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How to Plant Succulents

Everyone always says succulents are so easy to grow, right? So why do so many people struggle to keep their plants healthy and happy? Often, they make a mistake at the very beginning, when planting the succulents, which makes it difficult to provide proper care as the plant grows. Learn how to plant succulents so they will thrive. It’s a simple process, but there are important considerations. Read on for my step-by-step guide to planting succulents, and get some tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way. I start with a single succulent in a pot and then cover several succulents together. Yes, this is basic information. But it’s also the foundation of all good succulent care.

Step-by-Step Guide to Planting Succulents

Supplies for Planting Succulents

supplies for planting succulents

We’re going to look at how to plant succulents in a container. While you don’t truly need all of these supplies, you’ll find them useful, especially if you get bitten by the succulent bug! I use these items all the time for planting and tending my succulents:

Choosing a Succulent Container

choosing a container for succulents

The single most important issue in succulent care is proper watering. The plants need sufficient water for life, yet too much water risks rotting the roots and killing the plants. It’s very difficult to get the watering right if you choose the wrong container. I prefer ceramic, though there are many types of containers available. The key considerations are drainage and size:

  • A succulent container should have good drainage. This means a hole or holes at the bottom of the container that allows excess water to leave the container, so the soil dries quickly.
  • Choose a succulent container that is just a bit bigger than the succulent plant (or plants) you will be planting. A pot that’s too large will hold lots of soil without any plant roots to take up water. The empty soil will hold excess water, preventing the soil from drying well. Check out some fun succulent pots here!

While it is possible to grow succulents without drainage β€” it is tricky, and I do not recommend it for beginners. Choose a small container with ample drainage. This pot is about 4.5-inches across β€” a perfect size to plant a 4-inch succulent like this Echeveria Perle von Nurnberg. See the mauve-colored glaze below the blue? It’s a nice accent for the mauve tones of the PVN.

Cover Drainage Hole with Tape

cover drainage hole with mesh tape

Cut an inch of the dry-wall mesh tape to cover the drainage hole. The tape is slightly sticky on one side, which holds it in place. The mesh prevents the soil from falling out of the drainage hole. You can use a broken piece of pottery, paper towel, coffee filter or a piece of screen to do the same job. One roll of tape will handle several hundred pots, and it fits neatly into my succulent kit.

Choose Succulent Soil

always use fast-draining soil for planting succulents

Always, always, always use a good succulent soil when planting succulents. This is the single most important step in succulent care. Succulents are not “regular” plants. Regular potting soil retains too much water, holding it against the roots and leading to root rot and dead plants.

Fill your container about halfway with the succulent soil.

Remove Succulent’s Nursery Pot

remove succulent from nursery pot to evaluate the roots

When you remove your succulent from the pot the nursery grew it in, it almost always comes out packed hard, holding the shape of the pot, like this. That’s a good indication that the soil should be largely replaced. Very often, the soil a succulent is growing in is not good soil for the long-term health of the plant.

Gently break up the packed soil and massage the roots, so they are ready to grow in the larger pot. Excess soil will drop away. It will look something like this:

massage succulent roots, removing old soil

Remove as much of the soil as you can, easily, without breaking up a lot of the roots. Some may break, and that’s ok. Just take care not to tear or break a lot of the root ball. If the soil feels slimy or has a bad odor, wash the soil from the roots and discard it. (This doesn’t often happen.)

See the dried leaf just above my thumbnail? This is a good time to “groom” your succulent. Remove any dried or broken leaves.

Plant the Succulent

plant succulent and tamp down the soil

Plant the succulent in the container, spreading the roots out and down. Backfill with fresh succulent soil, and fill to about 1/2 inch below the rim of the pot. Be sure the soil comes up to the soil line on the plant before you removed it from its nursery pot. All roots should be covered, but the lowest leaves should be well clear of the soil.

Next, tamp the soil into place with your finger. You want to collapse any air pockets, and gently firm the soil into place.

Brush Away Stray Soil from Succulent Leaves

brush away stray soil particles from succulent leaves

After planting your succulent, use a soft-bristled brush to whisk away any stray soil particles on or between the succulent’s leaves. I always keep a soft paintbrush handy for cleaning my succulents. You don’t want to wipe the leaves with a paper towel or your finger, because this will remove the protective coating some succulents have. (This coating is called epicuticular wax.) The result is unattractive and it interferes with the plant’s natural protections.

Congratulations! You have now planted your succulent! But we’re not quite finished yet…

Adding Top Dressing to Succulent Pot

add top dressing to a potted succulent

Top dressing for succulents is any inorganic matter you use to cover the soil. When you use decorative pebbles, crushed granite, crushed glass or crushed seashells over the soil, it provides a few important benefits. It helps to regulate the temperature of the soil, insulating the roots from large temperature fluctuations. Top dressing keeps the underside of the leaves clean of soil that can splash up when you water. It prevents insects from laying their eggs in the soil of the plant. Inorganic top dressing is the most reliable way to rid your home of pesky gnats. And β€” let’s face it β€” the top dressing looks prettier than the soil. Consider the color and look of your container and succulent. Choose a top dressing to complement both and tie the look together.

