8 foolproof ways to keep your succulents alive

July 7, 2015 | By | Comments (23)
Photo by Trina Roberts.

A shallow trough planted with blue Echeveria, mounding Sempervivum, and a yellow-flowering Sedum. Photo by Trina Roberts.

Are you one of those people who hangs his head in shame whenever we tout succulents as the easiest plants to grow? You’re not alone, trust me. Succulents, plants adapted to survive long periods with very little water, play by their own rule book. Here are some tips to help you keep your babies alive.

1. Give them breathing room

While there are a few succulent types that do well indoors (including aloe and kalanchoe), the vast majority of these plants hail from warm, arid climates and depend on good air circulation to breathe. So while that succulent terrarium looks adorable, forget about it. You’ll have way more luck keeping your plants outdoors, exposed to the elements.

2. Provide some shade

Despite widespread belief, most succulents do not thrive if blasted with the hottest temps and the fullest sun exposure. While they appreciate a lot of light (and very few survive in full shade), most succulents need sun protection, especially if the temperature hits the 90-degree-mark, or if they’re small. Varieties that are solid green, pale, or variegated are most in danger of sun burn. If you are planning to blast your plants with the brightest sun possible, opt for plants that are red, gray, blue, or covered densely with spines (which help to reflect the sun’s rays).

Photo by Thomas J. Story.

Birch planters filled with a mix of Crassula, Echeveria, Sedum, and  Sempervivum. Photo by Thomas J. Story.

3. Start with the right soil

Use a fast-draining cactus mix. Or, if you’re of the DIY persuasion, amend a traditional potting soil with coarse perlite, crushed lava, or pumice. A good recipe is one part amendment and four parts potting mix.

4. Low-water isn’t no-water

Perhaps you’ve killed your succulents by overwatering them (far more common than under-watering) which causes rot. But maybe you’ve already gotten the memo, are diligently dehydrating your plants, and wonder why they are dying. Well, newsflash—they need some water. Succulents like it when soil approaches dry before being watered. But what does this  mean, you ask? It means you’ll likely be a-ok if, during dry times, if you water small pots about once a week and large pots about every two weeks.

Photo by Thomas J. Story.

Mounding Aeonium urbicum in the foreground and a branching Aeonium ‘Kiwi’ in the back. Photo by Thomas J. Story.

5. Include drainage

Remember—succulent roots hate excess water. Be sure there’s drainage in your container. Ok, ok—you’ve caught me in a lie. We sometimes create pretty centerpieces in pots with no drainage. But listen—you’ve got to water these compositions especially lightly. And you have to follow all of the other rules.

6. Succulents need food, too

A once-yearly feeding is enough. Use any well-balanced organic fertilizer, cut the dose in half, and feed at the beginning of the plant’s growing season for best results.


Agave ‘Blue Glow’ underplanted with Echeveria ‘Perle von Nurnberg’ and spilling Sedum rubrotinctum ‘Aurora’. Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

7. Rethink propagation

While you might be accustomed to plucking a stem of your favorite geranium, rosemary bush, or houseplant and dunking it in water to watch roots grow, that won’t work for propagating succulents. You can actually practice the exact opposite method. When you’ve got a plant you like, pluck a stem and let it dry out in the shade for at least 3 daysThis process, known as healing, helps form a callus, preventing rot. Place your new stem in the soil mix mentioned above, and you should be good to go.

8. Beware of frost

While some succulents, including certain types of Sedum and Sempervivum, can withstand freezing temps, most cannot. When in doubt, assume that any drop below freezing will call damage or death to your plant. The easiest solution for frost protection is to keep plants in containers that are light enough to move indoors or under awnings when a cold snap is predicted. Also, unlike the rest of your garden, succulents actually have a greater chance of survival if they’re dry before a cold snap, not wet. Here, watch this handy little video for more:


  1. Lee Schwartz

    My plants seem healthy but there not flowering what can I do.

    June 4, 2017 at 5:05 am
  2. Alex

    mizcaliflower, You’re probably talking about Trailing Jade (Senecio Jacobsenii). It blushes purple when stressed.


    I have a southern facing balcony, and I put all of my succulent out there in the spring and summer. There’s no protection from the sun while they’re out there and last year some of them got sunburn. What’s the best way to protect them from the sun this year? Should I have them all under something like a patio umbrella? But then wouldn’t that be too much shade for them and they’ll lose their colors and shapes?


    April 12, 2017 at 9:16 am
    • Deborah

      Thank you so much! I did not even know such a plant existed!
      You say it blushes purple when stressed; is it regular green when well cared for?
      Thanks again!

      April 12, 2017 at 9:51 am
  3. mizcaliflower

    Hey Johanna,
    My question is a bit off topic, but it’s been bugging me. I saw a Jade like plant in a shop, but the “foliage” was kind of purple. And it was draping? I’ve had many Jades and I have never seen/had a purple one. Nor one that draped over the pot sides. None of the stalks were upright. The owner of the shop insisted it was a jade and that sunlight caused the purple color. I wish I had made a photo. Do you have any idea what I’m talking about? This was in Thousand Oaks, CA.
    Thanks so much!
    Deborah Flowers

    March 23, 2017 at 11:50 pm
  4. Samir

    Good guidance. Thank you.

    March 5, 2017 at 9:45 am
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  7. Frye

    Thank you so much! this is very helpful for my science project! (And my love for succulents)

    October 20, 2016 at 11:27 am
  8. Yoo


    September 22, 2016 at 10:01 am
  9. Mary Beebe

    Do succulents do better in shallow pots?

    August 12, 2016 at 7:16 pm
  10. Julia Litaker

    Thanks for the great info!!!

    July 21, 2016 at 11:04 am
  11. Laurie A Smith

    Thanks, just moved one of my pots out of full sun after reading this!

    May 24, 2016 at 10:45 am
  12. Barry Parker

    This information really needs to be sent to the folks at West Elm. When I respectfully pointed out that the succulents they were selling should be in more light, the manager replied “They don’t need light, they’re succulents”!!

    March 29, 2016 at 11:26 am
  13. theresa

    fabulous informative reading

    March 29, 2016 at 3:49 am
  14. Legal
    March 26, 2016 at 8:32 am
  15. Legal

    Thanks a lot for sharing

    March 26, 2016 at 8:32 am
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    October 21, 2015 at 11:30 am
  17. dellob

    Thanks for the great info….

    August 5, 2015 at 7:57 am
  18. Omer

    I’d like to find out more? I’d want to find out more details.

    August 1, 2015 at 9:58 pm
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  20. Hye

    What a information of un-ambiguity and preserveness of precious familiarity on the topic of unpredicted emotions.

    July 22, 2015 at 5:55 pm
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