How to Water Succulents – Your Plants Will Tell You!

How to Water Succulents

You did it! You finally bought yourself that beautiful succulent plant that everyone says is so easy to grow. But now, just a short time later, it is looking so sad! The harder you try, the worse it looks… Could it be that Pinterest and Instagram are wrong, or is it just you? Not to worry – this post will give you all the information you need to get that plant healthy and happy again. You can learn how to water succulents – I promise!

The magic and mystery of succulents bewitching! But how to water succulents is an important question that does not have a short answer of X amount of water every Y days. Because the single most common cause of death for these easy-care beauties is improper watering, it is important to get this right. Let’s tackle it together!

water droplets on succulent plant - how to water succulents

If you are like me, you talk to your plants – maybe even sing to them! 🙂 Studies show that plants do respond positively to our voices. But to learn proper care, especially watering – it is best to listen to your plants instead. If you know what to look for, your succulents will tell you when they need water, and when it is best to leave them dry. Learning how to water succulents is all about paying attention to the plant.

What is a Succulent?

succulents in a wide range of colors and forms - how to water succulents

Succulents are a huge family of plants with a wide array of colors, forms, textures and sizes. Found in many parts of the world, succulents all have adapted to very dry conditions by developing specialized structures that enable them to store water in their leaves, stems and roots. The succulent draws upon the stored moisture enabling it to thrive in times of severe drought.  Think about these structures as a series of teeny, tiny water balloons in each succulent plant. A healthy succulent takes up water through its roots and fills each water storage cell.  The “water balloons” swell to their fullest, and retain this moisture until it is needed.

The defining characteristic of succulent plants is that they have adapted to be able to thrive where water is scarce. This tells us that dry conditions are what they are adapted to, so it is better to err on the side of under watering your succulents rather than overwatering.

When to Water Succulents, and When to Leave Them Dry

The adaptation to store water when it is plentiful for later use when it is scarce tells us that it is FAR better to leave a succulent plant too dry rather than too wet. They have adapted to survive drought conditions.

Signs Your Succulent Needs Water

how to water succulents - shriveled, wrinkled leaves show signs that this succulent plant needs water

While it is better to leave your succulent too dry, that does not mean you should never water it. Just like any other plant, your succulent needs water to be healthy. When the plant is in a sustained period of drought, it begins to draw upon the moisture stored in its leaves.  The “water balloons” begin to deflate as the stored water is drawn down without being replaced.  In time, the leaves will become wrinkled, and shriveled, as the once fully inflated storage cells lose water and begin to shrink. Leaves that were firm and plump start to collapse and shrivel. In the image above, you can see what the leaves look like when the plant’s need for water becomes urgent.

This is a clear sign that your succulent plant needs more water.  Once you give it the water it needs, the storage cells fill up again, replenishing their stores of moisture, and the leaves plump up again. While stressful, this drought period was not truly damaging to the plant.

How to Water Succulents? Deeply, But Not Too Often

Deep watering promotes healthy root development. Water succulents thoroughly, and then allow the soil to dry out fully before watering deeply again. This provides the plant with a familiar pattern it finds in nature and encourages healthy development. If the succulent is potted with good drainage, set the container in a tray of water, and allow the soil to wick up water for about five minutes.  Remove the pot from the water and let it drain. The soil should fully dry before you water it again, which will likely take a week or more. If the succulent is growing in the ground, or in a container too heavy to move, water slowly at the soil line, rather than from overhead. Be thorough, but do not allow the plant to remain in waterlogged soil. Empty any catch trays after five minutes, and allow the soil to fully dry.

Signs Your Succulent is Over Watered

Storing water in its leaves, roots and stems enables succulent plants to survive even in dry soils. Healthy plants draw on these reserves to meet the plant’s needs and then replenishes these stores when rain or irrigation come again. The “water balloons” fill, leak down and refill when more moisture is available. This system is crucial for the plant’s health and survival.


succulent showing signs of over watered - how to water succulents

When the plant is overwatered, there is so much water in the soil that the oxygen is driven out, leaving the roots to truly drown. In an effort to regain access to oxygen, the roots take in more and more water, filling the storage cells or water balloons to bursting, resulting in deeply damaged cell structures, and eventually rotting leaves and roots. The first signs of this damage are the leaves becoming soft and squishy, dropping away easily.  The leaves discolor and become partially translucent, as the normal, pigmented cells within have shattered. Unlike the shriveled leaves above, this is damage the plant will not recover from. If you catch it in time, you can cut off the damaged leaves and roots leaving still-healthy plant material to give it an opportunity to rehabilitate. If you rescue the plant from its wet and muddied soil, it is possible to help part of the plant to recover. Or another approach is to take cuttings to root and form new plants.