Apply the top dressing in a layer about 1/3 of an inch deep, over all of the soil, and right up against the stem of the plant. Use your hands or a small scoop to get the pebbles right where you want them. When you have several plants together, as you’ll see below, that scoop makes it so much easier.

how to plant succulents - completed

The top dressing gives your planted succulent a finished appearance. Have fun with choosing the top dressing β€” it’s like jewelry for your plant! Here, I chose a tan crushed gravel that echoes the coloring of the pot.

Let’s see how to plant succulents with several plants in the same container.

How to Plant Succulents Several to a Pot

how to plant succulents several to a container

When planting several succulents in a single container, the considerations of container, drainage and succulent soil are exactly the same. Removing excess soil from the roots allows you to plant succulents closer together.

How close can you plant your succulents? Due to the many adaptations succulents have made to grow in harsh conditions, the plants will thrive when crowded far closer than most plants can tolerate. If you want your succulents to grow larger, give them more room in their container.

Chopsticks are Handy Tools

use chopstick to tuck in succulent roots

Always be sure to fully tuck the roots under the soil. In tight quarters like this, I use a chopstick to help move the roots into place and to tamp down the soil

use scoop to add top dressing to crowded container

Add top dressing, using the scoop found in succulent tool kits. Cover all exposed soil.

In this 4.8″ x 3″ pot, (from left to right) I planted a 4-inch Echeveria Violet Queen a 2-inch Echeveria colorata, a division of Portulacaria afra variegata (the tall plant in the back) and a division of Senecio rowleyanus ‘String of Pearls’.

How to Water Newly Planted Succulents

Use squeeze water bottle for close planted succulents

Now that you’ve planted your succulents, when is it time to water? I like to give my succulents a couple of days in their new pots before I water them. This is another departure from “normal” plant care. A couple of days gives any bruised, broken or injured roots some time to heal before adding water.

In tightly planted succulent pots, I use this squeeze bottle with a long, narrow spout. It lets me get the water between plants, right at the soil line, where I want it. I am not a fan of watering succulents from overhead, where the water splashes into the succulent’s leaves. Often, it’s fine. But allowing water to collect on the leaves and in the crown of the plant β€” where many leaves come together β€” can cause problems. Insects may lay their eggs in this stagnant water, it can lead to rot and it will cause some succulents to quickly collapse (I’m looking at you, E. Black Prince!)

how to plant succulents completed

Now that you know how to plant succulents so they’ll thrive, I hope you’ll do just that! Go out and plant lots of succulents, and have fun! Play with combinations of succulent pots, plant(s) and top dressing.

If you have any questions, please take a moment to leave a comment. I will get right back to you!

Because life is just better with succulents!

P.S. For more succulent care information, please subscribe! I’ll send you my FREE e-course,  7 Steps to Succulent Success! Thank you!

How to plant succulents so they'll thrive
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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Brenda Martin

    Hey Kat, thanks for the very informative post!! My question is how much and how often do you need to water succulents??

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Brenda,
      Water your succulents thoroughly, until the water flows from the drainage holes. That’s “how much”> When to water is when your succulents need it! No – I am not being a smart ass – they know what they need and when they need it. You just need help understanding them. Check out my post on watering succulents.

  2. Brenda Hancock

    I live in Oklahoma. Zone 7b and we have high humidity in the summer. I have a few succulents outside but not in the sun. I tend to fry them even when I’m just acclimating them. You talk about top dressing and several people in Facebook groups say not to use it because moisture won’t evaporate and it will cause root rot. Can you give me more thoughts on that please. I have no access to pumice unless I order online. Not a big online orderer.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Brenda,
      Thanks so much for the terrific questions!
      If you are focused on the use of top dressings, I have an entire blog post devoted to the many benefits top dressing offers succulents here.

      However, to address your questions here:
      Please always remember that using fast-draining soil for your succulents is a must. If you are using food (fast-draining) succulent soil, yes, the top dressing will prevent evaporation from the top of the soil. But we want the water to travel down, through the soil to the roots, right? And fast-draining soil should not remain wet at the surface, so nothing is lost here.

      And, your container should also have good drainage holes. If it does, you can always drill your own drainage! But top dressing on top of the soil will not affect the roots down under the soil, because your plants have fast-draining soil and good drain holes. So – nothing to worry about, right?
      I start my succulent care with the basics. If you do, too, you won’t need to worry about the top dressing preventing evaporation, and can instead focus on the many benefits it offers, like the weed barrier, insect egg barrier, temperature regulation, and more.

      I do understand that some people just accept whatever soil and container the succulent was growing in at the store. But so often, that just leaves you working too hard to overcome the poor soil and poor drainage. Give your succulents a great start from the beginning, and their care is so much easier!
      Thanks for reading!

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