How to Care for Succulents—and Keep Them Looking Picture-Perfect

These low-maintenance plants can tolerate a lot of neglect, but they need the right conditions to really thrive.

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Succulent plants in an apartment
Photo: Linda Raymond/Getty Images

Largely thanks to millennial consumers, succulents grew rapidly in popularity in the early 2000s, and they've been a mainstay in home gardens and interiors ever since. With their low-maintenance nature, affordable price point, and Instagram-worthy appearances, it's no mystery why succulents became so trendy among young people. They are widely regarded as a great plant for beginners and they double as home decor. But if you've ever accidentally let a succulent dry up and die, you may be wondering where you went wrong. (And don't worry, you're not alone.)

While it's true that succulents are generally easy to care for (they're the "set it and forget it" of houseplants), they still have specific requirements that need to be met in order to thrive. Below, learn all the fundamentals of succulent care to ensure your plants stay healthy, plump, and picture-perfect.

Succulents Care

Succulents are a diverse group of plants with thick, fleshy leaves and stems that store water. The majority of succulents are native to hot, arid climates, but with the right care, they can be grown almost anywhere.

Light

Because succulents hail from environments with lots of sunlight, they tend to crave a good amount of UV rays. "At a minimum, most succulents need more than six hours of light daily," Chad Massura, co-founder of the sustainable potting mix brand Rosy Soil, says. "Aim to place plants in a south- or west-facing window for the best results."

The exact amount of light a succulent plant needs, however, can depend on the variety, whether you're growing it inside or outside, and the climate where you live. "As a general rule, most succulents can handle more shade in hotter, dryer climates, and will need more sun in cooler climates," Ryan Guillou, curator for the San Francisco Botanical Garden, says.

Massura also adds that succulents grown in low-light conditions can flatten and stretch in an effort to get more sun. If you notice your succulent leaning toward the sun, "try rotating your plant each month to help them stand up straight," he suggests.

Soil

A porous and well-draining soil with a loose and grainy texture is ideal for succulents to ensure they aren't sitting in water for an extended period of time. If you don't use a well-draining soil, you may have to adjust your watering habits to keep your plants from drying out or getting root rot. "If you are growing in a heavier soil, make sure that it has had time to dry sufficiently, and if growing in a lighter soil like sand or cactus mix, you may need to water a bit more," Guillou says.

Water

This is where the low-maintenace part really comes in. When it comes to watering succulents, "neglect is best," Guillou says. While the frequency of watering will depend on the species and your growing conditions, most succulents should be left to dry out completely between waterings. That means your succulent's soil should be bone-dry and crumbly before you give it another drink. If the leaves and stems start to wrinkle and get brown, that's a sign your plant is dehydrated and needs to be watered, says Angelica Elliott, assistant director of public horticulture at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

When in doubt, however, it's better to steer on the side of under-watering. "[Succulents] will have a better chance to bounce back after being under-watered rather than over-watered," Guillou says.

Temperature and Humidity

Because succulents are native to hot, arid climates, they generally prefer warm temperatures with lower humidity, though it can depend on the species. For a general range, Diane Glaub, plant arbor manager at the San Francisco Botanical Garden, says, "Most succulents prefer temperatures between 40 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity levels between 40 and 60 percent." Since succulents have adapted to desert extremes, they're pretty good at handling both hot and cold conditions within reason, Massura says, noting that humidity is the bigger concern here.

"High-humidity environments quickly lead to rots, wilts, and a slow death," he says. However, Massura explains, succulents can combat high humidity (as high as 70 to 90 percent) as long as they get plenty of daily sunlight to keep their leaves and the soil dry.

Fertilizer

Succulents generally don't need fertilizer when planted in the ground, Elliott says, since they can typically obtain all the nutrients needed from the soil. If you're growing succulents in containers, however, you may benefit from periodically fertilizing your plant when it's actively growing. Elliott recommends using a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer, such as 10-10-10.

Types of Succulents

  • Cactaceae: If you've ever been confused about the difference between succulents and cacti, a common geometry fact might help with the distinction. Like squares are to rectangles, cacti are to succulents. In other words, all cacti are considered succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Cactus plants can also be distinguished from many common succulent plants because they typically don't have leaves
  • Aloe: Native to Africa, Madagascar, and the Arabian peninsula, these plants are known for producing a skin-soothing gel. However, out of over 300 species, only a few contain the well-known medicinal properties.
  • Agave: These plants are similar in appearance to aloe, but are typically larger and spinier. Agave plants, native to the Americas, are sometimes called "century plants" since they only bloom once in their lifetime.
  • Echeveria: Likely the first image that comes to mind when picturing succulents, these plants are rose-shaped with thick, waxy leaves. Native to Mexico, Central America, and South America, Echeveria are often bred for their colorful leaves and flowers.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are succulents poisonous to dogs or cats?

Luckily, most succulents are considered non-toxic to pets. However, there are some varieties, like aloe, pencil cactus, kalanchoe, jade plants, and more that can be poisonous, so it's important to do your research before bringing a new succulent around your pets.

Why is my succulent dying?

As emphasized above, over-watering is a much bigger concern than under-watering for these plants, and the most common reason for a dying succulent is root rot. If you notice your plant has root rot, make sure to address the issue as soon as possible, by treating and trimming the infected area.

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