Growing Succulents 101 – A Guide For Beginners

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There are thousands of types of succulents within more than 60 different plant families worldwide. These drought-resistant, water-storing plants are excellent for beginning succulent gardeners because they can do well with a fair amount of neglect.


Your favorite succulents will be happy if you provide bright, indirect sunlight, consistent warmth, sharply draining potting medium, and occasional soak-and-dry watering.

In this article, we explain the basics of succulent care, including how to keep the plants healthy. Read on to learn more.

Identify Succulents By Their Fleshy Stems And Leaves

Succulents have fleshy, thick stems and plump leaves that store water in dry climates.

Cacti are a subcategory of succulents. They may have few or no leaves and are made up primarily of plump, water-storing stems.

What makes them cactus plants is the presence of spines or scales which protect them against the sun’s harsh rays and being gobbled up by hungry, thirsty desert critters.

Do Succulents Bloom?

Most succulents have the potential to bloom, but many of them will only bloom in their native environment or when kept outdoors in an environment that very closely resembles that of their homeland.

For all succulents, it is important to provide abundant light and warmth to encourage blooming because all come from bright, warm climates.

Generally speaking, a minimum of 6 hours a day of bright, indirect light, warmish days, cooler nights, and dry soil in winter will encourage blooms.

Many types of succulents bloom in the springtime or in the summer. Others will bloom in the winter, such as hardy succulents, holiday cacti, aloes, and various and sundry Crassula.

How Big Do Succulents Get?

Succulents come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. From tiny, stone-like Lithops (2″ inches) to towering Candelabra Spurge (10′ feet) and more, there is sure to be a succulent to suit your setting.

Most succulents you find at your local plant store have probably been pre-selected for limited potential growth because they are being sold as houseplants. 

Of course, if you purchase succulents for your landscape, your selection will be somewhat different.

It’s also important to understand that, even with succulents that can grow very big, most of them will not attain their potential away from their native settings. Furthermore, these plants are likely to be slow growers.

The size your plant attains depends upon its:

  • Species
  • Culture
  • Age

For example, the very popular and easy-to-grow Jade Plant (Crassula ovata) can grow to be 8′ or 9′ feet high in the wild in South Africa.

Kept in a container in your home, this plant will grow to 4′ or 5′ feet high if you repot it with fresh soil and size up its container every spring.

If you keep it pot-bound (essentially treating it as a bonsai), you can very easily control its size and keep it happily as a desktop or tabletop plant for many years.

How Much Light Do Succulents Need?

Succulents and cacti need plenty of warmth and bright light; however, it is easy to overdo with houseplants.

Even though these plants often thrive in very hot locations that seem to bake under unrelenting sunlight all day, it’s important to understand that plants kept in a domestic setting will need protection from these harsh elements.

Your potted succulent or cactus may burn up on a south-facing windowsill that receives hot, bright sun all day. 

Still, it may do fine on an east-facing windowsill that receives direct morning sun or a foot or so away from a west-facing windowsill that receives strong afternoon sun.

If all you have is a north-facing window, you may wish to supplement your plants’ light with artificial light. Generally speaking, succulents do not do well with only artificial light.

Note that while there are succulents that can survive with low light (e.g., String of Pearls, Sansevieria, and more), they will do better with more light.

One sign that your indoor succulent receives too little light is when it appears to look stunted, pale, and reaching the light source.

Generally speaking, ample, bright, indirect sunlight is always a good choice for plant keeping. Generally, too much direct sunlight will burn the succulent’s fleshy leaves and become flat.

All plants grow toward the light. No matter what kind of light you provide, remember to turn your plants about once a week to prevent uneven growth. 

How Much Warmth Do Succulents Need?

While some cacti and succulents can tolerate temperatures of 90° degrees Fahrenheit and higher in their native settings, you are not likely to want to replicate this in your home, and your potted plants would not appreciate it.

For the most part, your succulent houseplants should be comfortable if you are comfortable. Typical household temperatures between 60° and 80° degrees Fahrenheit should allow most indoor plants to grow successfully.

