How & When to Water Succulents So They Don’t Die

The Ultimate Guide to Watering Succulents

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graptopetalum amethystinum pink moonstones
Graptopetalum amethystinum 'Pink Moonstones'

What's Inside:

Two Signs Your Succulents Need Water

time to water when you see wrinkles
This Sedum burrito could definitely use a nice drink of water when the leaves get thinner and wrinkly.

There’s no set amount of time to wait in between waterings. Every succulent is different. Water your succulents when the soil is dry AND the succulents are showing signs of dehydration. For succulents with chubby leaves it will take longer than succulents with thinner leaves. This is why it is hard to say exactly how often to water succulents.

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Don't rely only on how dry the soil is.

When your succulents show signs of dehydration, you should give them a nice, deep watering. Note that the soil will dry out before your succulent gets thirsty and needs water, so do not rely on the soil as the only indicator of when to water. The moment your soil dries out, your succulent will still not be thirsty. If you water it right then, you’ll be overwatering it. Water your succulents as often as they need it, but be sure they need it first. 

Find the balance between dehydrated and constantly moist. 

time to water pink moonstones
Graptopetalum amethystinum 'Pink Moonstones' lower leaves are thinning out and wrinkling. Time to water!

You can’t reverse overwatering, but you can surely bring a succulent back from severe dehydration which can take weeks and weeks and weeks. Over-watering seemingly happens overnight.

What Overwatering Looks Like

overwatered succulent leaves
These leaves should be green and not translucent.

You’re not going to need to water succulents nearly as much as other plants. Succulents can survive for weeks and weeks without a drop of water, so giving them water every couple of days WILL lead to overwatering and you WILL kill your succulents that way. They use the energy stored in their fat leaves unlike non-succulents which have thinner leaves and therefore less energy to be stored. Signs that your succulents are overwatered include leaves that pop off suddenly and leaves that look translucent.

translucent overwatered succulent leaf
Translucent leaves are a sure sign a succulent is overwatered.

How to Fix an Overwatered Succulent

  • Remove any yellow/translucent, squishy leaves.
  • You may need to completely take the plant out of the pot to let its roots dry out for a few days before re-potting in the appropriate soil
  • Plant your succulent in an unglazed terracotta pot.
  • Allow the soil to thoroughly dry out between waterings which means you won’t need to water it as much as before.
  • Be sure to also give your succulent plenty of light and great airflow to restore it back to health. 

Bottom Watering aka Butt Chugging

Bottom watering succulents is when you set your succulents and their pots into a tub of water allowing capillary action to draw water up into the soil through the hole in the bottom of the pot. 

Let your plant suck up (butt chug, if you will…) water until you see that the soil on top is wet. Take it out of the water and let the excess water drip out of the drainage hole. 

I don’t like to bottom watering succulents because it doesn’t flush out excess minerals and waste in the soil which can build up over time and it takes way longer than just watering succulents normally from the top. Some people love it because it can be less messy, so give it a try if you’ve got some time.

NEVER MIST SUCCULENTS

Never mist succulents. You may find that misting non-succulents helps them thrive. This is the opposite in watering succulents. Misting them promotes a shallow, weak root system and any moisture trapped between the leaves will lead to rot. Succulents don’t absorb moisture through their leaves.

You CAN Love Succulents Too Much

We all can’t wait to love on our succulents and keep them happy but too often we think that watering them too often will make them happy when they probably just want to be left alone. I think this is a very helpful reminder for beginners (and not so beginners) to observe their plants more and only water when they truly show signs of thirst rather than watering because it is Monday. Or Sunday. Plants don’t care what day of the week it is. We fuss with our plants too much and more often than not we just need to be reminded that human intervention isn’t always the answer.

WATERING TIP: find the balance between dehydrated and constantly moist

Do not water after a set number of days. Water when you observe wrinkly, less plump, dull, thin-looking leaves.

The deserts most succulents come from aren't what you probably have in mind.

shriveled haworthia ready for a deep watering
Haworthia sp. ready for a deep watering right about now.

Most soft succulents are not, in fact, hot/dry desert plants, but rather grow in semi-aridsemi-arid Semi-arid climates get about twice as much rainfall than arid deserts, which get less than 10 inches per year. climates. In the semi-arid deserts, high in the mountains where many soft succulents are native, it rains A LOT all at once rather than a constant sprinkling every day. As such, succulents have adapted their tissues to be able to take up larger amounts of water via their shallow, wide, scattered root systems during these infrequent rain events. They are meant to be dry in between rains so you need to water them with this in mind.

