Are your succulents water stressed? Plant experts tell us how to spot the signs

And make them happy again

Potted succulents by window
(Image credit: Getty Images | Adrienne Bresnahan)

Failing to keep houseplants alive is an unwelcomed skill that many of us possess. Sure, some of the best indoor plants are easier to keep alive than others, but generally speaking, it all comes down to how you water them and their habitat.

Knowing how to care for and water succulents properly, isn't as simple as it seems, and while you might be tempted to treat your Burro's Tail, Aloe Vera or Sempervivum as you would do your other house plant varieties, two plant experts urge us to think twice about it.

The misconceptions behind watering succulents

If you lose house plants regularly to things like fungus gnats in soil, root rot and the like, you might have started to hold back on watering so much in general. This is all the more likely for succulents, as they appear a little more cacti-like – cacti being notorious for surviving and thriving in bone-dry soil. But water neglect isn't actually how you want to care for succulents...

Director of Horticulture for LiveTrends Design Group (opens in new tab), Jayson Opgenorth says 'A common misconception is that succulents do not need much supplemental water. Succulents, by definition, can store water in their roots, stems and leaves, but they do benefit from regular irrigation, especially while actively growing in spring and summer.'

Kate Ferguson, co-founder of Flourish (opens in new tab) agrees, noting how 'Watering succulents can be challenging.'

How not to water succulents

'Conversely, watering often with little volume is called “Shallow Watering”. This may however leave pockets of dry soil or the entire bottom of the soil profile dry, killing the roots in that area. Remember, succulents are resilient and resourceful, but unnecessary water stress can cause visual blemishes or damage to the roots.' Continues Opgenorth.

So unlike other things, little and often is NOT the way to go.

The best way to water succulents

You've probably heard of others giving their house plants baths, and saturating the soil can still be the best course of house plant care for some species.

'The best method for cacti and succulents is the “Soak then Dry” method. This heavily depends on the type of soil you are using. Assuming you are using a very good draining soil, then it is recommended to saturate the entire soil profile with water and wait for the entire profile to dry out. Then soak again and repeat the process. You may need to leave your plant in a dish of water to soak up the water as super dry soil is sometimes hydrophobic (resistant to water uptake),' says Opgenorth.

So, start with a good soil for succulents (you can get it on Amazon (opens in new tab)) and give them a good soak. Although, you don't want to overdo it.

'However, be sure to remove your plant from the standing water about an hour after you soak it. Leaving succulents in standing water for prolonged periods of time is a recipe for disaster.'

You need to strike a balance between overwatering and underwatering, and a fine one at that. Here are some telltale signs to see if you're going wrong with your routine.

'Generally speaking, underwatering causes dry lower leaves. Overwatering causes soft, mushy leaves and stems.'

Ferguson adds, 'we stress intuitive plant care, so think about where that succulent is native to? It is the sandy desert for most succulents, where water is scarce!'

More common errors in succulent care

The biggest mistake people make when watering and caring for succulents, in general, is for sure watering them too often but with too little volume. 'Overwatering and soil that retains too much water is the likely culprit of your succulents' demise.' Says Ferguson. 'A sandy, well-draining soil and waiting until the soil is completely dry will keep your succulents happiest!"

Opgenorth notes also how 'Having the plant in too large a container or constantly repotting it' will do these house plants no good either. 

'Pay attention to the decorative overpot. For beginners I suggest removing the plastic grower pot from the overpot, then water and let drain. This will ensure the drainage water will not be trapped in the overpot, eventually saturating your plant.' Says Opgenorth. 'Standing in water will cause the soil to soak up extra water through capillary action against gravity, removing all oxygen from the soil. The soil's pore space is a delicate balance of oxygen and water, helped by gravity. An anaerobic soil will cause microorganism death (super important for a healthy soil ecosystem), root death, and a quick decline of your plant’s health.'

If you are tempted and if it's the right time to repot a succulent, ensure its new home has drainage holes also.

What is the right way to care for succulents?

Opgenorth notes how in addition to correct watering, it's key to give succulents the right sun exposure.

'Direct sun is mostly recommended for succulents that were previously growing in full sun and that are planted in the ground, outside or in a large container, ensuring there is enough soil mass to store available water. Don’t let your succulent be hammered with direct sun all day though. Pick a spot with four hours of direct sun exposure in the morning or late afternoon.

Succulents can handle full sun all day, but for those that do not tolerate the stress, they would end up showing a general decline. Most commercial producers grow cacti and succulents under some type of shade to reduce this stress. In this case, putting it immediately in direct sun will actually cause sunburn.  You will need to slowly acclimate your plant to full sun in this case.

Bright indirect sun is just that; bright, but sunlight beams are not directly hitting your succulent. It is typically recommended for smaller potted succulents.

Pay attention to the growth habit of your plant. Through phototropism, plants will bend toward a light source. This is OK as long as the plant is not stretching or exhibiting spindly growth. Stringy growth is a good indicator you are not providing sufficient light.'

It's becoming clear that getting to know your house plants really pays off when it comes to caring for them properly, 'Cacti and succulents can fall into two categories: winter dry and winter wet. Do a little research on the specific needs of your particular plant.' 

Balance watering your succulents correctly and getting those light levels right to ultimately reduce their stress levels and keep yours thriving.

Camille Dubuis-Welch
Camille Dubuis-Welch

Camille is Deputy Editor of Realhomes.com and joined in January 2020. Her love of interior design stemmed from a childhood spent dreaming up weird and wonderful ways to renovate her grandma’s house in France – a greenhouse roof was involved – and it was spending time around very good-looking house plants and in a hardworking kitchen garden that gave her a green thumb. When Camille isn’t sipping coffee and/or writing, she is seeking out cool new Facebook Marketplace finds or tapping into her other creative outlets: painting and clay throwing. She currently rents in North London with her French cat and two others, and hopes to one day renovate the most sustainable house of dreams, somewhere marvellously sunny with a wild, lavish garden and chickens, of course.

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