However, they may not bloom and reach their full, towering potential height (which is probably a good thing).

During the warmest times of year (after all danger of frost has passed), your succulent house plants may enjoy an outdoor vacation. It’s a good idea to do your repotting early in spring and then transition your plants outdoors.

Remember that they are houseplants, so keep them in sheltered settings without exposure to high winds or harsh, direct noonday sun.

Keep an eye on your local weather report, and bring your plants indoors before the first frost in the fall.

How Much Water Do Succulents Need?

With succulents and cacti, less is more. The main problems plant keepers experience with these plants come from overwatering and excessive fertilizer.

When determining how often to water your succulents, use your fingertips, not your clock. When the soil is completely dry, it is time to water.

Provide a deep and thorough watering, and then wait until the soil is dry before you water again. Let the soil dry between waterings, as overwatering can kill your succulent plant.

To determine this, poke your finger into the soil up to your second knuckle. If you don’t feel any moisture, it’s time to water.

To create a rough schedule, generally speaking, in the spring and summer, when the weather is warmer and drier, and the plant is growing and blooming, you may provide a deep watering once a week.

In the winter, when the weather is cooler and the plant is resting, you may only water once a month. At any time of the year, the humidity level in your home will affect watering frequency.

Remember that it is always best to provide soak and dry watering, wherein the water runs through the substrate and excess water out the drainage holes of your plants’ container.

Don’t provide little drinks because this causes shallow root development and may cause the plant to grow feeble and distortedly.

Even though watering practices may vary a bit from plant to plant, start with a soak and dry watering and then watch your plant for signs that it needs more or less frequent watering.

Generally speaking, all succulents and cacti (and indeed, most plants) will thrive with a soak and dry watering.

Moreover, watering succulents using spray bottles is also a good alternative to help them survive for a short period of time. 

How Much Fertilizer Do Succulents Need?

When it comes to fertilizing succulents and cacti, if you repot annually in the spring using a good quality succulent/cactus mix, you may not need to fertilize at all.

If you do use fertilizer, remember that less is more. Use a specially formulated succulent/cactus fertilizer at half-strength, once in the spring and again in midsummer.

Another good option for giving succulents and cacti a boost of nutrition is worm castings. 

Just provide a top dressing of worm castings in the springtime with your first deep watering of the spring. Work it into the top of the soil and water thoroughly.

For your succulents in containers, it’s best to fertilize them periodically when they’re actively growing.

These general instructions should work fairly well with most cacti and succulents. Remember to research each type of plant you acquire to learn about any specific tips that may apply to it.

What Kind Of Planting Mix Is Best For Succulents?

All succulents need a sharply draining planting substrate. The easiest solution is to purchase a commercially prepared cactus and succulent soil mix online or at your local garden center.

If you cannot do this, you can mix up your own version with a 50/50 mix of good-quality potting soil and coarse sand. 

This will work for most succulent plants; however, some (e.g., Euphorbias of all sorts and some Peperomia) will do better with a soilless mix. In this case, a Phalaenopsis orchid mix will work well.

What Kind Of Pot Works For Succulents?

The use of containers without drainage holes should be completely avoided. When choosing the right pots for succulents, sharp drainage is essential to prevent root rot.

Generally speaking, succulents tend to get top-heavy because they store moisture in their stems and succulent leaves. 

For this reason, broad, heavy containers made of substantial, breathable materials like terra cotta and hypertufa containers are usually good choices.

You can plant your succulents in individual pots or combine several varieties to make an interesting arrangement. If you plant several together, be sure to match them in terms of growth rates, light needs, and water usage so they can live happily together.

Do You Have To Prune Succulents?

For all succulents and cacti, you should keep an eye on the plant and remove any damaged, deformed or dying stems or leaves.

Some rapid growers need to be pruned occasionally to control size. Examples include the enthusiastic Jade Plant and some types of Peperomia.

