How to grow succulents: 5 tips to care for your indoor plants

Before you join the trend and buy a few succulents, make sure you know how to effectively take care of them.
Succulent plants
Be careful not to overwater your succulents.Getty Images

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By Lindsay Tigar

Planning to become a plant mom or dad? Succulents are a great way to start. TODAY Home spoke to experts with mega green thumbs to find out the best practices for growing and nourishing succulents.

From understanding how much sun and water they need to learning how to re-pot them, these tools and strategies will hopefully extend the life of your succulent.

How much sun do succulents need?

One of the largest — and most rampant — misconceptions about succulents it that they’re made for sterile, windowless offices. This couldn’t be further from the truth, according to Meredith Boldt, owner of Houseplant Designs. All plants — even succulents — need sunlight, she explains. Most need an estimated three hours daily.

“East windows are wonderful for many types of plants because they provide that early morning bright sun that won't scorch your plants. If you receive nice light from a southern or western exposure, you'll want to make sure your leaves aren't getting brown spots,” Boldt said.

When this happens, Boldt advised keeping them a few feet away to save them from scorching.

If you don’t have the gift of natural vitamin D, choose plants that thrive in lower-light conditions, like aloe, kalanchoe, jade, string of hearts and pearls, Haworthia, Sansevieria (snake plant) and ZZ plant, advised Boldt.

“These will still need a good amount of light to thrive, but can be placed a little farther away from windows,” she added.

How long do succulents take to grow?

No two succulents grow at the same rate and most of the time, they’re slow to sprout. You can expect to wait at least a few months to see progress. If you aren’t seeing any change, that usually means your succulent needs to be moved, has too much (or too little) water or its roots do not have space to sprout. Seasonality also plays a factor.

“Plants will go dormant during the winter and not show a lot of outward growing progress. During the spring and summer, use a well-balanced fertilizer each month with your watering routine to help feed your plant the extra nutrients it needs to grow up big and strong,” Boldt said.

How to plant a succulent

When planting succulents, it’s important to follow a few instructions to ensure their health. Boldt explained how to get started:

  • Start with a pot that is 1 to 2 inches larger than the grow pot the plant comes in. Use a clay pot with good drainage, since clay will wick away excess moisture instead of retaining it (unlike plastic or glazed ceramic pots).
  • Use a bag of cactus or succulent soil mix from your local plant shop, since it’s specifically designed for this particular sprout. Add a handful of soil and gently roll it between your hands to loosen up the roots.
  • Fill in any spaces with soil and tamp down gently. Avoid touching your succulent too much as they aren’t a big fan of human contact.
  • Add just enough water to wet the soil and let the magic begin.

Only plant succulents between spring and fall, as this is their growing season when conditions are best for their needs, according to Martha Mendoza-Backen, owner of A Succulent Day.

How can you propagate succulents?

One of the coolest benefits of being a succulent parent is creating new plants out of it. Also known as propagating, growing cuttings can take a few tries to get it right. Follow these steps:

  • When you see a "baby" sprouting, twist off the leaf and place it on top of dry, succulent soil in a new pot. In the case of Snake Plants, you may see plantlets growing beside their mother plant. To separate them, use a clean, sharp knife. Leave them alone long enough to callus over and resist watering.
  • Place the pot in indirect light, and watch as roots start to grow within a few weeks. Once you see roots, you can water sparingly until the plant is established in a new pot.
  • Then, care as usual.
Even succulents need sunlight! Getty Images

What are the best tips for growing succulents?

Now that you have potted your succulent, it’s time to create a game plan for tending to its requirements. To give the most life to your green baby, follow these tips:

Don’t overwater.

Or as Boldt puts it: Don’t love your plant to death.

“A lot of people panic when they see any outward sign of distress and immediately think it needs water,” she explained. “Overwatering plants is the No. 1 reason why they perish.”

A sign your plants are being underwatered is shriveled-up or wrinkled leaves. When this happens, give it a good drink, or create a manageable schedule of checking the soil each week or two. When in doubt, run through what could be wrong: pot type, soil, light or water. Most of the time, they have enough water, but it needs a pick-me-up of the others.

Use a soil moisture meter.

If you can’t quite read a plant’s mind (we feel ya), take out the guesswork with a soil-moisture meter. These look like a meat thermometer and are placed in a pot where they reach the roots, explained Lauren Janney, the founder and CEO of The Inspired Garden. Most have a scale from dry to moist, so when it hits one, it’s time to water.

“Succulents are very resilient,” she said. “They get shipped across the country bare root with no soil and can handle about seven to 10 days before planting.”

Don’t treat them all the same.

Even though succulents tend to look alike, they don’t all have the same needs, and should be treated accordingly.

“Check with your local plant shop to see what type of plant will do well in your home or use online resources before purchasing any houseplant so you can ensure that it will thrive,” Boldt explained. “It's best to see the plant as an investment and to make sure you have the ideal growing conditions in your home before purchasing.”

As an example, Mendoza-Backen recommended looking at colors. Succulents that have bright colors will do best in direct light environments, while a cactus isn’t as picky. Choose what’s right for your space — and not just what’s prettiest.

Look out for pests.

Bugs within your plants happen more than we realize, according to Mendoza-Backen. Most often, she sees white, cottony-looking insects called "mealy" bugs. When they attack the new growth of succulent, they multiply and kill the bloom.

"I advise to always inspect your succulents for mealy bugs, and at the first sight of them, take steps to treat it,” she explained.

The best solution? A simple spray bottle of rubbing alcohol that will defeat the bug attack, without damaging succulents. You can also swap out the soil for an extra measure.

Be patient.

If you want a plant that changes all the time, succulents aren’t your best bet. In general, succulents are slow and steady, and it takes a while to see change. In fact, the "highest" growers are Echeverias and Howorthia, which grow 6 and 4 inches, respectively, in a year, according to Janney. The beauty of a succulent is in its longevity, so as long as you’re patient and diligent, you can bet your garden buddy will be around for years to come.