Care for Succulents and Cactus

General Care for Succulents
What is a succulent? A succulent is any plant that has adapted to dry, arid climates by storing water in its leaf, stem and/or roots. They are called 'succulent' because the cells swollen with water are 'juicy'. Well-known example are cactus, aloe and jade plant. When you break or cut these plants, you can see that they are full of water. 

The following is some general information on how to take care of succulents. Remember that this is only a basic reference. Succulents are highly resilient and adaptable but, like all plants, they have their preferences in terms of light, water and temperature. They do not 'thrive on neglect' as many people say. However, many succulents will survive 'in spite of' neglect but the stress can make them more susceptible to pests and disease, and can tarnish their perfect beauty.

Light (Indoors)
A sunny window or bright place with a least 4 hours of direct sun per day is best. Without enough light they 'search' for light, growing long thin weak growth. This 'growth' is usually considered fast and is light green in color with leaves spaced far apart. Most succulents grow slowly and have compact growth in rich colors. Without enough light, the plant will eventually die. If your plant starts to 'stretch', gradually introduce (to prevent burning) it to more light.

Light (Outdoors)
Most succulents are sun lovers but they do appreciate a little shade in hot afternoons in July and August (especially here in Georgia) when they can burn, leaving scars. Many succulents in the natural habitat are protected from the hottest part of the day by trees, shrubs and grasses. 

Most plants can take more sun as they increase their root size and become more established. 
Also, when you bring a plant home, slowly introduce it to a sunny location over a period of a few days. You never know the condition that it 'grew up' in, putting it directly into the sunlight could very easily cause it to burn which can scar or even kill your plant. (Many nurseries grow succulents under a shade cloth). Do the same in spring; plants get less sun in winter, so be careful about putting it out all day on the first sunny day. Nobody likes a sunburn on the first day of a beach vacation!

Younger plants need more protection from the sun.
Smaller pots dry out faster than larger ones.
Clay pots dry out faster than plastic ones.

The thing to remember is that succulents do not like to stay wet for longer periodsRemember also that they have adapted to dry, arid climates  by 'filling up' with water like a camel in order to survive droughts and dry periods. Watering well (less in dormant period), then allowing to dry between watering simulates their natural habitat. If kept constantly moist, most succulents will rot.

So, how do you know when the soil is dry? You can go by the weight of the pot as it is much lighter when dry or check top couple inches of soil with your finger or with a chopstick.

Some succulents are extremely water-sensitive so checking the soil is crucial, while other succulents are a little more forgiving. 

When you water it, make sure the soil is soaking up the water. Sometimes completely dry soil will just repel the water and it will drain out the bottom with the soil remaining completely dry. A tray under the pot is useful in allowing soil to soak up water from the bottom.  Always use soil that drains well (see next section on soil).

Most succulents need more water when they are in bloom and when in their active growing season. The majority of succulents are spring-summer growers, dormant in winter. Others are fall-winter growers, dormant in summer. 

When actively growing, succulents need more water; water deeply and water again just before the soil dries out completely. Summer growers are easier to grow because it's hot and sunny and the plants are using the water quickly and the heat is helping to dry out the soil. Winter growers can present problems, because they need more water but in winter soil can stay too wet too long because it's cold, humid and sun is less intense (when they need it they most because they are actively growing). 

When dormant, succulents need less water. This is easier for winter-dormant plants, because a shallow watering just to keep the roots from completely drying out is all they need every couple weeks or longer. For summer-dormant plants, decrease the water but also decrease the amount of intense sun light; with less water roots can dry out and die quickly in hot summer temperatures. 

If you use container without drainage holes, it is very easy to over water and kill your succulents. When using a container without a drainage hole, measure the water out in a separate container first. This way you can see exactly how much is going into the container. Using a watering can or putting it under running watering will undoubtedly over-water the plant and your plant will rot.

A succulent grower once told me something about soil mixes...'Keep it simple', he said, and that has always worked for me. I use 2/3 ordinary potting soil (anything except moisture control) with 1/3 slate chips (you can also use pea gravel or any kind of small stone) for indoor plants or those sheltered from rain. For pots on uncovered patio, I use 50/50 soil to slate chips. In succulent beds, I till gravel into the top 8-10'' of soil at a 50/50 ratio. Our rainfall in GA can be very random (from deluge to drought) and the extra drainage gives them a better chance to dry out. Our annual rainfall is 49'', compared to CA at 17'' and 7'' in Arizona. For this reason, some succulents must be protected from the rain here in GA and cannot grow in open beds.

I have tried pre-mixed cactus soils and found that they stayed wet too long...perhaps because of our high humidity here in GA. I have not had good results with sand either, it actually seems to make the soil sticky. I have also tried perlite and vermiculite which work, but personally I don't like the look of them. Remember, what works here in Georgia is not necessarily going to work where you live as your growing conditions and climate, as well as the kind of succulent being grown are all factors to be considered. The important thing for succulents is drainage. In order for succulents to take in necessary water, you have to saturate the soil (less when dormant). 

While fertilizing succulents is not as crucial as with other plants, most will benefit from a very diluted liquid fertilizer (1/4  strength) added to the water during the growing season. Any common houseplant fertilizer or organic fertilizer will do. You can also use the slow release granular kind, just follow the manufacturer's directions.

Many succulents have shallow root systems and can stay in the same pot for years. But when you're ready to transplant, put it into a pot only one size larger. After transplanting, do not water it for a few days. Allow any broken roots to heal first, then water. This will help to prevent root-rot. Keep it out of direct sun for a couple days, then gradually increase water and sunlight.