets while repotting.  These pieces can be propagated to allow your collection to grow or produce new plants to share with friends. 

 


Common Insect and Disease Issues

Succulents have relatively few pest and disease issues.  Scout plants frequently to catch problems early and treat them before they become severe.

Over Watering

One of the most common issues when growing succulents is overwatering.  Plants that are growing in wet conditions will have yellowing leaves as well as soft and mushy leaves and stems.  Over time, leaves will drop off.  The soil surface will be wet or damp to the touch and when severe you will see mold or fungus gnats.  Stop watering if over watering is suspected.  Allow the soil to dry out thoroughly between waterings.  Make sure the container has a drainage hole that excess water can freely drain from and ensure that trays or sleeves are not left full of water.  If soil is too organic or fine-textured, it will hold too much water.  Repot with sharp-draining soil. 

Under Watering

While succulents can go for weeks and sometimes longer with no water, there comes a point where things can get too dry!  When underwatered, leaves often turn yellow, shrivel, and brown before dropping off.  Stems and leaves may become wrinkled and mottled.  Roots die due to lack of water and then when succulents are finally watered again, may not recover well because the root mass is not large enough to provide adequate moisture.  Check plants frequently and water when the soil is dry to the touch.  One method to determine if plants need water utilizes a chopstick.  Insert a chopstick into the soil and if it comes out with moisture on it, as indicated by a darker color, then the plant does not yet need to be irrigated.

Root Rot

Root rot typically develops from too much water in the soil.  Oxygen levels in water-logged soil are lower causing roots to die.  With fewer roots to absorb water, plants begin to show symptoms of water stress by dropping leaves or shriveling up.  These symptoms are often confused for underwatering and more water is added further exacerbating the problem.  Allow the soil to dry thoroughly between waterings. Sometimes plants can recover when allowed to dry out.  Other times the rot is so advanced that the plant cannot recover.  Discard the plant or propagate healthy-looking segments. Setting up a wet-dry cycle where the soil is completely wetted and then allowed to completely dry out is the best way to avoid root rot in succulents.

Low light levels can cause succulents like this Echeveria to stretch and produce lanky growth
Low light levels can cause succulents like this Echeveria to stretch and produce lanky growth.

When light is insufficient leaves of succulents like Echeveria will often lay flat and develop a pale color
When light is insufficient leaves of succulents like Echeveria will often lay flat and develop a pale color

Insufficient Light

Tall, spindly, lanky growth that is pale in color is an indication that light levels are too low.  Those succulents with rosette growth forms often open up and leaves flatten out in an effort to collect more light.  If light levels are too low move plants to a location that receives more light.  When grown indoors, succulents need abundant bright, indirect light.  Ideally, plants receive ten or more hours of light a day.  If a bright enough location cannot be found by a window, then provide supplemental light utilizing high output, full-spectrum fluorescent or LED grow-lights.  Set plants within 12 inches of the light source and put lights on a timer to turn on for 12 to 16 hours a day.  Some species of succulents will recover from low light conditions over time and others will require pruning or cut back to remove lanky growth and allow new growth to form under sufficient light.  Other species, in particular many barrel-type cacti, will develop misshapen, narrow spindly growth that will permanently be with the plant even if more light is introduced.

Sun Damage

Brown or tan patches that form on leaves and/or stems, especially interior leaves or on new growth, are common syptoms of sun scald or sun damage.  The primary cause of sun scaled is when succulents are exposed for a length of time to low light levels and then suddenly transitioned to bright or direct sunlight.  Most succulents appreciate protection from the hot afternoon sun and most do best in bright, indirect light.  The dead areas burned by the bright light will not recover, and typically leaves with sun scald will eventually drop, and stems with sun scald damage will callus over creating a permanent scar.  Transition succulents to new light conditions slowly to avoid damage in the future.

 Brown lower leaves on otherwise healthy plants is normal as seen on this flapjack plant (Kalanchoe luciae)
Brown lower leaves on otherwise healthy plants is normal as seen on this flapjack plant (Kalanchoe luciae).

Mealybug

Cottony masses, especially along the veins of leaves and where leaves and stems join, are signs of mealybug.  This insect pest feeds on the plant sap and exude a stinky substance called honeydew that covers lower leaves and surrounding tabletops and floors. Scout plants frequently for these insects and treat as soon as they are noticed.  Isolate plants to prevent them from infecting other succulents nearby.  Rinsing foliage and physically removing the cottony masses can help reduce the infestation.  Spray insects with a spray bottle of rubbing alcohol or dab with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol.  Multiple applications are often needed for complete control.  Pesticides like Neem and insecticidal soap can be used.  Apply as instructed on the label.  Most infestations will take multiple applications to get complete control.  If infestations are severe and cannot be controlled, discard the plant to keep it from infecting nearby plants.

