Updated: May 29, 2020
Let's talk about caring for your succulents! Because if you've ever owned a plant, let's be real... you've probably also killed a plant. And if you're used to taking care of plants like pothos or calathea, succulents may throw you a curve ball. No worries. Once you get the hang of it, they're actually the world's easiest plant! Let's start from the beginning...
Pick a Healthy Plant
It's important to buy a plant that is healthy at point of sale. Look for mature plants that have a strong root system. Succulent leaves are often telling, as they will pucker when thirsty and ooze water or look swollen and yellow when overwatered. The former can be treatable, the latter is not. Many folks are in awe of succulents and wonder if they're real, and in the process of touching them out of curiosity, they remove a powdery film finish on them. Succulents can survive this, but it removes some of their whimsy and also their protective coating. Some varieties are very sensitive to the touch (like donkey tail) and will lose leaves quite easily. So I try to pick succulents that haven't been manhandled as much.
Find the Perfect Spot Most succulents appreciate bright light. A spot outside or inside with excellent morning light is often an ideal location. The tag on the plant you buy will often come with instructions. Follow them closely. You can also look up the name of the succulent online to confirm additional care tips. There are some succulents that burn in full sun, such as aloe (ironically) and there are succulents that stretch when too far from light (some varieties of echeveria and sedum). Some succulents do well in low light (panda, zebra and snake plants), however most thrive and flower better in bright light.
When planting succulents in an arrangement, try to pick varieties that will thrive in similar conditions, as they will be growing in the same spot and moved collectively if needed. If a succulent is in too much direct light it may turn red, brown or black, and many varieties with pink coloring retain that beautiful color only when in bright light. If a succulent is stretching towards light (etiolation) it would prefer to be in brighter light. I find myself moving plants around regularly, particularly in the winter as I bring plants inside from the cold (succulents can scar and sometimes die in freezing temperatures) or as the sun slightly changes position in different seasons. In the winter, I like to bring the cacti outside on warm, sunny days to let them soak up some natural light and warmth.
I have found that my succulents and other plants appreciate a shade screen if outside (pictured below). I live in the desert and the summer sun can be unforgiving, even for my sun worshiping plants. Row cover and certain greenhouses can also be fantastic as they provide bright, filtered light all around so plants often grow upwards without leaning in one direction and enjoy the benefits of full sun without harmful UV rays. There are some surprisingly inexpensive materials on Amazon, if you’re looking to take your plant care to another level!
Containers Make a Difference We've all done it... chosen an adorable planter without a drainage hole because it was pretty! Keep in mind that it's important to consider the functionality of your interiorscape or exteriorscape, as well as decor. For succulents, I suggest clay planters with a drainage hole and tray. The clay absorbs some of the water so that the soil is less likely to retain too much of it. I'm also a big fan of vertical gardens, which typically have excellent drainage and display succulents in a very unique way. For planters without a drainage hole, you can either drill a whole into the bottom to allow more drainage or create a drainage plan that may include a layer of horticultural charcoal and lava rock or drainage pebbles.
Use Cactus Soil Make sure your succulents are planted in well-draining soil, specifically for cacti & succulents. Typical planter soil retains moisture, which may lead to root rot for your succulents.
Water Like a Boss Here's the scary part for most... watering the succulent! Be sure to give your new succulent some time to adjust to its new environment before watering it, especially if it was just received in the mail or arranged in a new planter. A week should do. After that, water when the soil is dry. Be sure to check below the surface with your finger or a moisture tester. The top will look dry pretty quickly with fast-draining soil in bright light, but what you want to be sure of is the moisture throughout. If it's feeling or measuring moist an inch or two below the surface, hold off a bit longer on watering. They store water and are drought tolerant once established. So while they absolutely do want to be watered regularly, it's important to only water when their soil is dry. When you do water, water thoroughly. This method allows the root system to fully develop. Be sure to let the water finish draining from the bottom of the planter before putting the planter back on a tray. If water collects in the tray and sits there for an extended period of time, the soil will be too moist and lead to root rot.
Many folks have asked me about spraying succulents or keeping them in the bathroom with steam from a shower. I would not suggest spraying your succulents as a watering technique. In fact, I would take caution to avoid getting water on the rosette if possible. To help with that I either put the planter under the faucet in a sink while I'm watering it (good control of the aim, great spot for water to run through the bottom) or use a syringe to water the base of the plant (especially with arrangements because they are close together). If your plants are outside, do not leave them on trays as water will pool when it rains and your succulent will not like sitting in water. If you are torn about whether or not to water your succulent, wait a bit. It's better to err on the side of under-watering.
Plant Food I could go either way on fertilizer, and generally skip it. We have seen MANY flowers already this year from my succulents and haven't placed a drop of fertilizer on them.
If you decide to use fertilizer, go with an organic variety. Some folks suggest fertilizing just at the beginning of the growing season and some suggest fertilizing once a month. Note that some succulents are winter growers, and should be fertilized in the winter season instead of warmer months. Research your succulent's growing season so that you can allow it to rest (and pause on fertilizer) during its dormant season.
Managing Expectations Succulents change drastically with the slightest of environmental change. This can include going from nursery to your kitchen windowsill. Succulents are survivors by nature and will adapt, which you will notice as it changes in shape and color in response. To keep it as similar as possible to its original appearance, mimic its natural environment as much as possible. And finally, this is not the guide to never killing a plant again. Folks tell me all the time that I have a green thumb, and my most common response is "well, I just don't post pictures of the dead ones..." I've gotten the hang of quite a bit of plant needs, and as a result I do enjoy a beautiful garden, indoor and out. But with season changes, inclement weather, vacations, and a dog who sometimes uproots plants, I can tell you that even the most avid gardener kills plants from time to time. When it happens, note your lessons learned, consider composting the dead one, and go buy yourself another one!