It seems simple enough. Put plant in ground. Water plant when it’s thirsty. Watch plant, and your smiles, grow wider and taller. Hooray for plant (and you)!
When it comes to when and how much to water, however, what would seem like an elementary exercise inevitably turns out to be more involved. But don’t fret. You got this; we know it! A good place to start is to water thoroughly when the soil is dry to the touch, and not just at the surface but down by the roots. This is especially true for a plant during its active growing season (more on that below). When in doubt, procure a water meter.
As a rule of thumb, figure on watering your succulents at least once every two weeks. While that rule is rather pliable, subject to factors we’ll run down in a bit, we can’t stress enough that it’s better to underwater succulents than to overwater them. They will more easily rebound from lack of nourishment than from too much. You will learn a lot about your succulents and what they want simply by observing them and their responses to weather and watering.
- Firm, plump leaves indicate a happy plant.
- Squishy, mushy leaves likely mean it has received too much water. Discoloration might even be noticeable, such as black or yellowy brown spots on the leaves or stem. In those cases, something may definitely be rotten in the garden.
- Shriveled, wrinkled leaves tell you it’s time to fill up the watering can. However, if it’s only the very bottom (oldest) leaves that are thin and shriveled, and the rest look good, then that is completely, totally normal. In the case of a dehydrated aloe, the leaves will fold, or curve, up. The rosettes of drought-stressed echeverias may be appear closed up.
- A caveat related to dormancy, which deserves a post of its very own: Succulents, some more than others, anticipate a resting period of little to no growth, thus little water and zero plant food required from you. For example, aeoniums and dudleyas are especially known for snoozing during summer. Hence, they may appear rather tired, but that doesn’t mean you should water them like crazy to wake them up. Let them chill during dormancy, with only very occasional waterings, if at all, during cooler periods. Some succulents and cacti, on the other hand, all but insist on a dry resting period during winter. So-called winter growers/summer resters include aloes, crassulas, cotyledons, gasterias, kalanchoes, haworthias, and sedums. Summer growers/winter resters include agaves, echeverias, euphorbias, lithops, and sempervivums. Of course, it’s not as simple as “only water this group during these particular months and that group during these other particular months,” so a topic for another time.
- Whereas succulents rotting from too much H2O may not be salvageable, parched plants should perk back up after one or two good drinks. If not always right away.
Sometimes, though, your succulent could be thirsty not because it hasn’t received any water in ages but because it’s poorly rooted or has lost its roots to rot, preventing water from getting to the leaves. If that happens to you, you’re going to need to cut the rotted section off and go about trying to re-establish new roots.
Now back to that rule of thumb, because a friend or neighbor or online acquaintance will inevitably swear by a different schedule. The frequency of watering is awash in considerations other than active growth/rest periods, such as:
- in the ground or container
- thick leaves vs not-so-thick leaves
- pot size
- pot type
- soil mix
- recent rain
- slope or flat grade, or something in between
- organic mulch or inorganic mulch, or no mulch at all
- proximity to hardscape or inorganic elements such as boulders or water fountains.
Not to mention the plant varieties themselves. Like us humans, they don’t share a uniform metabolism rate. Their native habitats don’t all receive the same amount of precipitation or experience an equivalent temperature range.
Indoor plants, insulated from the withering effects of excessive direct sun, can go longer between waterings than their outdoor counterparts. All other things being equal, the same holds for plants in the ground versus those in containers. The former, their roots being underground and better insulated from heat, require less frequent waterings than plants in pots. Indoor succulents, especially those that are established, might look perfectly swell with zero water for weeks. Again, get a good look at the leaves. If they are taut to the touch, you can wait another day.
This whole watering thing may now seem to resemble something complicated rather than simple. Like springing open a can of worms, and we’d rather those worms stay under the soil. As noted earlier, becoming a skilled plant steward starts with becoming a good observer. With experience, you’ll be able to confidently incorporate all those various factors into a plant care plan with nary a bead of sweat. Or buy a water meter. If after doing so you determine that your plants have been getting too much water, adjust the period between soakings. Or if not enough, you probably need to water more thoroughly when you do water them.
Below, watch our CAN DO! Plant Parenting video on watering.