Ask A Master Gardener – Growing Succulent Houseplants Successfully

Succulents are one of the easiest plants to successfully grow—so easy, in fact, that people with reported “brown thumbs” are likely to have good results. Succulents are not a scientific classification, but a broad category of 8000 types of plants that have thick fleshy stems and leaves, with a wide range of shapes, sizes, textures, and colors.

Succulents require five things to thrive: soil, water, a container, nutrients, and light. However, those requirements differ from those needed by other plants.

All succulents require a well-drained soil mix. Commercial specialty mixes specifically designed for succulents—or those labeled for cacti—work well. To improve upon those mixes, add some material that will increase drainage.  Good choices include coarse building sand (not fine sand), agricultural pumice (3/16”-1/4” in diameter), perlite (but not vermiculite which tends to float when watered), or poultry grit.  Add the coarse material at a rate of 1part soil to up to 4 parts added material.  If you choose to water infrequently, use a clay pot, or a container less than 2 ¼ inch in diameter, use a higher percentage of soil.

Allow the surface of succulent containers to dry out completely between watering. Don’t let the roots get completely dry, but allow the soil to dry down 1 ½ inches from the surface.  When watering, avoid using softener water due to its high salt content.  Water at the soil level and not on top of the plants, and water more frequently during active growing periods and during warm, dry weather. Add water until it flows out the drainage hole and collects in the tray at the bottom of the pot, then discard the excess.  Never let the plant sit in water.

Match houseplant containers to the size and growth requirements of the plant. Many succulents reach maturity at a smaller size and do not require large pots.  Shallow pots are preferable to deep pots; clay pots require more frequent watering than plastic or ceramic.  Use the pot to “frame” the arrangement of the plants and make it a work of art.  Succulents only need to be repotted every 1—3 years.  When doing so, plan ahead and do it at the beginning of the growing season.  Carefully inspect the roots and trim away any dead or unhealthy ones.

Succulents naturally thrive in nutrient deficient soils. Consequently, they do not need significant fertilization.  Commercial houseplant fertilizers (15-30-15) are a good choice, but use at a reduced strength and frequency.  Fertilize during the growing season once or twice a month at 25-50% strength.

If succulents receive too little light, they will become pale, unattractive, spindly, and weak. Too much light will result in yellowing or sunburned plants.  In nature, many succulents grow as understory plants and are shaded by other plants or rocks.  Therefore, the light from a sunny Midwest window is perfect.  Rotate the pot frequently to prevent lopsided growth. Photoperiod, or the amount of light a plant receives in a given day, is important for some blooming succulents such as holiday cacti and may need to be manipulated in order to get blooms.

Succulents are well adapted to the warmth and low humidity conditions of most homes. With the great variety available, the ease of growth and care, is there really a reason not to give them a try?

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener

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