Water Succulents Like a Pro
I’m often asked how to water succulents and how much water to give them.
After years in succulent greenhouses, I’ve seen a rhythm to watering succulents outdoors. It may help uncertain beginners until you find what works best for you in your climate. When watering outdoors, attach the Red Dramm garden nozzle to the hose (with the on/off valve beneath it). Turn the hose on full force and flash-water your plants by passing the Red Dramm garden nozzle over every succulent pot briefly. This helps to prep the soil to easily soak up more water.
Go back a second time around, and water everything for two seconds (that’s about how long it takes to count quickly to eight). This is usually enough time to wet the soil top to bottom. Then turn the water off, take a deep breath and look around. The garden smells amazing when it’s just been watered! And the succulents look so beautiful and happy.
Watering the succulent garden
It takes some experimenting to learn how quickly your soil absorbs water. Once you’ve finished watering, it’s a good idea to check a few plants to see how wet their soil is. Press your finger deep into the soil. If it’s wet two inches down, you’re good to go.
If your plants are in plastic garden pots, another way to check the soil is to tip a pot and gently slide the plant out along with all its soil, just to make sure the water seeped through.
It might surprise you to see that only the top half-inch or so of soil is wet. That’s because some soils repel water when they’re completely dry. Water can flow down the inside edge of the pot and out through the bottom. So, water flowing from the pot’s drainage holes doesn’t always mean the soil’s wet. With a bit of experience, you’ll learn how much water it takes to saturate your soil.
When you’re new to growing succulents, check the soil daily after a watering to find the “dry-out period,” or how long it takes the soil to dry out. Succulents need completely dry soil for one to three days before being rewatered. The hotter the weather, the less time they can go without water.
After several watering periods, you’ll know how often to water. Soil shouldn’t stay wet for more than three to four days. If the soil is still saturated after three days, cut your watering time back. This is important because, if the soil stays soaked for more than three or four days, your succulents could get fungus and begin to rot.
When temperatures are high, and soil dries faster, soil may dry in one or two days. See if watering more deeply keeps the soil wet longer. Water only after the soil is completely dry.
If your succulents begin to wither because you forgot to water them, saturate the soil, then wait for it to dry before you water again. Succulent roots can start to atrophy or wither if left without water during prolonged hot spells. When you water, water as you usually would. Don’t overwater to compensate. Weakened plants are more susceptible to pests and fungus damage from overwatering.
Because succulents store water inside their stems and leaves, another way to know if they need water is by the feel and look of their leaves. Hydrated succulent leaves look plump and feel firm. The leaves will spring back if you cup your hand around the plant gently, pressing the leaves together, then letting them go. If the plant doesn’t feel stiff and the leaves don’t spring back quickly, the plant needs water. If leaves have prune-like wrinkles or they feel leathery when you cup your hand around the plant, it’s time to water. Succulents handle high temperatures better when their leaves are plump with water.
Photo of a hand cupped around a succulent to test for leathery leaves
It’s always best to water first thing in the morning. If the weather’s hot, the sun heats up the soil. Watering hot soil damages roots and can kill succulents. And watering in the morning gives water a chance to evaporate off the leaves before the sun goes down. Water that collects on leaves and sits all night can cause black fungus to grow on the leaves. This might not be a concern if you live in a hot, dry climate and water evaporates without sunshine.
Another tip for growing succulents in scorching climates is to plant your succulents in terra cotta garden pots, instead of plastic or hard-fired ceramic pots. Plastic pots and glazed ceramic containers hold heat like an oven that exacerbates high temperatures.
I don’t mist succulents. I think watering succulents by misting is a bit like dumping water on your head to quench your thirst. Mist is so fine that it doesn’t pour down onto the soil and get enough water to the roots where it’s absorbed. A fine mist of water that just sits on succulent leaves without evaporating during the day can cause fungus or root rot. I’ve found that a quick pass with the Dramm nozzle (I call it flash watering) is better than misting for succulents with tender new roots that aren’t mature enough for totally saturated soil. Some rare cacti and succulents need only a few drops of water. For these unusual plants, it’s best to apply water on the soil, directly above the root ball, with a dropper.
Succulent roots absorb water quickly and store it in their stems and leaves. When the leaves are filled with water and the soil is still wet, the plant draws more water and overfills the leaves. This makes the leaves fall off easily. Also, the leaf edges of overwatered succulents often become yellow-tinged and get a translucent look about them. These are signs that your plant is drowning.
Many succulents have beautiful yellow leaves. Don’t assume that every yellow succulent is overwatered. Some succulents are variegated, with leaves that have yellow and other colors. One succulent I’m thinking of is the Graptoveria ‘Jules’. It has an outer row of yellow leaves, and its other leaves are pink!
We can’t talk about watering succulents without mentioning soil and air circulation. Choosing a fast-draining cactus and succulent soil, and having good air circulation, will solve most overwatering problems. A gentle breeze or fan helps wet soil evaporate more quickly. If you’ve accidentally overwatered, a fan can help avoid fungus rot. Air circulation keeps fungus away and succulents happy. See the section on soil to learn more about selecting succulent soil for your climate.
I’m sometimes asked if succulents should be “bottom-watered” by setting plants on a tray filled with water. Succulents specifically grown for garden shows are often bottom-watered to avoid water spots on their leaves. But plants that sit in a tray of water can absorb too many salts or other minerals that may become toxic over time. It takes a water expert to know all the chemicals in local water. I haven’t seen long-term, large-scale bottom-watering work successfully in succulent greenhouses in Southern California. Every location is different, so it may work for you.
If rain is in the forecast and your outdoor succulents are dry, skip watering. Unless your weather is scorching hot and dry, succulents can survive a week or more with dry soil. Succulents love rainwater!
I’ve seen thousands of succulent plants thrown out by professional growers because of unexpected rain that came shortly after the plants had been watered. Rain or humidity can keep the soil saturated for more than three to four days. That’s sometimes all it takes for succulents to get fungus rot.
Soil dries more slowly when temperatures are cooler. Experiment with shorter watering times as temperatures drop, until you get the right amount of water for the soil to dry within three to four days.
If you have cold-hardy succulents and freezing temperatures are forecast, don’t water outdoor succulents. Succulents have a better chance of surviving temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit if their soil is dry and they have less water in their leaves, stems, and roots.
Cold-hardy succulents go dormant in winter and don’t need water. Don’t be tempted to water them when the weather is dry but freezing. They’ll get water later, from melting snow, as the weather warms. Cold-hardy succulents must be protected from slushy snow during warm spells—it can saturate the ground and later refreeze. Turn to the sections on soil and planting for tips on well-draining soil.
A quick note about pots with saucers. Some great-looking pots come with cute saucers to collect water. Be sure to tip standing water out of the saucer after watering. If the saucer is filled with water, it keeps the soil damp. A great fix is to put decorative rocks or pebbles in the saucer, then set the pot on top!
What if you’ve found the perfect pot, and it doesn’t have drainage holes? It’s okay. If you know how to care for succulents, remember that the soil will take longer to dry. Compensate by giving less water. Water just enough for the roots to soak it up within three days. Or, as mentioned in the section on Preparing Containers, it’s easy to drill a drainage hole, so refer to that simple step-by-step DIY guide if needed.