Why Beginners Struggle with Succulents

Text and photos by Lina Rodriguez.
Lina has been gardening and keeping houseplants for over ten years. She has worked with organizations promoting community gardens, taught small-space gardening, and worked on other food justice initiatives.

Senecio herreianus (string of tears), one of 4 succulents in my collection of over 50 houseplants, tolerates lower-light conditions compared to most other succulents.

The first houseplant I ever bought was a tiny, adorable succulent. I had read over and over again that succulents are the best houseplants for beginners. I diligently cared for it, delighting in every little change. But soon the leaves started shriveling and falling off. A month later, it was dead. So I bought a couple more. A few months later, they, too, were dead.

The houseplant hobby is becoming very popular, and I’ve seen many people have this experience. They want to start keeping plants and get a succulent because they’re “easy for beginners.” When the plant dies, they are discouraged that they killed a plant that is supposedly impossible to kill and certain that they have a “black thumb.”

I have now been keeping houseplants healthy for ten years and have over 50 in my home. Only four of them are succulents. Because here’s the secret: succulents are easy, low-maintenance houseplants if you have the perfect conditions for them. But a lot of people don’t.

I think the two main reasons people struggle with succulents is because they don’t have enough light and because their potting medium isn’t regulating moisture correctly. This post is not a comprehensive resource on growing succulents indoors, but I think understanding these concepts is the most straightforward way for beginners to successfully grow succulents — or figure out that they should try something else.


Light

Succulents need a lot of light, especially if you want to see them grow. Exact recommendations vary, but these plants generally like to be in a south-facing window with at least half a day of bright sunlight. Check the plant tag or online description of the plant’s needs before purchasing. Keep in mind, though, that these may be general guidelines and not specific to your particular variety of succulent or to your location.

Lack of light was definitely what killed my first succulents. It can be difficult to judge how much light you have in your home and many people don’t get as much bright light as they think they do. For example, I had a south-facing window, but the building next door blocked the sun for a significant portion of the day, so my plants weren’t getting as much light as I thought they were. If you have a succulent that is struggling, really take a look at how much and how long your plant gets bright light throughout the day. A simple way to do this is to observe the light every hour or two over the course of a day. Write down your observations in a chart to get a sense of whether that spot has the amount of light you thought it did.  Remember the hours of light in a day will vary depending on the time of year, so you may want to do this a few times in different seasons. Once you assess your light, you may decide that a houseplant with lower light needs will be easier for you than a succulent.

My variegated jade plant (Crassula ovata), originally grown under artificial light, is now enjoying my bright sun room.

Some types of succulents can tolerate less sunlight, but those specifics aren’t usually included in the “succulents are good for beginners” advice. You can also use a grow light to give your succulents a boost (that’s how I was able to keep my pretty crassula ovata ‘variegata’ (variegated jade) alive in my dark apartment). If you are interested in lower-light-tolerant succulents, Succulents for Small Spaces has information about how to choose the right succulent for the right light. Other helpful resources from our Master Gardeners’ Bookshelf include reviews of The Complete Book of Cacti & Succulents, The Indestructible Houseplant, and Gardening Under Lights.


Potting medium and moisture

If the number one piece of advice for beginners is, “Succulents are easy,” the number two piece of advice is, “Don’t over-water your succulents.” Succulents evolved to thrive in arid climates, so they like their potting medium to dry out completely between waterings. Succulent roots are very fine and rot easily in damp environments.

A common mistake I see is thinking about “over-watering” only in terms of how frequently you, well, water a plant. But the type of potting medium also has a huge effect on whether the roots stay too damp for too long. Many beginners assume that nurseries sell plants in a growing medium that is well-suited to that particular plant, but that is not the case. Plants purchased at stores are almost always planted in dense, peat-based soil. Peat is excellent at retaining moisture, which is great for plants that don’t like to dry out. But, as we’ve just discussed, succulents hate being too wet.

Furthermore, peat dries out slowly, but once it is dry, it actually repels water. This causes a serious problem if you wait until it is totally dry to water — which is what you’re supposed to do with succulents. Instead of absorbing into the soil (where the roots can reach it), water will flow to the edges of the pot and straight out the bottom. Even if the top of the soil feels wet, the soil around the roots may be bone-dry. Eventually, your succulent will die from lack of water.

The peat-based soil your succulent came in risks keeping your succulent’s roots too damp and too dry. That’s a lot for a beginner to figure out!

What succulents need is a potting medium that allows water to flow through it evenly when dry, doesn’t retain too much moisture, and lets delicate roots grow. Repot succulents by mixing potting soil with up to 50% perlite or pumice. This makes soil less dense, which helps water flow through it evenly and doesn’t crush fine roots. It also creates more airflow, which helps the soil dry out.

Echeveria lilacina (ghost echeveria). I killed many an echeveria before I figured out that the conditions in my apartment were the problem. Now I live in a house with a sunroom and have been able to keep this beauty healthy.

It is true that succulents are easy, low-maintenance plants in certain conditions. If you’re a beginner and have those conditions, succulents are a great choice. But if you’re struggling to keep that “indestructible” succulent alive, don’t get discouraged! With a few tweaks to its location and potting medium, a succulent could thrive in your care. Or maybe you need to find a plant that is better suited to your home’s conditions — which would make that plant the best one for you!


References

 

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