When pruning for size, examine the plant carefully and identify the stems and leaves that seem to be growing very close together or crisscrossing. 

Choose the ones you want to remove and then cut them off carefully using a very sharp, sterilized cutting implement. Your cuts should be made at a 45-degree angle.

You can give the plant a general trim to reshape your plant or help it have a bushier growth habit. 

Make your cuts just above root nodes (little bumps on the stems where roots or leaves will grow). This will encourage the stem to branch at the node.

You can always use trimmings to propagate new plants, but if you are pruning specifically for propagation, choose the plumpest, healthiest-looking leaves (for leaf propagation) and the straightest, strongest-looking stems (for stem propagation).

When gathering leaves for leaf propagation, you can just pinch them off at the stem if you wish. Generally speaking, it is always best to use a very sharp, sterilized cutting implement.

How Do You Propagate Succulents?

Because there are so many different types of succulents, there are also many different ways to propagate them. 

Of course, all sorts of plants can be grown from seeds, but that’s not always the best way. Indeed, with succulents, it’s usually not the best way.

Generally speaking, it is easiest and most effective to grow succulents from leaf or stem cuttings or from offsets (pups).

Many succulents can be grown from either leaf or stem cuttings. When you have this choice, opt for stem cuttings. A stem cutting can look just like a little plant, and it will establish itself and grow much faster than a leaf cutting.

Stem Cuttings

When choosing a stem cutting, prune off a healthy section of the parent plant that is three or four inches long. Remove lower leaves from the stem. Leave several healthy leaves in place at the tip.

Allow the cutting to air in a sheltered setting overnight or for a few days so that cuts to the stem can callus over. This helps prevent fungal infection.

Place the cutting in its own little pot of slightly moistened cactus or succulent mix. Place it in a consistently warm setting where it will receive bright, indirect sunlight at least 6 hours a day. 

Keep the potting mix very slightly moist for the first few weeks. When you begin to see new growth, transition to soak and dry watering.

Leaf Cuttings

For leaf cuttings, pinch or cut a fleshy, plump leaf from the parent plant. Be sure to separate it very close to the parent plants’ stem. 

Allow the leaf to air for several days, so the cut will callus over.

With leaves, you have a few options.

If you have a lot of leaves and are not especially invested in growing all of them, you can lay them out in a shallow tray (e.g., a Styrofoam meat or produce tray) to air and then, after a week or so passed, give them a light misting with water.

Mist every few days, and you will soon see roots begin to grow in the strongest and most viable specimens. 

Separate these and place them lightly onto a loose, slightly moist cactus/succulent potting mix in a consistently warm area that receives bright, indirect sunlight six hours or more a day.

Your little plants should soon begin to set down roots and grow. Continue to keep the soil slightly moist. 

When the plants have attained a bit of size, separate them into their own containers and transition to soak and dry watering. It will take quite a while for these plants grown from leaves to attain significant size.

Offsets or Pups

Many succulents (e.g., aloe vera, Sansevieria, Sempervivum) produce offsets. These are baby plants (plantlets) that spring up at the feet of the parent plant.

It is very easy to simply separate these little ones from the parent plant when you repot in the springtime. Most of the time, you can pull them apart with your fingers (being sure to keep some root growth on each plantlet).

If you wait too long to separate them, roots can become thick and tough. For example, this is very often the case with rugged, rapidly replicating plants such as Sansevieria.

These plants may quickly fill a pot. When attempting to repot, you may find very little soil and thick, tough, tangled roots. 

Don’t be afraid to cut through these roots with a sharp, sterile blade. This rough treatment will not faze Sansevieria.

Do Houseplant Diseases Or Insect Pests Bother Succulents?

Well-cared-for (i.e., fairly neglected) cacti and succulents are quite good at warding off houseplant pests. 

If you overwater, over-fertilize, and skimp on light and warmth, your succulent plants may attract scale or mealybugs. If you notice your succulent plant leaves with small white specks, it indicates mealybug infestation.

