Everything you need to know about succulent soil...
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If you’re having problems with your succulents, consider taking a look at the soil they’re planted in. Many problems can be avoided and fixed by using the right soil especially for succulents and cacti.
Whenever you hear experienced succulent gardeners talk about the best soil for succulents one of the most common things you’ll hear is to get a gritty, mostly inorganicinorganic not consisting of or deriving from living matter quickly draining soil. But what does that even mean?
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Can't You Just Use Regular Potting Soil for Succulents?
Most common potting soil mixes that you find at your big box, home improvement stores like Home Depot, Lowes, and Walmart, contain a lot of organic material like bark, wood chips, and peat moss.
For plants that don’t store a whole lot of water in their leaves and stems (think pothos or tropical, leafy houseplants) like succulents do these pre-mixed, bagged soils are just fine. They help keep the roots moist and provide moisture at a more constant rate for plants that actually need it to be like that.
Succulents do not like their roots to be wet for very long and need really good drainage. Even soil labeled as “Cactus and Succulent Soil” holds too much water and you’ll need to amendamendment Material added to a soil to improve its physical properties which create a healthier environment for the roots it to provide proper drainage. Basically, use the wrong kind of soil and one day you’ll wake up to a rotten succulent.
Try to Mimic Nature
Natural Habitathabitat The natural home of a plant.
Another feature of a succulents natural habitat is that the soil is mostly rocky which, as we know, allows rain to quickly flow away from the roots.
Succulents and cacti are different.
As I’ve said before, they like a lot of water all at once with longer periods of drought in between waterings rather than a little bit of water at a time every day. Gritty, inorganic soil doesn’t retain moisture like organic soil does so that moisture isn’t sitting near your succulent roots for very long because it drains quickly. During a brief torrential rain event, just like in most succulent natural habitats, succulent roots are able to take up a lot of water all at once when their soil is briefly saturated. That’s just what they’re made to do.
Our job, as at home succulent gardeners, is to mimic that natural habitat of succulents as much as we possibly can. This means:
- giving them lots of light
- giving them a lot of water at once as if it were a torrential downpour type of rain
- and providing them with rocky soils for fast drainage just like they would if they were grown in nature.
Since most pre-mixed soil from the store holds too much water for too long, we need to add soil amendments to get closer to nature.
Succulent Soil Amendments
My favorite inorganic succulent soil amendmentamendment Material added to a soil to improve its physical properties which create a healthier environment for the roots is pumice. It is a natural, volcanic amendment that is mined. It contains trace minerals and elements that benefit the overall health of your succulents. It aerates the soil really well and is heavier than perlite so it doesn’t floar and just isn’t as messy. You can find it at a local horse supply store under the name DRY STALL. I buy it in 40 lb bags for about $15. If you don’t have any horse supply stores near you check a specialty garden center for horticultural pumice, or it’s always available online on Etsy or Amazon.
My other favorite succulent soil amendment is called Turface MVP. It is commonly used on baseball fields to soak up any moisture and keep them dry. It is a form of calcined clay that is baked in a kiln at a very high temperature and it helps to regulate moisture content by absorbing it and then slowly releasing it. The microscopic pores in Turface MVP, as well as pumice, provide little pockets where oxygen can be exchanged with carbon dioxide at the roots ensuring that there is no stagnantstagnant having no current or flow and often having an unpleasant smell as a consequence air. Root rot due to overwatering and overly impacted soil is one of the most common ways to kill a succulent and soil amendments like pumice and Turface MVP help to aerateaerate introduce air into the soil and prevent this from happening.
Another popular succulent soil amendment that is commonly available is chicken grit. Chicken owners get it for their chickens to eat and it helps them digest their food better. The kind of chicken grit to use for succulents is made out of insoluble granite which means it doesn’t dissolve in water, it won’t break down and it provides that inorganic amendment that is ideal in succulent soil. My favorite chicken grit is by a company called Manna Pro and you can find it in 25 lb bags for about 9 bucks on Amazon or at places like Tractor Supply Company.
If you can’t find any of those inorganic, porous succulent soil amendments, one other product you can use is the plain, unscented, non-clumping cat litter by Jonny Cat. It is made in the same exact way as Turface MVP so it essentially does the exact same thing. The company that is behind Jonny Cat kitty litter also makes a product called Oil-Dri which you can find at Lowe’s or Home Depot in a white and blue bag. It is the exact same product as Jonny Cat just packaged in a different bag. I have found it in the same aisle as mops and floor cleaners. It is normally used as a spill absorber.
Perlite is also an acceptable inorganic, porous succulent soil amendment. It is already included in many commercially available succulent soils in smaller amounts than we would like to see for succulents, however, it floats and is generally very messy. I try to avoid it if I can, but lately, with everybody picking up succulent gardening as a hobby it has been tougher to find my favorite succulent soil amendments so I’ve used perlite in a pinch.
Some succulent gardeners like to use a more sandy potting soil. If this is something you’re interested in trying, make sure to use coarse grit sand (sometimes referred to as sharp sand) rather than something fine like beach sand or play sand for sandboxes. A product like Quikrete All-Purpose Sand from Lowe’s or Home Depot is good. There are also sellers on Amazon who offer coarse succulent sand in smaller quantities. Do note that you don’t want the highest volume in your succulent soil mix to be sand. It is much too fine for that.
Don’t use vermiculite as a succulent soil amendment.
It retains too much moisture and gets soggy.
Can I use beach sand in my succulent soil mix?
