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9 Common Causes for Succulents Dying

We always hear how easy succulents are to grow. But yours keep dying! So what’s the deal? Succulents are unlike other garden plants. The care that leads to healthy, happy plants in your garden can and will kill a succulent. Like most plants, succulents are easy to grow when you understand their specific needs. When it comes to succulents, those needs are quite specific. When succulents die, there’s usually a pretty common cause for it. Your succulent care will improve when you understand what happens when it goes wrong. Let’s look at the 9 most common reasons for dying succulents.

9 Reasons Why Succulents Die

{Please note, some links in this post may be affiliate links to sites that pay me a small commission if you click on the link and make a purchase. This commission is at absolutely no cost to you. I only recommend products and companies that I have worked with and truly love! ~Kat}

9 Causes for Dying Succulents

There are thousands of different varieties of succulents in a myriad of colors, shapes, sizes and textures. But when succulents die, there are typically just 9 causes:

Read on to learn all about the most common causes for dying succulents. To jump straight to one you want, just click on the link in the list above. Cool!

Over-watering Leads to Dying Succulents

signs of overwatered succulents
Over-watered succulent with discolored, translucent leaves.

The most common cause of dying succulents is over-watering. Because succulents are native to unusually dry climates, they develop special water-storing cells within their leaves, roots or stems. This is what makes them “succulents”. When water is plentiful, the plant uses what it needs and stores excess water in these storage cells. As time passes and the succulent needs more water, the plant draws down on the stored water to use at need. It’s a remarkable adaptation to dry climates.

When there is a lot of water in the soil, the roots must take it up and supply the plant with it, or they will down. If the plant’s storage cells are already full, more water will make them burst, like over-filled water balloons. When the storage cells burst, the excess water fills the leaves. This makes the leaves look discolored and a bit translucent, like those in the image above. When the leaves look like this, they are dying or are already dead. Unless action is taken quickly, all the leaves will soon have burst cells and the roots will soon rot. Over-watering is the most common reason succulents die.

However, with prompt action, you can save an over-watered succulent! When only some of the leaves are damaged, like the image above, your succulent can be saved. Or, if you find a rain-soaked plant, you can rescue it from its water-logged soil. Just follow the instructions at the link above and get it into fresh succulent soil ASAP.

Succulents Do Need Water

signs of underwatered succulents

Sometimes, you’re so concerned about over-watering your succulents, that you take it too far the other way. In truth, while under-watering can lead to dying succulents, it is far less common than over-watering. But it does happen! The clearest sign that your succulents need more water is that their leaves become wrinkled, like in the image above. Remember the water-storage cells we discussed above? Just as the surface of a full water balloon is taught, if you release a lot of the water, it becomes smaller, right? In the same way, the water-storage cells become smaller as they empty, and the surface of the leaves wrinkle.

If you have a succulent with wrinkled leaves, give it a good, thorough drink. Click here to learn how to water succulents properly. Because over-watering succulents is so dangerous, you can use the development of wrinkled leaves to let you know when to water your succulent. If you’re new to succulents or are growing a variety that is especially sensitive to over-watering, this is a good technique to use as you learn to read the plant’s needs.

The Importance of Succulent Soil

fast draining succulent soil is critical for succulent care

Fast-draining succulent soil is absolutely critical for healthy succulents. Succulents are native to rocky, sandy, nutritionally poor, fast-draining soil. When you plant them in regular potting soil, with its rich nutrients and ability to retain soil, you make it much harder for the succulent to be healthy. Dark, rich, humusy soil is not a treat for your plant — the soil holds a greater content of water with less air and succulent roots struggle to breathe. The wrong soil is a frequent cause of dying succulents because it so frequently leads to them being over-watered. It also makes it so much harder to learn the proper watering technique.

Good succulent soil does not have to be expensive. You can make your own, buy a good, pre-packaged succulent soil or add pumice to any soil to make it drain faster. Do your plants — and yourself! — a favor, and get succulent soil.

Succulents Need Drainage

mixed succulents in containers with drilled drainage

Succulents need great drainage. Drainage comes from holes at the bottom of the container that allows excess water to run through. It also allows a bit of air circulation for the roots. When you water your succulents, you should do so thoroughly, until the water runs from the drainage holes. Is it possible to grow succulents in a container without holes? Yes, it is. But it is much trickier and you’ve got to have excellent skills at reading your succulent’s condition. Even then, you are always risking a bigger problem. A single rain or extra watering may kill your plants if there’s no drainage. So what to do when you’ve found the cutest pot but it has no drain holes? Risk dying succulents? No! Drill your own drainage, of course!