Healthy Succulents with Dried Out Leaves

healthy succulent with dried, spent leaves to be groomed

Your succulent’s health is clearly mirrored in its leaves. Shrunken, shriveled leaves tell us the plant needs water. Squishy leaves losing their coloration shows the plant has been damaged by too much water. But some succulents regularly shut down old leaves as they produce fresh, new leaves as part of their natural growth cycle.

Many succulents will demonstrate this pattern, you often see it with echeveria, sempervivums, and others of the “hens and chicks” form. This is perfectly natural and not a sign of poor health. As older leaves are cut off from new supplies of moisture by the plant, they brown, dry out, become thin and papery. Unlike the shrunken leaves when the plant needs water, these leaves do not wrinkle; they just become very thin and papery in texture. They do not become squishy or drop off, and they do not lose all coloring, like the leaves of an overwatered succulent.  The color changes to brown and the plant retains the leaves. You can leave them intact, or remove them for a tidier appearance to suit your preference.  Neither affects the health of the plant.

Succulents Need Fast Draining Soil

succulents need fast draining soil for proper watering - how to water succulents

No guide on how to water succulents would be complete without addressing the importance of the proper soil for succulents. Succulents need a coarse and gritty soil to ensure fast drainage. The type of soil you use can make or break your succulent’s success. Whether you make your own mix or purchase cactus and succulent potting mix, the key is to include large aggregates to ensure fast drainage and plenty of oxygen in the soil. There are many DIY succulent soil mixes, and all work well.  A simple one to try is a 1:1 ratio of potting soil and pumice. A simple test to see if your soil will be suitable for growing succulents is to thoroughly wet a ball of soil and squeeze it in your hand. If it forms a ball that remains when you open your hand, it is retaining too much moisture.  You want the soil to crumble away from the ball. Then you know it is ready for succulents!


For easiest and best results, use a container with drainage holes. While you certainly can grow succulents in containers without drainage holes, it is trickier. What to do with the cutest pot that has no holes? Why – drill the drainage holes yourself!

There you have it! A complete guide on How to Water Succulents. I would love to know what you think! Did you learn something new and useful? Do you have any questions? Please take a moment to leave a comment and let me know! 🙂 I am happy to answer your questions to help you enjoy the incredible diversity of succulents! For more information for sensational succulents, please subscribe to The Succulent Eclectic newsletter.

Have a lovely day!

Kat McCarthy, The Succulent Eclectic

P.S. Please subscribe to The Succulent Eclectic! Thank you! 🙂

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29 thoughts on “How to Water Succulents – Your Plants Will Tell You!”

  1. This is a terrific post! I have wanted to try growing succulents, but never understood how to take care of them. Now I think I can! Thanks a lot and I am looking forward to contacting you. Will you please drop me a mail? I have a couple questions.

    1. Hi Karen,

      I am delighted this is helpful to you. I promise you CAN do this! ๐Ÿ™‚
      Of course I’ll send you an email – I am happy to help with any questions! You can also post them in comments if you like.
      Kat

  2. Hi thanks for your article!
    I have a problem with my fenestraria. I knew that I shouldn’t water it too much, so when I bought it I didn’t give it water for a while (maybe 3 weeks or more) it had an an opened flower which bloomed beautifully and withered after a while. The plant might not have enough light (is on desk next to window (sun can shine in during day)) because it grew much taller and also quite many new leaves and lost it’s compact form. Now many of the leaves are droopy and shrively at the top (but still hard), some are droopy and squishy/shrively and brown shrively at the bottom. Other leaves are still healthy (except have elongated growth). I did water it thoroughly then as it’s soil was dry (top and outside, when taken out of pot)
    Now I am kind of confused what my plant wants to tell me.
    I hope you can help me(I could also send a picture), I really don’t want it to die! ๐Ÿ™
    thanks!
    Nadine