There’s a couple of reasons why you shouldn’t use beach sand in your succulent soil mix.
- It is too fine and once you start to water it, the sand will compact and prevent oxygen from reaching the roots.
- It is usually too salty for plant roots and will burn them.
Bummer because there’s a LOT of it here in San Diego!
What is the best succulent soil recipe?
Everybody’s favorite succulent soil recipe is going to be different based on a few important factors. Humidity is probably the biggest factor impacting how gritty your soil should be to start. If you live in a more humid area such as Florida, you’re going to want to start with about 75% inorganic material to soil in your basic succulent soil recipe. Always err on the side of more amendment because you can always add water but you can’t take it away.
Other things that affect how organic your soil should be are your USDA zone, what kind of pots you use, type of succulent, and personal watering habits. Experienced succulent and cactus gardeners like to mix their own soil because there are so many factors that can impact water retention. You can control the ratio of inorganic to organic for every succulent or cactus that you own instead of planting them in the exact same thing.
There are thousands of varieties of succulents and cacti and they all have their special nuances.
Size Doesn't Matter
Sometimes, you’ll see grit sizes between ⅛” to ⅜” on bags of soil amendment like pumice or perlite and in all honesty, it doesn’t really matter what size you get.
Observe Then React
When switching to a new succulent soil mix it’s always a good idea to step back and observe how your succulents react after a few days to make sure that you know how quickly the soil is drying out and how quickly they start to show signs of thirst. When your succulents start to wrinkle and get thinner is when you know it’s time to water them.
Fight the urge to water your succulents more frequently than necessary. Their cells can only hold a certain amount of water before they burst and you’re left with a gooey mess. It takes a lot longer to kill a succulent from dehydration than overwatering. And as I’ve said before, over-watering is one of the most common ways to kill a succulent.
I have personally not watered my succulents for months on end during the third trimester of my last pregnancy and all of my succulents made it through and they are as healthy as ever now. When you use more and organic amendments that dry out quickly you will notice that your succulents start to show signs of thirst faster than they did before.
Different Soil For Different Succulents
Some succulents, like lithops, require at least 90% grit if not 100% for their ideal succulent soil recipe. In every lithops group I’ve been in, that 90% grit to 10% soil ratio has been a constant recommendation. I have my lithops in 100% Turface MVP and they have survived for about 3 years in that same mix. A lithops soil mix might not be the best soil for string of pearls which can handle a little bit more moisture in my experience. On the flip side, some succulents, like most sedums, are pretty easy going and can generally handle poor soil so plant them in whatever you’ve got and see what happens!
What if you don’t want to make your own soil? Is there ANY pre-mixed succulent soil that won’t cause root rot?
If you’re not looking to mix your own succulent soil, I highly recommend giving Jack’s Gritty Mix #111 a try.
Yes! Bonsai Jack makes a great pre-mixed succulent soil that has the right inorganic to organic material ratio. Many experienced succulent gardeners swear by it.
- prevents root rot from overwatering
- provides an inhospitable environment for insects and harmful bacteria and fungus due to its slightly acidic composition.
How to Make Your Own Succulent Soil Mix
1. Pick a base for your homemade succulent and cactus soil.
- Black Gold Cactus Mix
- The Next Gardener Gritty Mix
- Espoma Cactus Mix
- EB Stone Cactus Mix
- Miracle Gro Cactus, Palm and Citrus Potting Mix
- Kellogg Cactus Soil
- Hoffman Cactus Soil
2. Pick your inorganic amendment(s)
DO NOT USE BEACH SAND. IT IS TOO FINE AND WILL NOT LET YOUR ROOTS BREATHE.
- Dry Stall
- Turface MVP
- Chicken Grit
- Crushed Lava Rock
- Jonny Cat
- Monto Clay
- Coarse Builders Sand
DIY Succulent Soil Recipes to Play Around With
Consider Less Amendment If...
Tendency to under water
More Amendment If...
Tendency to over water
Experiment with your own succulent soil recipes, observe your plants and tell us what works best for you and your succulents in the SUCCULENTdotCARE Facebook Group!
Nothing about succulent growing is absolute. Different succulents have different needs. We all live in different climates and have different gardening habits. What works for desert dwellers may not work for tropical climates. My job is to help you get to know your succulents best by teaching you the tips, tricks, and methods that have helped me get to know my own succulents. It is an ever-evolving learning process that includes lots of trial and error. My goal is to limit the error part, but sometimes that’s just how it goes.
Your mileage may vary =)
Topdressing - Yay or Nay?
I never gave a second thought to topdressing my succulents in pots because I love the way it looks. When reading through some posts in different Facebook groups, it appears that there is much division when it comes to topdressing. Some people love it, some hate it. Some people always do it, some never do it.
Here’s what you need to know to make the decision on whether or not to topdress your pots and suggestions on what to use.
What does topdressing do for succulents?
Topdressing your succulent pots does a few things:
- It looks good especially when you use a color that complements the color of the succulent.
- It keeps soil from coming out of the pots when you water.
- It can help physically support top-heavy succulents.
- It keeps the bottom leaves from sitting on wet dirt, preventing the leaves from rotting.
When topdressing goes wrong...
The biggest problem I see when people use topdressings is overwatering because topdressings can keep the soil moist longer than if you don’t topdress.
- Use smaller materials (1/8″ or so)
- Large river rocks will block any air from reaching the roots.
- Use a thinner layer of topdressing.
- Don’t topdress your pots until you’re comfortable with knowing the signs that your succulent needs to be watered.