Your Pot is Too Big or Too Deep

potted succulent euphorbia lactea cristata

Are you surprised to learn that large pots will lead to succulents dying? Experienced gardeners know that healthy roots lead to healthy plants. Providing a large, deep pot is great for most plants, giving their roots room to spread out and down. But succulents typically have small, shallow roots, suited for capturing as much water as possible when it falls, but not extensive enough to use up the plant’s resources. A large pot, or one that is extra deep, holds a lot of soil the succulent’s roots will never reach. This soil holds more water than the plant is able to use. The water is not refreshed, and bacteria can build up in addition to excess water. This leads to root rot.

In general, a pot that is 4-inches deep is a good depth for growing succulents. A good-sized plant will do well with a pot 6-inches deep. If your pot is more than 6-inches deep, or a lot wider than the drip line of the plant, you’ll have trouble watering it well, without risking root rot.

Yes, for those counting, this is the fourth of 9 causes for succulents dying related to over-watering. It’s that big a deal. Read on for 4 more reasons that are unrelated to water!

Succulents Need a Lot of Light

diagram of etiolated succulent stretching for more light
Sedeveria Letizia demonstrating etiolation on left and proper growth on right.
photo credit Emily Danielle Griffin and April Dailey

Sunlight is critical to the health and well-being of succulents. When succulents are starving for sunlight, they grow very tall, as they stretch to reach the light. This process is known as etiolation. Above, you see this demonstrated with Sedeveria Letizia. Grown in ample light, this plant is a nicely compact rosette. When succulents are grown in insufficient light, the results are not just unsightly — it is a common cause for dying succulents. When left untreated, an etiolated succulent can become so stretched that its stem collapses, cutting off the flow of water within the plant. Learn to recognize the early signs of an etiolated succulent and how to reverse it.

Succulents Dying From too Much Sun

sunburned succulent sempervivum - sun damage can kill succulents
Sun-damaged succulent
photo credit, Debbie Bray

Can too much sunshine lead to succulent dying? We tend to think succulents are desert plants, thriving in blazing sun all day long. In truth, many grow in the shade offered by bigger plants, rocks, in mixed habitats and even partially buried underground. While some succulents can tolerate full sun all day long, most want some amount of protection throughout the day. When succulents get more sun exposure than they can handle, they become sunburned. This damage is permanent. Badly sunburned leaves are no longer able to store water or to photosynthesize. With too many sunburned leaves, the plants die.

Too much sun exposure is a common cause of dying succulents. However, this is not always due to placing a low light succulent variety placed in too much sun. Often the issue is a matter of timing. The badly burned sempervivum above is a full sun succulent. But this plant was grown indoors for months before it was moved outdoors into too much sun. It was exposed to full sun too quickly before it had the chance to gradually adapt to the change. It is critical that you acclimate your succulents to full sunlight gradually. Succulents form colorful pigments in their leaves in response to the stress of sun exposure. This pigment protects the plant from damaging UV rays. Without the time to develop these protective pigments, the plant’s leaves burned.

When you move indoor succulents to grow outside, take care to introduce them to sun exposure gradually. Similarly, most nurseries grow their succulents in greenhouses. When you buy a plant online or at a nursery, take a gradual approach to moving it into full sunlight.

Tender Succulents Dying Due to Frost & Freeze

sempervivum are winter hardy succulents - seen here with snow on its rosettes

While some succulents are admirably winter-hardy, surviving and thriving in zones 3-5, the majority of succulents will die if they freeze. Some are badly damaged by a single hard frost. Take care to understand the needs of your plants before you subject them to temps below freezing. That being said, most cold-hardy succulents do best when they are left outdoors over the winter. Check out my list of the top 10 winter succulents.

Unrealistic Succulent Selection is a Killer

closely planting succulent arrangements

Some succulents, like agave and saguaro cactus, must have full, direct sun all day long. Others, like haworthia and sansevieria, need quite a bit of shade throughout the day and are happy to grow indoors. Some succulents are more tolerant of overwatering, and some, like lithops, are exceptionally sensitive. Some varieties of succulent — sempervivum and rosularia — are exceptionally cold hardy, thriving in zone 5 or colder. But others, like aeonium or senecio, will die with a hard frost. It is so important to choose your succulents for the growing conditions you can offer. Choosing unrealistic varieties is the 9th common cause of succulents dying.

So often, the reason your succulent is etiolated or over-watered is not because you can’t grow succulents. It’s because you chose the wrong succulent variety for the conditions. An indoor location where you cannot grow an echeveria without it growing overly tall and stretched may be perfect for an haworthia. If you keep killing a lithops, it’s likely because you don’t know that lithops have very special needs for watering. Keeping an echeveria outdoors over the winter in Chicago or trying to grow an agave in the shade — mistakes like these will keep killing your succulents.