If this happens, wipe them away with a cotton swab soaked in rubbing alcohol and correct the conditions that attract them.

A potential concern for succulent houseplants kept outdoors in the spring and summer is powdery mildew. Shelter your plants if you live in an area that gets lots of rain in the spring and summer.

Excessive amounts of rain and extended moisture can make your succulents susceptible to airborne fungal diseases like powdery mildew and soil-borne fungal diseases like root rot.

Don’t mist succulents. They don’t need it, and water on the leaves can cause powdery mildew and other fungal problems.

Are Cacti And Succulents Poisonous?

For the most part, succulents and cacti are not toxic. In fact, many are edible. Even so, there are some you should be quite careful of.

For example, Kalanchoe and Euphorbia succulents are quite toxic. Their sap is sticky, gluey, and irritating. 

Coming in contact with it can cause mild to severe dermatitis. Consuming it can cause gastric distress in people and some pets and may cause death in cats.

Examples of Kalanchoe succulents include: 

  • Mother of Thousands
  • Mother of Millions
  • Chandelier Plant
  • Devils Backbone
  • Kalanchoe

Examples of Euphorbia succulents include:

  • Dragon Bones Tree
  • African Milk Tree
  • Crown of Thorns
  • Desert Candle
  • Pencil Cactus
  • Wood Spurge
  • Poinsettia

Always wear gloves and eye protection when handling or pruning Kalanchoe or Euphorbia plants. 

Wash up promptly afterward. Keep these plants out of the reach of children, pets, and livestock.

Always err on the side of caution. Even though most succulents are non-toxic (or just mildly irritating), you can never go wrong by simply acting as if the plants you have might be toxic. 

Keep them out of the reach of kids, pets, and livestock. Wear protective gear when handling, and wash up promptly after you finish pruning, repotting, etc.

Can Succulents Be Invasive?

In a conducive setting, many types of succulents can be invasive. If you live in a tropical or desert setting that will allow your plants to survive and thrive from year-to-year, take care when planting succulents outside or allowing them an outdoor summer vacation.

Varieties that grow easily from broken-off stems or dropped plantlets may have invasive potential in welcoming environments.

When planting succulents in the landscape, choose non-invasive or native varieties. Plants that spread rapidly through rugged, rambling roots can become very problematic.

Succulent Varieties And Their Uses

There are so many different types of succulents from so many different parts of the world that their potential uses are endless.

Choose from tall, upright, stately varieties such as Candelabra Cactus, Sansevieria, Aloe Vera, and Yucca or lush, full Jade plants if you want a statement plant.

Go with low-growing, sprawling varieties, such as Hen & Chicks, String of Pearls, String of Bananas, String of Tears, or Burro’s Tail (to name a few) if you want to create an attractive hanging basket.

Choose tiny, slow-growing Lithops or Pleiospilos if you want a compact, unusual, easy-care desktop plant.

Look to Kalanchoe, holiday cacti, and desert cacti if you want plants that bloom abundantly and beautifully in your succulent garden.

Succulents of all sorts make a welcome addition to the home. They are beautiful, and they bring several benefits. 

Of course, caring for any living thing helps improve the quality of life for the one providing the care. Taking care of a thriving plant collection elevates cheer and lowers blood pressure.

The NASA air quality study of 1989 found that simple succulent plants such as Sansevieria and Aloe Vera were tops at helping improve air quality. This result was mostly because these tall, slim plants expose quite a bit of soil surface area, as do many cacti and succulents.

If you are the sort of plant keeper who enjoys creating plant-based home remedies, you’ll be happy to know that many succulents offer significant (and clinically proven) medicinal benefits. 

For example, Aloe Vera gel is well known as an effective treatment for cuts and bruises, and minor burns.

There are more than 10,000 varieties of succulents in the world, and more are being developed daily. 

With so many different sizes, shapes, colors, and forms to choose from, you can surely find the perfect one for your desk or windowsill or amass the perfect collection for your easy-care plant room.

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