Do Succulents Need Sun? How to Keep them Thriving

succulents plants

If you’ve ever seen that image floating around of a cactus with the caption, “My potted cactus died. I am less nurturing than a desert,” and felt a little sting, we would make great friends. When I first started trying to grow things – plants, vegetables, herbs, flowers… anything really, I failed. Miserably. 

I mean, buy a plant, put it in the sun, water sometimes. How hard could it be? While it turns out that keeping plants alive is actually quite easy, it doesn't seem that way at first. Simple questions like do succulents need sun come to mind with outright confusion to follow.

It's interesting though, that once you know the basics and get a routine down, learning how to keep them thriving isn't all that complicated. If I knew back when I started what I know now, I might not have such an extensive graveyard of plants that went by the wayside. So, I'm here to share what I've learned through trial and error so you can skip the plant-killing and head straight for thriving succulent bliss.

Succulents and Light

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In short, yes, those fleshy little plants you see hanging on walls, growing in small pots, and taking over Instagram by storm do need sunlight. Succulents store moisture in their stems, leaves, and roots, which is why they're known for requiring little watering and attention. As for sunlight, you have to pay a little more attention.

Origin 

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Succulents evolve from several climates – tropical, alpine, and desert. Knowing the origins of any species, you have can help you understand their lighting needs. So, to answer the question do succulents need sun, look at the species and its native climate.

If you want to start a succulent garden, there's a few things to consider and steps to follow to ensure success.

Choose the Right Succulents

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Lighting is essential with succulents, and although they do need sun, different species will thrive depending on your climate and whether you'll grow them indoors or outdoors.

Not all succulents thrive in full sun. Likewise, many prefer low light and shade to stay perky. As a general rule of thumb, colorful varieties do best outdoors. Those with vibrant colors like purples, reds, or oranges require at least some direct sun. The light that's available indoors isn't usually enough.

So, if you’re going to grow indoors, your best is to go for the naturally green varieties. If you’re interested in a quick start to succulent gardening, you can pick up some that ready to pot and grow like these or these that are already potted. 

Light

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Here are some quick facts about the light succulents need and troubleshooting issues.

  • Most succulents require 3 hours of direct sun each day – outdoors or in a window
  • Morning sun is best as the afternoon sun can be harsh and cause damage to the plant
  • During the summertime in hot climates, the harsh sun should be filtered to protect your succulents
  • Succulents can get sun-burnt and acquire scarring on their leaves 
  • When a succulent isn’t getting enough light, they tend to stretch out in hopes of reaching more light
  • Stretching out can take the form of a plant growing tall in the middle or leaves becoming spaced further apart
  • Succulents that had color, to begin with (black, red, pink, purple) may lose their brightness and become green when they aren't getting enough light
  • On the other hand, succulents getting too much sun may lose vibrancy and look "washed out."

Getting Succulents to Thrive 

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Figuring out light needs is just the first step on the succulent journey. Now that you have an answer to the question do succulents need sun, we can talk more about the rest of the conditions that will help your plants thrive!

Watering

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As you may know, succulents have their reputation of requiring little water, as we talked about earlier. If there is just one thing you should remember, it's that you should only water your succulent if its soil is dry. Because succulents are adapted to arid climates, they can be over-watered and damaged. The roots of the plant should never be kept wet for too long as they can rot, causing the rest of the plant to rot.

The average watering for most succulents is going to be about once per week. Now, if your garden is in a scorching climate and your plants are growing with adequate drainage, you may need to water them two to three times per week. On the other hand, if your succulents are growing in a colder climate, you may need to water less frequently or use less water.

When watering your succulents, you need only to wet the soil nearest the base of the plant. That’s because that’s where the roots are concentrated. If your pots are much larger than the base of your plants, it’s not necessary to wet all of the soil.

Watering in terrariums should be done with extra care since there is no drainage. You don't want the roots to keep pulling water from the soil and rot, so be careful with overwatering.

You can save a rotting plant – if you notice leaves turning black or losing texture, remove the rotting leaves immediately. If the soil is very wet still, remove the plant from the soil and let the roots air out until they are dry. Once dry, you can re-pot in fresh soil.

Soil

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Similarly, to light and water, succulents need just the right soil to thrive. Soil that is pebbly or gritty works best. You can purchase cactus mix soil at most nurseries that will come ready for planting. 

If you want to do it yourself, you can add vermiculite, perlite, pumice, or other materials to make the soil better for drainage. By keeping the soil a little rocky or gritty, water can drain better and ensure the roots aren’t staying wet too long. 

Fertilizer

Did you know that succulents need fertilizer? Succulents grow primarily in the spring and summer months, with growth slowing during the fall. Winter months the plants are typically not developing, you'll want to avoid fertilizing during the winter or fertilize lightly.

During the warmer growing months, you can feed your plants three to four times. You can use regular houseplant fertilizer, keeping in mind that you’ll give succulents about half of what you would give other house plants. You can also use succulent fertilizer to cut out any confusion. 

Temperature

Interestingly enough, succulents thrive in most temperatures. That's not to say you can leave them out while it's freezing or overly hot, but temperatures over freezing and below 95 degrees are just fine for most succulents. If your plants are growing in a scorching climate, keep in mind the watering techniques we went over earlier and keep an eye out for drooping.

Pots and Planters

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You already know that succulents require excellent drainage to thrive. It's best to choose pots that had built-in drainage, but as we discussed with gritty soil, there's no reason your succulent garden can't thrive with pots or terrariums that aren't equipped with drainage holes.

Many succulents come in little plastic containers that aren't super decorative or slightly but can easily be put into the pots of your choice. If yours have holes in the bottom, these are perfect for sliding straight into a container that doesn't have drainage holes, as long as they're not clear.

If not, you can always re-pot them straight into your chosen containers.

Companion Planting

I know you've seen all the beautiful trending succulent gardens trending online and wondered, how do they have such beautiful, thriving plants mixed and matched in containers and planters? The secret to success is knowing exactly what you're working with.

Many succulents can be combined into pots, and it may not appear that any rhyme or reason was used to choose these soil buddies other than pure aesthetics, but there's a few tricks for success.

It boils down to choosing plants that will grow similarly and require similar care. If you want to dig deeper into the delicious pairing, I recommend this book to get you started. For a quick lesson to get you started, look at the leaves of the succulents you want to pair. 

Select plants with similar watering needs, those with thicker leaves that hold water well should be paired tighter. A thinner leaved plant may need water more often than its partner who isn't impossible, but they're easier to care for when paired similarly.

Summing It Up

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A thriving succulent garden keeps a delicate balance of light, water, soil, and temperature, more or less in that order. It may seem like a lot to take in, but in practice, you'll find that once you get on a roll with succulent gardening, it becomes a relaxing hobby done with ease. 

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