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Succulent Care Secret – Why Favorites Die & Others Thrive

One of the many reasons we all love succulents is that they are so easy to grow, right? I often say they thrive on benign neglect. But you know that. You practically ignore most of your succulents and they do just great. But that one, special succulent, the one you really love… That one is a challenge, isn’t it? You do everything just right for it. You give it extra love and attention — but still, it struggles. I understand. I’ve been there. There is an answer. Read on for the succulent care secret especially for your favorite plant.

Succulent Care for Your Your Favorite Plants

{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}

What Makes for a “Favorite” Succulent?

Succulent care tips for my favorite succulent Euphorbia lactea cristata variegata

Meet my newest favorite succulent – Euphorbia lactea cristata variegata! Isn’t it cool? I am so excited to share it! While any variety of succulent is worthy of being someone’s favorite, often it is the unusual, strange and hard-to-find that becomes our “favorite succulent”. Another candidate is one with sentimental importance. Perhaps it was grown by your grandmother, or given to you by your Dad. Maybe it was from a bouquet at your wedding, or your corsage from prom. However a succulent has come to be your favorite, it is deeply meaningful to you and treasured. So — how to take care of it, when most people wind up killing the succulent they love most? This is the three-fold secret to succulent care for your favorite that keeps dying:

  • Fast-draining succulent soil
  • Water only when the soil is dry
  • Lots of light

I know what you are thinking — this is what you do for your regular succulents!  You want succulent care tips for your favorite, right? Just hang in there with me. I promise — I am coming to that.

Succulent Care Begins with the Soil
succulent care begins with fast draining soil for this lithops

The very first step for succulent care begins with the soil. All succulents require a fast-draining soil, for several reasons. Proper succulent soil enables the plant’s roots to access enough water, without remaining too wet, which would risk rot. It also provides sufficient oxygen for the roots of the plant, which is necessary for photosynthesis. Soil also anchors the succulent in place, so that its sun exposure remains consistent. It provides insulation from temperature fluctuations for the roots. And soil provides the right mix of nutrients your succulents need to promote healthy growth.

All succulents share these needs for these succulent soil qualities. Resist the urge to show your favorite succulent how special it is by giving it extra rich, nutritious soil. Experienced gardeners often provide specially enriched soils for a prized rose or heirloom plant, with excellent results. When it comes to succulents, this is a quick way to damage or even kill your favorite succulent. Rich soils retain too much moisture, risking rot. And all of that nutrition is likely to spur rapid and weak growth which results in its own problems. Just like your regular succulents, your favorite needs fast-draining, nutritionally lean soil.

The lovely Lithops lesliei above is an excellent example of a rare succulent that needs the same things from its soil as the rest. For a recipe to make your own succulent soil, click here.

Succulent Care is All About the Watering
proper watering is the most important part of succulent care for this senecio string of pearls

Proper watering is the most critical element of succulent care. By definition, these are plants that have adapted to growing in conditions where water is scarce. These plants are so well adapted to dry conditions that overwatering is the fastest road to death for your succulents. The more closely you can mimic the conditions where they are native, the better they will do. So watering should follow a “drought and drench cycle”. Let the fast-draining soil your succulents are growing in dry out well. This is the drought their water storage enables them to survive. Then water thoroughly, so that the water runs from the drainage holes. This is how the rains occur where they are native — a quick, short burst of rain. When you water, your plants soak up all the moisture they can to store for future use.

This drought and drench method of watering keeps your succulents healthy and happy. It encourages the development of a robust and vigorous root system, and it plumps up their foliage full of the water they store. Daily watering in small amounts leads to stunted and weak root development. Consistently wet soil risks rot. Resist the urge to show your favorite succulent love by giving it extra water. Instead, let the soil dry well between waterings. Your succulent will tell you when to water. Read all about the signs succulents give to show they are under- or over-watered.

The fanciful Senecio rowleyanus ‘String of Pearls’ is a certain favorite. Its delicate appearance, cascading habit and whimsical, spherical leaves are so charming! Many people love this plant as their favorite. Sadly, many also kill it with “kindness” (read — too much water). I love using string of pearls in a mixed succulent planter. Not just for its incredible good looks, but because it is a great guide to watering the entire arrangement. When the plant is just fine, needing no more water, the pearls are plump and perfectly round. I leave the arrangement dry. As its soil dries, and the plant draws on its stored water, the leaves lose some of the plumpness as the water is used. They become a bit pointed. When most of the leaves are pointed, it is time to water the entire arrangement. Then, the string of pearls leaves are all fully rounded again. Easy-peasy!

