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 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.
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 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.
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.
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 temperature 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 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.
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.
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.
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 fertilize succulents in the winter months when they are not actively growing.
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.
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. Learn more about propagating succulents in this article: How to Propagate Succulents
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 moisture 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 it 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.
Succulents have relatively few pest and disease issues. Learn more about the potential issues that may affect succulents and how to manage them in this article: Common Problems and Issues of Succulents
Succulents are a diverse group of plants and there are many different species to choose from. Get a list of some of the best species to try in this article: Common and Popular Succulent Species