There you have it — 9 causes for dying succulents. If it seems like there’s a Goldilocks complex here — succulents need enough water, but not too much, or give them lots of light, but not too much — that’s only because it’s true! 🙂 Understanding specific succulent varieties and their care needs is the primary reason to learn to identify succulents in the first place.

I hope this article helps you to correct the issues leading to your succulents dying. I have linked to a lot of posts that will look at succulent care like lighting and watering in greater depth. As always, please feel free to leave a comment to let me know what you think or to ask a question. I’m happy to help!

Because life is just better with succulents!

P.S. For more great succulent information, please subscribe to The Succulent Eclectic and you’ll get my FREE e-course 7 Steps to Succulent Success! Thanks!

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P.P.S. Why not join my Facebook Group for succulent-lovers? We talk succulent care, propagation, succulent identification and design. It’s a warm and welcoming group that would love to meet you!

P.P.S. Why not join my Facebook Group for succulent-lovers? We talk succulent care, propagation, identification and design. It’s a warm and welcoming group that would love to meet you!

learn the most common causes of dying succulents and improve your succulent care

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This Post Has 32 Comments

  1. Anita Machlin

    My succulents are arranged in pots. Living in Florida, this time of year they get too much water sometimes. Now I know it’s safe to take them out of the pots and let them air out. Thanks so much for the instructions. P.S. Your posts about succulents are filled with great information!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Anita,
      Absolutely! While a “regular” plant could not tolerate this – succulents have no problem at all being out of their pot for a few days. FAR better than sitting in wet soil! 🙂
      Thanks so much for reading! 🙂

  2. Sally Keep

    I am looking for some low succulents that you don’t have to prune for a wreath. Any suggestions? Thank you Sally Keep

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Sally,
      I like using Sempervivum and/or Jovibarba for wreaths. The rosette shape is so attractive for a wreath, they don’t have to be pruned, and they don’t stretch much even in low light. With a good amount of light, you’ll have a lot of colors to choose from.
      Have fun!

      1. Sally

        Something is eating my succulents from my wreath. I live in California. Is there something I can sprinkle over the plants like pepper. Sally

        1. Kat McCarthy

          Hi Sally,
          My favorite way to treat pests on succulents is with worm castings — it feeds the plants, kills the pests and most importantly, it makes them resistant to pests in the future! 🙂
          Read all about using worm castings for succulents to prevent pests here. There is a spray form of worm casting tea I have had great success with. It’s called Hello Succulents.
          I hope this helps!

  3. carol

    Thanks so much for this & various articles as you give very good insight & advice. However, is there any place where it is possible to check which succulents can be grown well together? I know there are hardy & soft types but not sure which can be grown (say) together in an attractive arrangement.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Carol,
      This is a great idea for a blog post – thank you!
      The closest I currently have for you, and it should be some help, is How to Choose Succulents for the Growing Conditions.
      For mixing succulent varieties in an arrangement, your main concerns should be lighting and watering requirements. If you plan to leave the arrangement outdoors year round and you’re in a cold climate, then they should also all be varieties that are hardy in your climate.
      Similar light requirements will be an issue any day of the year in any climate. Don’t partner plants that need full sun to look their best with those that cannot take it. While most succulents do prefer a bit of protection from direct sunlight in the heat of high summer, some, like echeveria, fenestraria, agave and graptopetalum really need a LOT of light to look their best. But others, like haworthia, sansevieria and others thrive in indoor or lower light conditions. Match their light requirements carefully.
      Then, too, take care with the plants’ water needs. Most succulents do well with others for water, but some, like lithops, are terribly fussy and are not a good choice to mix in planters with other plants. Some cactus require much drier conditions than most succulents, so take care with combining them with your other succulents.
      I hope this helps! 🙂 Feel free to ask about any specific pairings!

      1. carol

        Thanks so much Kat. However have replied via email as I attached some photos to get your advice. I hope that’s all right.

        1. Kat McCarthy

          Hi Carol,
          That is quite all right – except that I haven’t received it. I’m glad you wrote in again – I’ll send you an email you can reply to with the photo – ok?

          1. carol

            Hi Kat
            Just forwarded email as too long & too many photos to re-type everything.
            Hope you can get it this time. Thanks

          2. Kat McCarthy

            Hi Carol,
            Happy to help! 🙂

  4. carol

    Hi Kat
    Thank you so much for your generosity in taking the time to check the photos & giving me your valuable tips & guidance. Very much appreciated.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      You are most welcome, Carol! 🙂

  5. Leticia

    Hello Kat!