This photo of senecio String of Pearls is provided courtesy of Maja Dumat via Flickr and Creative Commons Public License (Attribution 2.0 Generic).

Succulent Care and Sunshine
succulent care depends on proper sun exposure for echeveria black prince

All succulents love sunshine. It is necessary for photosynthesis. Some succulents can tolerate more or less than other varieties, but they all need a good amount of light. The need for light is so fundamental, that if a succulent does not receive enough light, the plant will soon stretch and grow tall and thin, as the plant reaches for more light. This process is called etiolation. It is not just unsightly. In extreme cases, succulents can die from etiolation. Provide your succulent with ample light, and keep watch for signs that it needs more light.

Unfortunately, too much sunshine can also cause a problem if your succulents sunburn. So keep an eye on your plants as you determine the right sun exposure for each one. Once you have, continue to monitor them as the temperatures warm and the seasons turn. Partial shade can become full sun later in the year, and full sun can become far too hot.

Resist the urge to keep a full-sun favorite succulent indoors to keep it always nearby. It won’t get enough sunlight to keep it healthy. Also, don’t put a shade-happy succulent into too much sun, just because it would look nice in a focal point. Too much sunshine can be damaging. Instead, your favorite succulent should be placed in the right amount of light for it – just like your regular succulents.

The darkly handsome Echeveria ‘Black Prince’ is often a favorite, for its unusual color. Although listed as good in full sun or partial shade, it is important not to put it in full sun straight from the nursery. Most succulents are professionally grown under shade cloth, to yield the best color. And too much sun too soon will cause the plant to sunburn.

This photo of Echeveria ‘Black Prince’ is provided courtesy of salchuiwt via Flickr and Creative Commons Public License (Attribution 2.0 Generic).

The Secret to Succulent Care for Your Favorite Plant

Are you noticing a trend? So far, the succulent care tips for your favorite plant look a lot like the way you care for the rest of your collection. What gives? In fact, the only specifics so far for your favorites could be boiled down to “resist the urge to treat it differently from other succulents”.

Here is the big secret:

True love is giving not what you want to give but what is needed

True love is giving not what you want to give, but what is needed. Surely, someone famous has said this before and far better than I. It is a hard lesson every parent learns. I know you love your favorite succulent. And you want to treat it as special because it is special. But clearly, that “special treatment” is the problem. The reason the succulents you neglect thrive, while the favorite you care for dies, is because succulents thrive on benign neglect! 

We tend to show our love for plants by giving them extra special yummy soil. This can kill a succulent. We show our love with more generous water – this, too, can kill a succulent. Quickly. And we love to put our favorite plant in a special spot. But too much light, or too little, can cause problems for your succulents.

So — what can you do to experience the joy of actively loving your special succulent if you cannot do any of these? Sing to it! Write poetry about it and recite it to your plant every day. Read to it (mine love Dr. Seuss!) Do you think I am kidding? I’m not (very much). Believe me, not only do I know how it feels to want to show your favorite plant that it is special — I, too, have killed plants I love. I think we are trying to fully experience our feelings of love and specialness by taking action. But extra watering is a bad action for succulents. So, I suggest finding another action that won’t hurt your plants, but that can express your love. There is much evidence to suggest that plants do enjoy and respond positively to music and your voice. By all means — love your succulents! Just lay off the extra water, rich soil and changes in light.

succulent care for lovely pachyveria

I have written about how stress can bring out the best in your succulents. Turns out, the same is not true for us. When we stress over a favorite succulent, we often wind up hurting it. Instead, learn to love your succulents without going overboard in their care. They will love you for it!

So — what will it be? Will you sing to your succulents? Try poetry, or reading to them? Please take a moment to leave me a comment and let me know how you show your love for your favorite plants without hurting them!

Happy Gardening!

P.S. For a complete guide to succulent care, check out my FREE course, 7 Steps to Succulent Success, and subscribe! Thanks!

