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How to Keep Your Succulent Alive

March 24, 2016

A spiky little plant—stout cactus or lotus-like succulent—won you over at the hardware store or plant shop and, perhaps against your better judgement, you took it home and stuck it in the windowsill and crossed your fingers. That is an excellent start, and frankly, most succulents and cacti don't need too much more than that.

But since these desert plants aren't native to the conditions of the average windowsill, they do require a little nurturing to stay perky. Christopher Satch, plant specialist over at The Sill, shares his 3 best tips for keeping succulents and cacti happy and alive wherever you live:

Photo by Mark Weinberg

1. Sun, sun, sun.

Succulents and cacti are pretty resilient—they do well in deserts, after all, where it's dry and the temperatures lean extreme—but they do need a lot of sun. Give them as much direct light as possible: Windowsills, or any other bright, sunshine-y spot in your home, are where they'll be happiest.

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Don't worry too much about your windowsill being too cold for your succulents, but do position them away from drafts.

2. Under-watering is better than over-watering.

Think about the desert again—not a lot of rain, but when it comes, it's often a big flush of water. That's how to think about watering succulents and cacti: Water them less often than your other houseplants, but give them a good long drink when you do. ("Once a week in the summer, and once a month, if that, in the winter," said Chris.) If your plant isn't in direct sunlight, where it's cooler and the water doesn't evaporate as quickly as it does in full sun, water your plant even less. Between waterings, lay off until the soil is completely dry.

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Top Comment:
“Plus you need to plant in special soil mix for cacti. Thanks for the tips!”
— Nancy B.

Keeping succulents and cacti dry is important, since they're very prone to fungus and rot, in part because of their delicate root systems. If icebergs have just a little going on above the water and a heck of a lot going on beneath it, succulents and cacti are the opposite: Their root structures are minimal and very small, Chris told me. They'll develop roots to drink up water when it comes, but then let some of those roots die off when the soil is dry (so that they can be efficient with their energy). Too much water overwhelms the roots and provides opportunities for rot—bad news for your little plant.

To avoid this, water infrequently, keep the body and leaves of the plant dry, and make sure you keep your plant in a container that drains well. Additionally, consider potting in a specific succulent/cactus potting mix, which is designed to drain water, instead of regular potting mix, which is designed to retain moisture. When in doubt, just wait for your succulent to tell you it's thirsty: "They'll shrivel a bit and get wrinkles," said Chris, "and that's when it's time to water them again."

3. Patience.

Succulents and cacti don't grow quickly—and it doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong if they stay pretty much the same size for a long time. They cycle in and out of growth spurts, and will grow a bit when conditions are ideal (read: super-sunny, warm, dry spells), but may not grow much at all for months at a time, especially during the winter. It's not that they're not healthy; they're just conserving energy.

What succulents and cacti do you have in your home? Tell us their stories in the comments.

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  • Noreen Fish
    Noreen Fish
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    Nancy Brandwein
Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


Noreen F. March 25, 2016
I have a flat, wide planter with a succulent garden, but there's one plant that's completely taking over! Evidently it didn't get the memo that succulents are supposed to be slow-growing. I've tried cutting it back in hopes of getting it to branch, but it just grows a single new shoot next to where I cut.
Smaug March 24, 2016
This is OK advice for most of the common succulents you're likely to find from general plant dealers (though I'd be pretty leery of direct light behind windows), but it should be remembered that succulents are a huge and varied group of plants- succulence is just one of their many properties. They are not by any means all desert plants they vary from forest dwellers, such as the epiphytic cacti, through dwellers in salt marshes. The more difficult types, such as many of the caudiciforms (pachypodiums, adeniums etc.) often have specific dormancy requirements that can be a little confusing. Something to especially look out for with most succulent plants in the home is root mealy bugs, which will colonize the roots under hot, dry conditions, especially in porous soils. It's a good idea to pull plants from their pots occasionally- especially those that aren't growing well- to check for them. Regular mealies will also colonize above soil- they can be dealt with effectively with rubbing alcohol.
Nina A. March 24, 2016
Great article, Caro!
Nancy B. March 24, 2016
I was concerned because my succulents, especially the echevarria, grow up and get leggy. I always thought they should grow OUT. But I took them all to local florist and he said growing up is good. Also echoed this article re watering. I was watering once every week or two weeks. Once a month if that he said! Plus you need to plant in special soil mix for cacti. Thanks for the tips!
Smaug March 24, 2016
I haven't seen your plants, but many of the rosette type succulents will extend upwards to begin the flowering process.