Succulents store massive amounts of water in their highly specialized cells to the point where 90-95% of a succulent is water. This allows them to go for longer periods without needing to be watered. When a succulent is overwatered, its cell walls burst due to the overabundance of water. Leaves turn translucent and mushy, then rot.

before and after of variegated string of pearls watering
Dehydrated 'String of Pearls' on the left. A couple of days after watering on the right. Before your pearls start to shrivel and pucker like the ones on the left, they'll lose their shine and become dull. That's a sign they need water soon.
succulent care is intuitive
Your succulents will tell you what they need, when they need it. Don't force it.

Don't confuse normal leaf reabsorption with wrinkled leaves that indicate dehydration.

On leaf reabsorption: It’s one way the plant gets energy to make new growth. Yellowing leaves can be a sign of overwatering especially if they are translucent as well. Best to hold off on watering and just observe what happens. Cell death from overwatering can happen overnight, but actual dehydration takes much longer and can be reversed.

Signs of Overwatering

If any of the things to the right apply to your succulents, they’re overwatered.

  • Leaves that pop off suddenly

  • Yellow leaves

  • Transparent leaves

  • Mushy leaves

  • Black leaves or stem indicates rot

How to Prevent Overwatering

  • Amend your soil
  • Make sure you use pots with holes
  • Use terracotta pots
  • Stop putting a layer of rocks at the bottom of your pots
  • Choose the right size pot

What succulents look like when it is time to water...

Pot Size Matters

If you’ve checked out the guides on watering your succulents and the best soil for your succulents you know that succulents hate wet feet. Waterlogged soil leads to root rot and overwatering, so fast draining soil is very important. Did you know that the size of your pot has much to do with how much water is retained in the soil?

​A large pot holds more water longer than a smaller pot, so it is recommended that you don’t use a pot that is much larger than the root ballroot ball The root mass, together with its soil or compost, visible when a plant is lifted from its bed or taken from its pot.. Generally, the ideal pot size will be just slightly bigger than the root ball. Start with small succulent pots and size up when your succulents grow. Keeping the roots in check with a smaller pot will also allow the succulent to focus energy on leaf growth rather than filling the pot with roots.

graptopetalum pentandrum superbum succulent plant in a terracotta pot

How to Drill Holes in Containers Without Drainage

Always plant succulents in containers with drainage holes. No exceptions. A layer of rocks in the bottom of pots does not aid drainage. Pots without drainage holes do not allow oxygen to reach the succulent roots, keep succulent soil too wet and don’t allow any accumulated minerals to be flushed out of the soil. 

When you water your potted succulents, water them deeply until water comes out of the drainage hole in the bottom. This ensures that water reaches all of your succulent’s roots. If you don’t have a drainage hole, you can’t water your succulents properly. They can survive, but they definitely won’t be living their best life.

steps to drilling holes in containers for succulents
  • Start by holding the drill at an angle to get a groove started on the bottom of your container.
  • Once you make a little groove, straighten out your drill  and hold slight pressure to keep on drilling that hole. 
  • Keep a little squirt bottle of water handy and lubricate the surface so the drill bit doesn’t get too hot. 

Cut a piece of fiberglass mesh tape to fit over the drainage hole so soil doesn’t come out of the bottom of your pot when you water. 

A roll like this one will last you forever!

Just, whatever you do, stop putting a layer of rocks at the bottom of your pots. It does not provide any drainage. 

Does a layer of rocks at the bottom of a pot provide drainage?

No.

In fact, it does the opposite. There is a phenomenon called the perched water table which refers to the layer of saturated soil at the bottom of a pot. Succulents hate saturated soil, so by putting rocks in the bottom of your pot, you’ve raised the perched water table potentially into the roots of your succulent. Gravity pulls water down and saturates the lowest part of the soil. 

rocks do not provide more drainage no matter what your great aunt myrtle says
(image from Reddit)

Putting anything in the bottom of a pot moves the saturated soil up higher, closer to the roots which will lead to rot. At the very least, putting rocks in the bottom of your pot reduces the amount of soil available for roots to grow.

Adequate drainage can be achieved by only using pots with holes and amending your soil so it doesn’t retain as much water. If losing soil from your drainage holes is what you’re worried about, place some screen material over the hole. Some people like to put a coffee filter at the bottom of a pot to block soil from spilling out of the hole but still allowing water to flow through. The point of putting something at the bottom isn’t to block the hole completely but to prevent soil loss.

Succulents like lots of airflow. This is why terrariums and containers with no holes are not good for succulents. They prohibit oxygen from reaching the roots, can trap moisture and do not allow excess buildup to be flushed from the soil. In the ground, the microbiome of the soil contains multitudes of microorganisms, harmless bacteria and fungi which keep nutrients and moisture in check mostly without human intervention.

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