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Succulent care secrets so your favorite succulents thrive

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This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. Elaine Olson

    I would love to know what are your favorite succulent books or a couple books you can’t live without.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Elaine,
      I absolutely love Succulents Simplified, by Debra Lee Baldwin. And her beautifully updated book, Designing with Succulents. These are exceptional works.
      I also enjoy Success with Succulents by John Bagnosco and Bob Reidmuller. And I enjoy reading Robin Stockwell.
      And, in truth, I so enjoy reading about succulents, but often find that some books don’t live up to expectations. At some point, I plan to try my own book – I’ll bet it is MUCH harder than I think! 🙂

  2. Elaine Olson

    Thank you…I will check them out.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Elaine,
      Perfect! Let me know if you have any questions!

  3. Christine

    I am so new to succulents and thank you for the 7 days of information. I am using cactus mix for the plants, but often worry about the watering. So far I have lost about 5 mini cactus, but the balance of 6 seem to be doing well. I check the thickness of the leaves for watering, and try giving them enough sunlight through my window, as I live in a colder area in Northern Michigan. I also have 4 regular cactus and so far seem to be OK. I am trying this before I decide about ordering more, to see if I can care for them correctly, and again thanks to you for the information you provided.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Christine,
      Just remember that it will take several weeks to months for a cactus or succulent to die from underwatering, yet just days to die from over-watering. So when it doubt, DON’T water! Be sure the soil drains fast – you might want to mix in pumice to improve the drainage, especially since you’re growing your cactus indoors. Be sure the pot is not too large and that it has great drainage. Then, wait a few days more when you think you should water.
      You can do this!

      1. Sue Schumann

        Hi Kat,
        I don’t know how you do all you do. I am part of your FB page, thesucculenteclectic group. You keep up with all the questions and comments on there and you write these wonderful articles…these are just two of the many tasks, I’m sure!
        You are simply amazing! Thank you for all you do and for sharing your knowledge with all of us.
        Happy Growing! 🌵
        Sue S.

        1. Kat McCarthy

          Wow! Thanks SO much, Susan!
          I wish I could do a better job keeping all the balls in the air. Thanks for thinking I am doing well!

  4. Edith NR of Norfolk, UK

    Hi Kat,

    Thank you for this very informative post. I’ve been raising succulents for the past four years and up to now, I’m still studying about them and discovering better ways of taking care of them. I just recently discovered your blog. The lithtops photo in this post reminded me of trying to raise lithops summer this year through seeds, but failed. I recently bought a tiny, two-leaved lithops. Now, how do I take care of them? I will be very glad for your advice.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Edith,
      SO glad you’re finding the information useful!
      Lithops are such fun succulents to grow, but most people are doomed to kill them unless they learn the VERY specific watering schedule that must be followed to the letter! No kidding, these cuties are unlike other succulents. Read all about Lithops care on my website!
      Let me know if you have any questions!

  5. Heather F

    This article was so helpful, but so so SO sweet!!!!! I love your writing!!!!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Thanks so much, Heather!
      I’m really glad this one came across the way I wanted it to! 🙂

  6. Janet B

    I live in northern Michigan and am a rookie succulent mom. I left my succulents outside all summer and brought them in a couple of weeks ago. I basically ignored them except to enjoy the fact that they didn’t die. I put them in the windows getting the same southern light. I’ll try to ignore them there too and hope that I don’t kill them this winter!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Janet,
      That sounds like you’ve got the right approach!
      Bu I do have another post I will recommend to you – the changes to watch for in overwintered succulents.
      That way, if your succulents do run into any problems indoors, you can correct it quickly! 🙂
      Thanks so much for the comment!

  7. Love this article, I am going to have to watch the watering. I do know it is really important, but I have to remind myself that even just a little bit sometimes is to much. I have my mothers eighty+ year old Christmas cactus, that I redid this summer, as it was looking really sad. what I kept is looking really good, and even seen new growth, so I am hoping to keep it going. My Thanksgiving Cactus have many tiny little flower buds, so know they are doing okay, Just hoping the rest of the new succulents feel the same way.

  8. Dorothy J Abraham

    Thank you always for your great advice! One new book out this year that I really love is SUCCULENT OBSESSION: A COMPLETE GUIDE by Ken Shelf. This book highlights 100 easy-care succulents-with great photos- and also has chapters on indoor, outdoor, and propagation, but the most informative chapter (for me anyway) is the last chapter on trouble-shooting problems. In the last chapter I learned things that really stood out to me. I thought you might like to add it to your list of succulent books.
    Thanks again for all your advice.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Dorothy,
      This is an EXCELLENT recommendation! Thanks so much – I will definitely add this to my recommendations.
      Thank you!

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