These popular houseplants are tough, but that doesn't mean they can survive anything.

By Andrea Beck
July 14, 2020
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Succulents have a reputation for being super easy-care houseplants that anyone can grow (and they are!), but that doesn’t mean you can just plop them down on a table and totally forget about them. Even though succulents are tough and simple to grow, they do still need some care to look their best. If you have succulents that aren't thriving, they might need a little more attention. Sometimes, people tend to neglect succulents because they seem indestructible, but there are a few conditions these plants can't survive. Keep them happy and healthy by avoiding these common succulent mistakes (and fix any that you’re already making!).

Trays and cake stands holding succulents
Credit: Blaine Moats

1. Using Containers Without Drainage

It’s tempting to pair cute succulents with a fun container, but if you plant your new echeveria in a tiny ceramic pot with no way for water to drain out, it's not going to end well for your plant. Most succulents prefer their soil on the dry side anyway, but using a container without drainage holes increases your chances of overwatering because the moisture will just pool in the bottom of the pot and literally drown your plant’s roots.

Likewise, don’t try to create drainage in a pot without a hole by adding a layer of pebbles to the bottom. Instead of helping extra water run out of the soil, it actually makes the drainage in your container worse. That's because the soil will be more likely to hold onto the extra water rather than it running through into the pebbles. The rocks will just elevate the layer of soggy, overwatered soil so it’s closer to your succulent’s roots and crown, and more likely to cause them to rot.

What you can do instead is to plant your succulent in a pot with drainage holes that is smaller than the pretty container you want to use that doesn't have holes. Make sure to use potting mix formulated for succulents and cacti, too. Then, remove the inside pot to water your plant, and once the extra moisture has finished draining, return it to the decorative container.

2. Misting Instead of Watering

Because succulents don’t need much water to survive, you might think that misting them is a good way to prevent overwatering. Misting leaves is great for plants that appreciate extra humidity like many ferns and other tropicals grown indoors. But for succulents, it can damage them and even cause them to rot. Instead, make sure you’re using a container with drainage and a succulent potting mix, and then give your succulents a good soaking when the soil is completely dry.

3. Not Watering Enough

It’s true that most succulents can go weeks or even a month without water and survive, but that doesn’t mean you never need to water them, or that they can get by with just a few drops at a time. Succulents survive drought by storing extra water in their leaves and sometimes roots, but if you frequently let your plants go multiple weeks without water, they might start to shrivel up and drop leaves.

Instead, pay attention to the soil; when it’s dry, it’s time to water. A good way to tell is to stick the tip of your finger into the pot and if you feel any moisture, you can wait a couple days more before watering. If the soil is dry, give your plant a good soak. Make sure to let all the extra water run out the drainage holes and never leave the pot sitting in a puddle.

4. Not Giving Them Enough Light

As desert plants, most succulents need a lot of bright or even direct sunlight to really thrive. However, their reputation as tough houseplants makes it seem like they can survive anywhere, even dark rooms without much natural light. In fact, there are a few succulents that can handle low-light conditions, including snake plants, but most will grow best in the brightest light you can give them. Without enough light, they often lose their color and start to stretch out their stems to find light. Any time you buy a plant, check its tag for how much light it needs each day and try to come as close as you can to that. If you want to grow one in a dim room, consider investing in a grow light so your succulent can still get the light it needs.

crate of succulents
Credit: Amy Haskell

5. Planting Too Many Together, or with Non-Succulents

There are plenty of beautiful succulent arrangements out there, but most of them will only survive temporarily. Succulents can handle tight quarters better than most plants, but eventually, they’ll start to compete for resources such as water and soil nutrients if you have a bunch of them crammed together. Additionally, avoid planting succulents with other plants that have different care needs. Planting a drought-tolerant succulent in the same container as a fern that likes consistently moist soil will end with one or both plants suffering. For long-term succulent arrangements, consider a dish garden; you’ll still be able to plant multiple succulents in one container while also giving them enough space to thrive.

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