How to Succeed with Succulents
Even if you’re not a plant owner, you’re likely very familiar with the succulent family: a group of fleshy, often prettily colored plants sold everywhere from specialty plant shops to bodegas. Usually small in size and branded as “easy care,” they seem perfect for your desktop and every nook and cranny of your space. But if they’re so widely available and easy to care for, why is it that so many people struggle to keep them alive?
Most people, both initiated and uninitiated into the houseplant club, have at least one horror story of a sad succulent death. Whether it was a slow decay into something resembling a thin, deflated, alien-looking specimen, or a quick and explosive death, it can be tricky to keep succulents looking their best long term in interior city spaces, despite their genuinely easygoing nature. Like all plants, their successful care comes down to a combination of light and water. It’s just a matter of finding the balance. Here’s how to succeed with succulents.
You love succulents. But will they love you back? That depends on how close you keep them to the window.
KNOW WHEN TO WATER
Despite the struggles of many people, succulents really are low maintenance plants. They prefer to sit in dry soil, so don’t require much attention. At the height of the growing season, they’ll only need watering at most once every week, and in the winter that interval can drop to as little as once a month. If you’re moderately attentive, they’ll even give you visual cues when they need water. As succulents store their water in their leaves, you can watch for their leaves beginning to look a little deflated, pruny, or soft — signs that they could use a drink to replenish their supply.
BUT DON'T WATER TOO MUCH
While some people are guilty of chronically underwatering their succulents, overwatering poses a bigger threat. You should always ensure the soil has had ample time to dry right the way through the pot before adding more water. Succulents that sit in soil which is too moist will continue to absorb water into their leaves until they overload, causing their leaves to burst. Overwatered succulents can look like underwatered succulents, as the dead leaves will shrivel like when they’re thirsty. As always, test the soil with your finger to confirm your diagnosis.
LET THERE BE LIGHT (AND LOTS OF IT)
The second part of the equation — and the more imperative part for succulents — is light. As their evolution to store water efficiently for long periods of time may suggest, succulents are typically desert-dwelling plants, or at least native to extremely arid environments. They’re used to receiving unimpeded full, direct sun for at least several hours a day. This doesn’t change when they’re sold in the city. Without a grow light (we currently fancy this one), the best way to achieve this inside is to place them in a spot in your space where the sun directly hits for multiple hours, most likely a windowsill or very nearby.
This need for light means that succulents are not suited for long term placement in the interior of rooms, or rooms with North facing windows. Despite frequently being sold as desktop plants, without direct sun succulents will become thin and leggy as they shrivel and stretch for the light. As with all plants, you should aim to place them in a spot which mimics their natural environment as closely as possible for best success.
For many in the city, succulents simply aren’t the best option for the spaces we have to work and live with, but with a little consideration they can be kept as healthy, attractive, and yes, low maintenance additions to a well lit zone within them. Bottom line: don’t let a subpar experience with a succulent dissuade you from experimenting with other species of houseplants!