I used to kill every succulent and cactus I brought into my house, despite the fact that everyone promised that they were “so easy” and “impossible to kill” (liars!). It wasn’t until I started working in a plant store that I began to dispel some of the deep-rooted myths standing between me and a windowsill full of thriving plant friends.
If you too have murdered more of these tiny plants than you can count, it’s time to take the red pill, step into the (jungle) matrix and see the truth. This is how you actually keep these small plants alive.
1. You do, in fact, have to water them.
All succulents and cacti have adapted to dry environments where they can tolerate full sun. Think of a desert: There are often long periods that pass without any rainfall, then suddenly it pours. Like camels, cacti and succulents conserve this water by storing it in their bodies.
For this reason, it’s not a huge deal if you skip a watering, making these plants somewhat “low-fuss”. They also like to dry out completely in between waterings, so they can go a little longer than your moisture-loving plants. But if you barely give them any water, they will start pulling from the reserves in their bodies (how cruel!). If you notice your succulents and cacti start looking suddenly mushy, this is why.
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2. They will not survive in a dark spot.
Cacti and succulents like light (remember they’ve adapted to live in the desert where there is hardly any shade). So provide them with bright light — ideally in a south or west facing window where they will be exposed to more hours of light (at least six hours per day). Beware: Newly planted succulents can scorch in direct sunlight. You may need to gradually introduce them to full sun exposure by putting them in bright-indirect light at first, like a south-facing window with a sheer curtain over it.
3. Your planter should always have a drainage hole.
If you don’t let the soil drain out between waterings, you can easily overwater them. Your container should have a drainage hole to allow excess water to escape. Remember, succulents and cacti do not like having wet feet (waterlogged soil).
4. Stop misting your cacti and succulents.
Who started the rumor that succulents and cacti like getting misted? A major case of broken telephone happened there, so put your spray bottle down. Misting them can cause brittle roots and mold on the leaves. Instead of watering the leaves, water the soil. When you notice the soil is dry, soak it until water runs out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot.
I’ve also seen people water their succulents and cacti with an eye dropper. This is not enough enough water. You want to totally saturate the soil, and then let it dry out completely. Also, instead of watering it from the top, you can fill up a pan of water and put the plant in it. It will absorb the water from the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot. When the top of the soil is moist, remove it from the pan.
5. Small plants are harder to take care of than large ones.
Don’t be deceived by their unintimidating stature. If your plant is in a pot that’s four inches in diameter or less (the size of a coffee cup or smaller), it will be harder to keep alive than your larger plants. Due to the limited amount of soil, it’s drying out much faster than a six-foot fiddle leaf fig tree so you have to stay on top of watering.
6. Water more in the summer and less in the winter.
If you put a tiny succulent on a bright windowsill in the middle of summer, the soil will likely dry out in a matter of days. Don’t believe anyone who says, “You only have to water them like, once a month.” In the winter, you can water your small plants every two weeks, but I wouldn’t go longer than that. The best way to know if your plant needs to be watered is to feel the top of the soil. If it’s dry or the plant feels weightless when you pick it up, make it rain.
7. Use well-draining soil.
Never, ever pot your succulents in tropical potting soil, or dare I say, the dirt from your backyard (the horror!). Succulents and cacti need soil that drains water quickly, instead of holding on to it. Look for a cacti and succulent mix or make your own by ensuring the tropical potting soil is mixed with sand, pumice or perlite.