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March 04, 2020 6 min read

So you’ve fallen for the beauty of succulents, and perhaps you’ve been drawn in even further by their reputation as some of the easiest plants to care for…especially for those put off by the idea of very frequent watering. While this can indeed be the case, it’s only really true when all of a succulent’s basic needs are met adequately.

 So, what are these needs and how can you be confident that you are meeting them? Let’s start with the basics!

Picking the Right Plant

This may seem obvious, but trust me – picking the right succulent isn’t only about grabbing the very first one that catches your eye!  For a beginner succulent parent, my simplest recommendation would be to get brutally honest with yourself about the type of light you will be able to provide your new plant. For example, if the only windows in your home (or office!) are north-facing, it would be best to avoid the most high light loving, and thus etiolation prone, succulent varieties, such as the beautifully rosette-shaped Echeverias. Instead, you may find the most success with lower light tolerant varieties, such as Haworthias or Gasterias.

In addition to the etiolation, or stretching towards the sun, that can occur when a succulent isn’t receiving the light it requires, it is worth noting that certain color variations also require higher light in order to thrive and maintain their desirable color. For instance, variegated plants inherently require more light, due to their reduced levels of chlorophyll, and the stunning pink, purple, red, and even orange succulent varieties will begin to lose their unique coloring and revert to green if they don’t have access to enough sunlight to maintain it.

Of course, a low light situation can generally be remedied with the use of a grow light, but that is not always a desired addition to one’s space or wallet – especially for those just getting started with succulents!

Picking the Right Pot

Once you have the right succulent for your house’s light conditions, it is vital to make sure it has the right pot to call home! While pots come in just about every shape and color imaginable, to suit practically any home décor aesthetic, I would urge you to make sure to consider both style andsubstance when making your pot selection.

Hands down, a terra cotta or concrete pot is the best choice for succulents, as the porous nature of these materials ensures that there is good oxygen exchange to the plants’ roots, which prevents the soil from remaining soggy for an extended period of time and predisposing the roots to rot.

While plastic and ceramic pots are readily available in a variety of fun colors and styles, they hold moisture in the soil far more readily, and thus require very careful attention to how frequently the plant inside is watered. For example, I have a succulent arrangement that I have planted up in a beautiful lime green ceramic planter – and I need to water those plants far less frequently, sometimes by spans of several weeks, than my plants housed in terracotta. If you have your heart set on plastic or ceramic, one tip to help mitigate this issue would be to choose a planter that is wider than it is deep, as the increased surface area will allow for more water evaporation to help balance out the soil moisture levels.

Ultimately, regardless of what pot material you choose, it is critical to make sure that it comes equipped with adequate drainage. While it is possible to care for succulents in a non-draining container, a drainage hole ensures that the roots will never be left sitting in standing water, which is a death sentence for plants designed to thrive in dryer soil conditions!

To help ensure that the soil stays in the pot, especially in the case of multiple or large drainage holes, it is also helpful to have a disposable coffee filter, small piece of mesh window screen, or small piece of mesh drywall patching tape on hand, to place over the hole before filling the pot with soil.

Picking the Right Soil

Without the right soil, even the perfect succulent in the perfect pot won’t live up to its true potential! Regular potting mix or garden soil dug up from outside are simply too dense and too slow draining to suit most succulents. Instead, a fast-draining succulent potting mix, available at any local garden center, will fit the bill perfectly, containing enough porous elements such as course sand and perlite to safeguard against any sogginess.

Top Dressing

While not strictly necessary for the health of a succulent, top dressing added to the soil surface in a succulent planter or arrangement can make all the difference in helping your new plant to really shine! However, it is important to pick a top dress that is permeable enough to allow water to make it easily down to the plants’ roots, and to allow soil moisture to evaporate as necessary to help prevent water logging. Some great options include small river stones/pebbles, sand, small pieces of sea glass, or even small seashells! Options like moss or bark aren’t the best choice, as they can hold too much moisture and put your succulents at an increased risk for rot.

As long as it meets these simple requirements, top dressings are a great opportunity to get creative with colors and textures to best highlight the beauty of your succulents, and complement your décor!

Watering Correctly

Watering, of course, is a vital component of keeping all plants happy, healthy, and beautiful! For a single succulent placed in a well-draining and porous pot, watering can be as simple as placing the pot in the sink, directing a slow stream of water into the pot over the course of a few minutes to give the roots a chance to absorb it, and then letting the pot drain thoroughly before returning to its sunny home base. For arrangements of multiple succulent varieties, or for plants potted in containers without sufficient drainage, a more targeted watering approach may be required – my favorite method in these cases is to use a large plastic syringe (or even a turkey baster!) to aim small amounts of water directly at the root ball of each plant.

In all of these cases, the one tool I would recommend for any succulent lover is a simple moisture meter. This easy to use tool takes all of the guesswork out of the watering equation, by telling you exactly how moist or dry the soil is at any given moment. Whether you are a succulent newbie or a seasoned grower who has lost one too many plants to accidental over or under-watering, I can’t recommend a moisture meter highly enough!

It is also worth noting that succulents and cacti form their notoriously strong and deep root systems in response to a drought/deluge pattern of water access – think of those rare but soaking desert downpours! The roots will suck up the deluge of water quickly, and then use the period of drought as an opportunity to deepen their root systems as they search for more water further down in the soil. This phenomenon is part of what gives succulents their “low maintenance” reputation, as we can replicate this natural process by watering our succulents only once their soil has become completely dry. With this in mind, to give your newly-potted succulent a leg up in establishing its root system in its new home I would recommend waiting up to a week before watering it in thoroughly – so it will really be encouraged to stretch out its legs and put down some fresh roots!

Fertilizing Correctly

While there is a time and a place to fertilize succulents, when they are first brought home and potted up (or repotted) is simply not the time. The extra burst of nutrients on already-acclimating roots can be far too much, causing more harm than good in the form of root burn. So in this case…fertilizing a new succulent correctly really means not fertilizing it at all!

Bonus Tip: Special Handling for Spiny Plants 

Now that you have all the tools you need on hand to successfully nurture your new succulents, there are a few special tricks to be familiar with if any of those new plants are covered in pointy spines!

For many varieties of cactus or agave, having some extra tools at the ready can make the potting up process as smooth and poke-free as possible. Some common options to handle the spiniest of plants include heavy duty or leather gloves (such as those designed for rose gardeners), silicone or plastic coated tongs, chopsticks (for small cacti), tablespoons for both handling pokey plants or packing in the soil around the plants’ root ball, or even several sheets of newspaper, which can be gently wrapped around taller cacti to support them as they are repotted.

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With these tools at the ready, even the newbie succulent caretaker will be well on their way towards a thriving and beautiful plant collection! Do you have any tools that have proven indispensable in potting and caring for your succulents or cacti? Please share in the comments below!


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