    1. Hi Nadine,
      I am happy to help! Let’s get your sweet fenestraria baby toes plant happy and healthy again!
      Please do send me a photo – that will help me a lot! You can email me at Kat@TheSucculentEclectic.com
      As you figured, the stretching is from too little light. Make lighting adjustments gradually. Increase the lighting by just a bit each day, until you have made a significant increase. Artificial light can make a big difference in these cases, even just a desk lamp that can shine on your plant to supplement the sunshine it gets.
      We need to figure out why some leaves are getting squishy, while others are just shriveled. That would be confusing, since shriveled usually means it needs water and mushy means it has too much. While we work to get it figured out, please do not water. It is far easier for your succulent to recover from too little water rather than too much.
      We likely will want to divide your plant to make its future care easier, but please increase the lighting, and send me a picture. We’ll go from there! ๐Ÿ™‚
      ~Kat

  3. This information is extremely informative and very helpful.
    I have one piece of the puzzle thatโ€™s missing in all the information I have read. I guess it is so simple that presenters donโ€™t think it is necessary to include in the instructions.
    My struggle is this…………when I go through the propagation steps, and get to the step after the cuttings have calloused over and are ready to be laid on the soil to root. Should the cuttings on the soil be placed in the sun or in a bright room without direct sunlight?????. This is my biggest problem. I keep switching the tray of cuttings from a window with sun to a bright place in a room without sun. Please advise. Thanks . I love your article on watering. It really answered a lot of questions.

    1. Hi Linda,
      Great point! I am planning a detailed review of succulent propagation, and I have made a note to be sure to cover this question.
      Because your cuttings do not have any roots at this stage, they cannot yet take up any water. So, in order to not stress them further, leave them in a bright location out of direct sun. Their stored water will sustain them until they root and can take up more water. In the meantime, keep them out of direct sunlight, which would dry them out too quickly.
      Does this make sense?
      Thanks so much for your kind comments! I hope you will visit regularly! ๐Ÿ™‚
      ~Kat

    1. Hi Louisa,
      If you are looking online, I highly recommend Altman plants: https://shopaltmanplants.com/collections/all and Mountain Crest Gardens http://mountaincrestgardens.com?aff=4. If you want to buy them locally, which is your best bet for larger plants, get in touch with a local chapter of the Cactus and Succulent Society. They have plant swaps, which are a fabulous way to get some really unusual plants. And the members will have favorite “finds” – nurseries and succulent sources off the beaten track. If you cannot find a good succulent swap near you – which is unlikely – start your own! ๐Ÿ™‚ This site has terrific guidance for starting you very own plant swap: http://homesteadbrooklyn.com/all/2017/10/12/how-to-organize-a-plant-swap-like-a-pro
      Most important, Have Fun!
      ~Kat

  4. Your articles are well written and clearly organized. I also appreciate the excellent photos that illustrate subjects up close. Thank you for sharing your experience with us!

  5. My echeveria leaves are turning red where it meets the stem, any idea why? Been researching for days with no luck. Thanks!

    1. Hi Denuit,
      Without seeing any photos, my best guess is that it is natural changing of color due to the change in seasons, temperature, amount of sunlight and water. Many succulents change color throughout the year in response to changes in their environment. Red is the most common color succulents take on, though it can also be purple or even pink!
      Please snap a couple of photos and send them to me so that I can see what you are seeing, to confirm that your echeveria are healthy and happy! If they aren’t – we’ll figure it out together! ๐Ÿ™‚
      ~Kat

  6. Do you know if watering in this manner will work on Asclepiads and Euphorbias? I know they can be a bit finicky, (specifically the Asclepiads) I have a nice collection of both. Though, I have occasionally lost a few from being too wet. I keep them sheltered from rain and mix my own soil. Equal parts potting soil or commercial cactus mix, pumice or perlite, and coarse sand. They should have good drainage as I do not use pots without holes and mostly use terra cota. I’d appreciate any advice you could offer me. Thank you.

