Caring for your Succulents: The Basics

Written tutorial based on the DittoDabble Facebook LIVE from 02/13/2020

When someone asks me how to take care of their succulent(s), my response is always:

“It depends.”

Such a vague and unhelpful response, but also a very accurate one.  There are so many varieties of succulents that it is so difficult to provide any other response.  In order for your succulents to thrive, we have to look at a few key factors:

1.) Soil

2.) Pots

3.) Watering

Let’s start with soil

There are three variables that we have to consider when it comes to a well rounded growing medium for a succulent:

1.)  moisture retention

2.)  aeration 

3.)  nourishment

In terms of moisture retention, we want a medium that will have sufficient moisture (for a certain length of time) for nutrients to be dissolved and then absorbed by the roots. 86347450_2544476542498826_4228691763029606400_n  Then when it comes to aeration, the best kind of medium allows water to drain sufficiently so as to avoid root decay.  And for this reason, staying away from soil mixes that contain a high content of peat moss is ideal; peat moss is a very effective retainer of moisture, too effective for a succulent growing mediumDepending on the succulent species, a soil mix may or may not need to contain high levels of nutrients.  For instance, jungle species like the rhipsalis (pencil cactus) require richer soil when compared to desert, alpine, or shoreline species.

Pencil Cactus

When asked, “how often should I fertilize my succulent?”, I usually respond with “once every quarter,”  however, if you repot your succulent every six months or so, there is really no need to fertilize.  Succulents grow so slowly that most well-balanced soils provide adequate nutrients and do not require additional fertilizer.  

There are exceptions to almost everything, and in the case of fertilizing succulents, it is the Jungle varieties that thrive with a misting fertilizer once every two to three weeks during their growing period.  Please note that it is important to avoid fertilizing any succulent while they are in their dormant phase.  

Now with all of this information, you can choose to make your own potting soil, OR just buy a succulent/cacti potting soil and liquid fertilizer at you nearest garden centre.  I will do a DIY succulent soil/potting Facebook LIVE in the near future.

Types of Pots

The material that your pots are made of will also alter the caring practices for your plants.

The main types of pots include those made from:

  • Plastic: does not breath/absorb moisture
  • Glazed porcelain/ceramic: does not breath/absorb moisture
  • Concrete: somewhat breathable and absorbs moisture
  • Clay: breaths and absorbs moisture
  • Cork: breaths and absorbs moisture
  • Wood: breaths and absorbs moisture
cement pot

When we have plants potted in breathable containers like clay, cork, wood and cement, you may have to water a bit more frequently.  That being said, if moisture is being leached from the soil too quickly, a good way to increase moisture retention would be to add a top dressing, like pebbles. Top dressings are also a great way to reduce soil pests as well.  

If you do have a top dressing, be cautious when it comes to over watering.  A good way to test your soil’s moisture level when there is a top dressing is to use a toothpick or a skewer, poke it into the soil, leave it for about one minute, and if it comes out damp or moist, avoid watering, if it comes out dry then it’s watering time.

Watering your succulents

  Now, how often should you water your succulents?  That’s the million dollar question!  And it comes with quite a loaded answer.  As always, when it comes to watering, it depends on the type of succulent.  

A good way to determine a watering schedule for your succulent is to look at your plant’s:

  • Stems
  • Leaves 
  • Roots  
Jade Bush

The texture and size of a succulent’s stems indicates its ability to store water.   If a stem is waxy and thick, it has a greater capacity to retain water. A mature Jade bush can retain large amounts of water within its thick, waxy stems, enabling it to survive long periods between feedings.

The characteristics of a plant’s petals are also indicative of watering frequency.   The more supple and waxy the petals, the greater the succulent’s ability is to store water and reduce transpiration.  Some fuzzy succulents, like the Kalanchoe Tomentosa, have tiny hairlike fibres that help to reduce transpiration, allowing it to go longer periods without water.

Kalancloe Tomentosa

We can also look at a plant’s root system.  Large and supple roots, like Haworthia varieties, have a greater capacity to store water compared to their thin hairlike counterparts, as seen in the Kiwi Aeonium.  

With this information, we can look at our succulent species and determine that something like an Aeonium, which has thinner petals, stems and roots, would need more frequent watering when compared to something like a Haworthia, which has supple, waxy petals, thick roots and an ample stem.

Haworthia vs. Kiwi Aeonium Roots

It’s not only the physical attributions of succulents that determine watering schedules,
but also the seasons.  There is definitely a watering shift when we go from summer to winter in the Northern hemisphere.  

During the summer, the days are longer and the sun is hotter, this equates to an increase in transpiration (when water is evaporated from aerial parts of a plant – stems, leaves and flowers) and evaporation.  During the summer, your succulents may require more water and shorter intervals between watering.  As winter approaches, the days become colder and shorter and a succulent’s watering needs shift.  The colder weather causes a decrease in transpiration and evaporation, which means less water and longer intervals between watering.  Whatever the season, you can always use the toothpick test to determine whether or not your succulent needs watering.

There are many methods, when it comes to watering your succulents.  Your can spray, drip, pour or plunge.  

A spray bottle is great when it comes to succulents in planters with narrow openings.  

85179654_211973186607239_3065957752800018432_nDripping or slowly pouring water into your planter is also a good way to water succulents with narrow pot openings. It is ideal to use the tap with these two watering practices.  Also, be sure to allow any excess water to drain.  If your planter does not have drainage holes, be cautious when using this method.

Plunging is another watering technique that is popular with experienced succulent owners who are accustomed to caring for succulents.  When plunging, the pot is immersed in water until air bubbles stop rising to the surface. Be sure that your pot has drainage holes if you are practicing this method of watering and allow it to sit in the sink, on a wire rack, or on a rag until all excess water has drained from the soil.  If your pot is draining on a saucer, remove the water from the saucer when draining ceases.  Succulents do not like to sit in puddles. 

The general rule of thumb is: water your succulents thoroughly and let the soil dry out before watering again. 

Depending on the species of succulent and the season, a watering interval could range anywhere from two to four weeks if the soil is properly saturated during feeding.  

What kind of water should be used to water your plants?

Tap water is perhaps the most popular water used to feed house plants.  However, because tap water is chemically treated, those chemicals tend to become concentrated in the soil and can potentially burn the delicate feeder roots.  Chemical build up can be identified by the white ring that may line the top interior part of your planter.  Filtered water, well water, rain water, and spring water are all great options when it comes to feeding your plants.  

Please be cautious if you have a water softener.  Do not use tap water for your plants if you have a water softener installed; the salts in the softener will burn the root systems and weaken the plant as a whole.  The browning of the tips of your plant’s petals or leaves is a sign of salt burn. To remove the salt that may be concentrated in your plant’s soil, simply pour filtered or spring water through the soil two to three times – this will help to leach out and drain the salts, preventing further harm.  You can also repot your succulents in new soil to ensure the wellbeing of your plants. 80716171_2478832479038901_8591913536836337664_n

Not all of us are born with green thumbs, but when we learn and grow from our succulent adventures (or misadventures) we bring ourselves that much closer to nature!

Happy Growing!

Written by: Daniela De Francesca


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