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What To Do (And What To Avoid) When Watering Succulents

Emma Loewe
Author:
November 18, 2020
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
November 18, 2020

Succulence is defined as the "storage of utilizable water in living tissues in one or several plant parts in such a way as to allow the plant to be temporarily independent from external water supply but to retain at least some physiological activity." In other words, any plant that falls into the succulent category—your cactuses your snake plant, your money tree—can last a while between waterings by pulling moisture from reserves in its leaves, stems, and roots.

This adaptation serves succulents well in the dry, hot landscapes they're native to. But in households with plant parents who use watering as a love language? Not so much.

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Overwatering is a huge cause of houseplant death generally, and it's especially common in succulents. Here's the scoop on how and how often to water this resilient type of plant.

How often to water your succulent.

Generally speaking, succulents are so good at storing water that they can go one to two weeks between watering during spring and summer and two to three weeks in fall and winter. However, people who know plants usually recommend ditching hard-and-fast schedules and watering succulents more intuitively.

Every few days, check up on your succulent's soil. Stick your fingers into the top layer of soil and water your plant if it's totally dry to the touch. Like, really dry. "You want to make sure—especially with succulents and cacti—that the soil is completely dry before you water it," says plant expert and chemistry teacher Paul Thompson, M.A.

Another way to tell if your succulent needs water is to feel its leaves. If there is still some water stored in them, they'll feel plump and firm. If they're wilted and dull, it's a sign their stash has run dry and it's time for a quick soak.

How to water your succulent.

Do:

  • Water from above, until it comes out of the pot's drainage hole: This is the standard watering technique for most houseplants, and it works well for succulents too. Fill a watering can or cup and run a slow and steady stream of room temperature water all over the top layer of your succulent's soil. Once water starts running out of the pot's drainage hole, it's your cue to stop. Let the plant soak up the remaining moisture for 15 minutes. If there's still any liquid left in its tray after that, dump it into the sink.
  • Bottom water: This is a good technique to try if your succulent's soil is compacted; if it's really packed in there and doesn't seem to be evenly absorbing your top watering. "Sometimes when you water succulents from the top you can damage your roots by the impact of water," explains Monai Nailah McCullough, the horticulturist and founder of Amsterdam-based shop Planthood. "Watering it from the bottom lets it drink enough water slowly, without the impact." To bottom water, sit your succulent(s) in a shallow dish, plastic container, or tray filled with 2 to 3 inches of water. Let them sit in their houseplant bath for 5 to 15 minutes, or until the top of their soil feels slightly damp to the touch, refilling if needed.
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Don't:

  • Mist its leaves: While some varieties of plants appreciate a good misting, succulents are not one of them. The key to raising a happy houseplant is to mirror its natural environment. And since succulents are native to dry areas that don't get much humidity, they aren't used to having damp leaves. "The water can get trapped and cause fungal issues," explains Thompson. "They're not used to getting sprayed, so there's really no point."
  • Put it in a pot without a drainage hole: Drainage holes serve as an escape route for the water that doesn't get absorbed by your plant. And since succulents are so sensitive to overwatering, they really need it.
  • Use ice cubes: Since ice cubes disperse a small amount of water relatively slowly, some houseplant parents use them to give their greenery a more gentle and controlled soaking. But again, if the name of the game is to mimic a succulent's native desert environment, giving them something that's freezing cold doesn't make much sense and could shock them.
  • Give it lighter but more frequent waterings: You're better off giving your succulent a good soak less often than a little bit of water every few days.

Signs of overwatering.

Some signs that you've gone too far and given your succulent more water than it can store include squishy, mushy, brown leaves and soil that never feels completely dry. Prevent overwatering by planting your succulent in a well-draining soil mix that includes larger particles like rocks and bark, giving it enough time between waterings, ensuring it has a drainage hole, and giving it enough light to kick-start photosynthesis and start converting that water into energy.

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The bottom line.

Succulents have adapted to dry environments and tend to require less frequent waterings than tropical houseplants. Equipped with a few simple do's and don'ts, you should be able to give yours just the right amount of water for its needs.

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Emma Loewe
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 articles on mbg, her work has appeared on Bloomberg News, Marie Claire, Bustle, and Forbes. She has covered everything from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping to a group of doctors prescribing binaural beats for anxiety. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.