    I love the sight! I wanted to ask about the succulent pictured for the heading of this post. I have some that have that same shape, but are blue. I have been trying to figure out what kind of succulent they are. Any chance you have a name? I didn’t see it posted anywhere.

    I appreciate your time.

    Thank you!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Leticia,
      I’m pretty sure this one is a Cotyledon. But if you have one that’s blue, my first guess (without seeing it) is that you have a Senecio mandraliscae Blue Chalksticks.
      Thanks for reading!

  6. Sandra Walls

    Hi Kat,
    I have learned so much about succulents thanks to your blog. I have a coco liner that fits in a basket that I want to use for 6 sempervivums that I just purchased. My question is, will this liner work for succulents or will it retain too much water?
    Thank you,

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Sandra,
      A coco liner should make a great choice for your sempervivums! They don’t retain too much water, so long as you’re using succulent soil.
      Perfect for your sempervivum! 🙂

  7. Kimberly

    Should I bring my succulents in for the winter? I have most of mine in a rock garden.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Kimberly,
      Great question! The answer depends upon where you live and what type of succulents you have. Some varieties thrive with snow and sleet, but the vast majority of succulents need to be protected from freezing temperatures. So, without knowing where you are or what succulents you have, I would encourage you to protect your plants from freezing.
      Check out my post on preparing your succulents for winter.
      And if you’re not sure what type of succulents you have, you can learn to identify them here. Or why not join my new Facebook group for succulent-lovers? We’ll be happy to help you figure it out

  8. Amy Conley

    Evening Kat, I Have a 7″ Mother of millions I took a piece from someone. It seems to be taken hold after several months, but the flowerets have root hairs about 1/2″ long coming out bellow each one. What is happening and should I just leave it alone?


    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Amy,
      Do you mean the little baby plants along the edge of the leaves each have aerial roots? That’s supposed to be that way -it looks so strange, doesn’t it? The baby plants are getting ready to jump off and make their way in the world. I just let them do their own thing, but you can gently remove each plantlet and pot it up.
      Have fun!

  9. Melani

    Thank you for the info it helps a lot since i am a newbie in growing succulents. Now i know why some of my succulents have wrinkled leaves. I am learning how to classify them for outdoors and indoors. I want to learn more about growing my succulents as beginner. I feel so relaxed everytime i look at my small babies?. Thanks again! God bless

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Melani,
      That’s awesome! 🙂 Succulents are certainly saving my sanity these days!
      I think you would really benefit from my 7 tips for succulent beginners. Take a look!
      Thank you for your comment – you made my day!

    2. Rita Kanenga

      Very helpful information on succulents. I’ve been screaming each evening when I get home to find them water logged. Until I told my little helpers to stop helping me with the watering. I needed to sit people down and do a power point presentation on which plant should be watered a certain way. Having a garden with mixed types of plants can be a challenge. Now I have this information to show them. Thank you. Rita

  10. Manny

    What awesome information on succulents! I may have a bit of courage to try the real ones instead of fake ones. I did buy a little 1 1/2 inch mixed pot and was hesitant about what to do. I now know which succulents I have and how to care for them. I’ll keep pictures of their progress and if I run into trouble i know to check your site? time for something new in gardening indoors

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Manny,
      I’m SO glad you’re finding the information helpful! I will be happy to help you and your succulents to have success!

  11. Nancy

    Hi Kat, I love this article. I started with succulents almost 2 years ago and have been semi successful. But I need a lot more education! I tried to subscribe and to join your e-course, but the site won’t let me. Any way you could assist? I hope nothing is wrong and that you are ok! Thanks very much!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Nancy,
      Uh oh… I better check into this glitch! Thanks for alerting me! I’ll go ahead and sign you up with the email you provided.

  12. Annette Sharma

    I don’t have a comment but a question. I hope, this is the place to ask it:
    I am relatively new to succulents, but I have always loved them, my granny had lots of them, they grew sort of wild in our gutters (I live in Germany) and she replanted them.
    My succulents, echeveria, are standing by a window with afternoon sunlight. They have stretched so much and also started growing little ones between the leaves, that I had to support them with dowels or they would have broken.
    Can I cut the heads off and plant them again successfully, even though they don’t have any roots?
    I would appreciate your help with this very much

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Annette,
      You added your question perfectly!
      Your succulents are stretching so much because they need more light. Even more artificial light will help.
      You can definitely cut the rosette off the plant and re-root it. Treat it just like a stem-cutting. Just continue to care for the rooted base, it will develop new top growth.
      You can do this! 🙂
      If you’d like more assistance along the way, why not join my FB group for succulent-lovers? We’ll all be happy to help!

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