Dead Lower Leaves

Lower leaves on many succulents, especially those with a rosette growth habit, will occasionally dry completely and fall off.  If the plant is otherwise healthy and growing well, a dried-up lower leaf or two is nothing to cause concern.  Simply remove the leaf.

 


Common & Popular Succulent Species

Outlined below are common and popular species of succulents.  Species are listed in groups based on their overall growth habit or use.  Within each group species are listed by relative size from smallest to largest.  For some genera or species the size varies widely. 

Propagation methods listed are the best and/or easiest forms for vegetative propagation for that species which could include, stem cuttings (S), leaf cuttings (L), or offsets/division (O).

 

Common Name

Scientific Name

Family

Propagation Method

Rosette Forms

 

 

 

Living Stones

Lithops

Aizoaceae

O

Stonecrop

Sedum

Crassulaceae

S, L

Hens and Chicks

Sempervivum

Crassulaceae

O

Moonstones

Pachyphytum

Crassulaceae

L, S

Ghost Plant

Graptopetalum

Crassulaceae

L, S

Echeveria

Echeveria

Crassulaceae

S

Pig’s Ear

Cotyledon orbiculata

Crassulaceae

S

Pinwheel Desert Rose

Aeonium

Crassulaceae

S

Upright Forms

 

 

 

Zebra Plant

Haworthia

Asphodelaceae

O

Ox Tongue

Gasteria

Asphodelaceae

O

Aloe

Aloe vera

Asphodelaceae

O

Snake Plant, Mother-in-law’s Tongue

Sansevieria (Dracaena)

Asparagaceae

O

Pencil Cactus

Euphorbia tirucalli

Euphorbiaceae

S

Candelabra Plant

Euphorbia lactea

Euphorbiaceae

S

False Agave

Manfreda

Asparagaceae

O

Century Plant

Agave americana

Asparagaceae

O

Bushy or Shrubby Forms

 

 

 

Mother of Thousands

Bryophyllum daigremontianum

Crassulaceae

O

Panda Plant

Kalanchoe tomentosa

Crassulaceae

L, S

Blue Chalk Sticks

Senecio mandraliscae

Asteraceae

S

Jade Plant

Crassula argentea

Crassulaceae

L, S

Trailing Forms

 

 

 

String of Buttons

Crassula perforata

Crassulaceae

S, L

String of Pearls

Senecio rowleyanus

Asteraceae

S

String of Bananas

Senecio radicans

Asteraceae

S

Burro’s Tail

Sedum morganinum

Crassulaceae

S, L

Grown Primarily for Flowers

 

 

 

Kalanchoe

Kalanchoe blossfeldiana

Crassulaceae

S, L

Desert Rose

Adenium

Apocynaceae

S

Fishbone Cactus, Ric Rac Cactus

Epiphyllum (Disocactus) anguliger

Cactaceae

S, O

Holiday Cactus

Schlumbergera

Cactaceae

S

Crown of Thorns

Euphorbia milii

Euphorbiaceae

S

Orchid Cactus

Epiphyllum (Disocactus)

Cactaceae

S, O

Cactus

 

 

 

Grafted Cactus

Gymnocalycium mihanovichii friedrichii

Cactaceae

O

Nipple Cactus, Pincushion Cactus

Mammillaria

Cactaceae

O

Golden Ball Cactus

Notocactus

Cactaceae

O

Old Man Cactus

Cephalocereus senilis

Cactaceae

O

Prickly Pear, Bunny Ears

Opuntia

Cactaceae

O

Barrel Cactus

Echinocactus grusonii

Cactaceae

O

Ghost Plant (Graptopetalum)
Ghost Plant (Graptopetalum)

 Mother of Thousands (Bryophyllum (Kalanchoe) delagoense)
Mother of Thousands (Kalanchoe delagoense (syn: 
Bryophyllum delagoense))

Ox Tongue (Gasteria 'Flow')
Ox Tongue (Gasteria 'Flow')

Echeveria (Echeveria)
Echeveria (Echeveria)

Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Horticulture and Home Pest News, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on Dec. 10, 2021. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.