    1. Hi Wade,
      This is a great question, and I am not sure of the best answer for you.
      Some asclepias and non-succulent euphorbias do need exceptional drainage and pretty dry conditions. But the soil in their native regions is very different from that where most succulents have evolved. In general, the very best way to make any plant happy in your garden is to mimic as closely as possible the conditions in their native habitat. And the large particles that make succulent soil drain so well, are typically absent in the native lands where asclepias and other non-succulent euphorbias developed. They typically grow in much finer, sandy soil that is nutritionally lean.
      I’m sorry, Wade, I don’t feel I know enough about the asclepias and non-succulent euphorbias to truly advise you well here.
      For information about growing asclepias, I recommend you contact Xerces Society: https://xerces.org/milkweed/
      For the euphorbia, try this article by the International Euphorbia Society: http://www.euphorbia-international.org/euphorbias/cultivation/about_euph_cultivation_soil.htm
      I wish I could be more help!
      ~Kat

  7. Good Morning Kat ๐Ÿ˜Š ! I’m so EXCITED ! Your article is amazing. I’ve just got into the succulent plant’s, ABSOUTLEY Gorgeous plant’s i might add. I had no idea on how to take care of them, about to give up, every articale i came across, they either wanted you to purchase something want your life’s history etc… then ithank goodness i came across this. Just that quick. Guess the good Lord new what i needed i did. I love it simply because you don’t drag it out , YOU GET STRAIGHT TO THE POINT IN QUESTION….I WAS OVER WATERING THEM ;( POOR BABIES.
    Looking foward to the magianixe .
    Sincerly, Rhonda

    1. Thanks so much, Rhonda! I am glad it was helpful! ๐Ÿ™‚
      Please feel free to ask any questions!
      ~Kat

  8. I transplanted some mini alovera plants that were tiny when i bought them in a bowl with other succulents. They were all thriving they all grew so big. When I transplanted, the other succulents I left in the bowl started wilting, so I watered them. I’m hoping the live cuz the little aloveras are doing good along with there babies.

    1. Hi Martha,
      I hope your plants perk up soon! Just remember that when you take plants out of an arrangement without replacing them, there are now fewer roots to take up the moisture in the soil. Go lightly with the water until you see how the remaining plants respond.
      Feel free to send me a photo if you are still concerned about them.
      ~Kat

  9. Hello & thank you for the warm welcome, I recently acquired miniature succulents. I saw them at a well known store โ€œLoweโ€™sโ€. I could not believe tat they carried flats of them so I had to purchase a flat now had Iโ€™ve known how well they were going to have thrived I would have purchased 10 flats. I just love them, I was a bit hesitant to transfer some into another flat for fear that they would not make it but they did and they are multiplying like weeds. I touch them every day…I just love them. Iโ€™m going to see if Loweโ€™s has them again next year & I will be taking my truck with me for sure.

    1. Hi Jackie,
      Yes! Welcome to the succulent addiction ๐Ÿ™‚ A healthy and happy obsession for certain!
      You will find that your succulents are very tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions – try some of the DIYs you find on the site. And they just keep on growing and reproducing.
      I’m so glad you are enjoying your succulents. Please feel free to ask any questions. And next year – take the truck!
      ~Kat

    1. Hi Mika,

      Yes – I wrote that article for Easy to Grow Bulbs, as well as most of their blog posts. This one has a different slant and a bit more in-depth information.
      Good eye! ๐Ÿ™‚
      ~Kat

  10. Thank you for this awesome informations, I already killed several succulent plants and cactuses, and never figured out why, though the other indoor plants are lush and thriving, (located in SW Ontario) Not too long ago I got two agave plants, I love the appearance soooo much, hopefully applying what I just learned will keep my plants in healthy condition.
    Thank you again,

  11. Hi, this article is really informative, and I hope with help of this info I can save my succulents…
    Kat my some succulents ( howarthia and verigated aloe vera species) get watery, red in the center at the top soil level. Upper leaves looks Hardy and fresh, even when I checked for roots they were also healthy. But centre portion became watery, red and fell down just in a 1-2 days. I lost no. Of plants same way, even I have worked so much on their watering cycle.
    I can send you pics. I will be grateful if you could help me with this one.
    Thanks in advance…

    1. Hi Isha,
      I will be happy to help you with this!
      Please do send me the photos — kat@thesucculenteclectic.com
      I will be interested in two things. What type of soil are you using? And do you water from over top the succulent? Does the water get in between the leaves of the plants? Or do you add water slowly, just at the soil line?
      We will solve this together!
      ~Kat

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