Fertilizing Succulents

Like many plants, succulents can also benefit from the added nutrients that fertilizer provides. However, as many succulents evolved to thrive in harsh environments with nutrient-poor soils, too much of a good thing can prove fatal to these unique plants! Thus, it pays to learn not only what type of fertilizer to use, but when and how to use it in order to see the best results.

What Fertilizer Should I Use?

The most surefire way to fertilize succulents is by purchasing a ready-made fertilizer mix specifically designed for cacti and succulents. Carefully read the instructions for diluting the fertilizer (which may come in liquid or granular form), and pour the mixture into the soil just as you would normally water the plant. Properly diluting the fertilizer mixture will help ensure that the succulent is not ‘burned’ by a high influx of nutrients, and instead is able to readily assimilate the food into its root system.

If you can’t find a ready-made fertilizer specifically labeled for use in succulents, a regular houseplant fertilizer will suffice – provided you dilute it to half the strength indicated on the package, to account for the slower growth rate of succulents as compared to most houseplants! Avoid any fertilizers labeled as ‘slow release,’ as they often prove too harsh for slower-growing succulents, and are better suited to rapidly growing plants, such as flowering annuals.

Another alternative to a conventionally prepared fertilizer is a ‘compost tea,’ either homemade, if that’s your thing, or purchased from a reputable seller. The benefit of a compost tea is that it is far less likely to cause burning to the plant, even in richer concentrations, and more closely replicates the natural nutrient balance of a healthy soil.

When to Fertilize Succulents

The first place to look when deciding when to fertilize your succulent is at its variety description, which may provide information on the plant’s flowering/dormancy cycle. For instance, if your plant emerges from dormancy in the spring, an application of fertilizer once during the spring months will give your plant a leg up, encouraging healthy growth and a productive bloom cycle when the plant needs it most. If your plant enters dormancy in the summer, however, and begins to grow and flower in the fall and winter months, a fall fertilizing schedule is preferable for the same reasons.

In many cases, this single annual fertilizer application is more than sufficient for succulents, which have adapted to growing in porous soils with a low level of organic matter (the source of many of the nutrients in fertilizer!). For especially rapidly offsetting varieties, a gentle fertilizer, such as compost tea, can be applied as often as once a month during the growing season – but monitor the plant’s growth carefully, to make sure that any new growth looks robust and healthy, rather than leggy and weak, with the heavier fertilizer routine!

Some succulent varieties, including members of the msembs family such as Lithops and Living Stones, prefer to never be fertilized. Too many nutrients can cause the extremely fleshy, water-filled leaves of these plants to put on rapid, flabby growth, predisposing them to rot and other ills.

How to Fertilize Succulents

The simplest rule of thumb when fertilizing succulents is to dilute heavily, and water the soil directly. While there is no real harm in over-diluting the fertilizer mixture, an under-diluted mixture can burn the leaves or roots – especially if it is poured over the plant itself, rather than directly onto the soil surface.

Once you have diluted your fertilizer appropriately in water, apply the same quantity as you normally would when watering your succulent. Once the excess begins to drain from the bottom of the pot, place your plant back in its normal spot in your home, and await fresh growth and copious blooms!

Check out our Guide to Succulent Safety, or head back to the The Ultimate Succulent Care Guide