Stunning Succulents: Fertilizing Your Drought-Tolerant Plants


You just brought home that cute little cactus that you’d been eyeing at the market. Or maybe it’s a jade plant that you want to grow lush and green and fill in space in your yard. Perhaps it’s the fractal-like aloe polyphylla, or for that matter a good aloe vera plant. Whatever your choice, you’ve now got a succulent plant. But what do you do to ensure its longevity and beauty in your environment? What fertilizers are safe for succulents, and are there any that aren’t? And most important, what exactly is a succulent, anyway?

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Let’s explore all of these things, and ensure that your drought-tolerant garden is going to be phenomenal in the future!

What Is A Succulent?

The term “succulent” is one which is really hard to define. Completely unscientific, it generally refers to any drought-tolerant plant that has fleshy leaves, stems, or roots. The term covers a wide variety of plants because of that, and they often have an assortment of care requirements to go along with it.

The one thing which all of the plants tend to have in common is the ability to store water for times of drought. Whether it stores it in its thick and rubbery leaves, inside its central barrel-shaped stalk like some cacti, in mucilaginous liquids throughout the plant structure, or in its large root system, there is a method there to store water. This tends to lead people to believe that they don’t need as much water as other plants, but that’s not true. They like water just as much as every other plant. They just know how to save some for later!

There are some plants, such as the Tillandsia species of bromeliads, who fall into the succulent range of plants as water-storers. However, as these “air plants” have very different root structures (and sometimes no roots at all), let’s focus on more standard succulent varieties such as Schlumbergera (also called Christmas cactus), aloe vera and other aloes, Crassula ovata (also called jade plant), and other common garden-center choices for succulents.

Basic Succulent Care

Overall, most succulents prefer a very well-draining soil mix. Since they tend to grow in locations where water is not available for long stretches of time, a lot of commercial potting mixes are just too moist for their liking. Adding some coarse perlite to your soil is a great idea, as it helps ensure that it drains easily.

For people in areas of the world where it’s cold in the winter, it’s a good idea to plant your succulents in pots that you can bring indoors during the cold months. Succulents are particularly prone to freezing damage, as the water that they’ve stored easily turns to ice.

In hotter climates, succulents can actually benefit from a bit of shade. While most people think of desert sun blasting down when they see a succulent, the truth is that many of the varieties that are widely available don’t come from a desert environment. Succulents grow in tropical regions as well as arid deserts, and also may come from sandy mountain areas. Having some partial shade during the hottest part of the day can ensure your plant stays green and doesn’t get sunburned if it’s a young plant, and if it’s older, it can help keep it lush-looking with nice, plump leaves.

Aeration is also important. While a lot of smaller succulents look great in a grouping, and can grow that way, be sure that there’s enough room around each plant to ensure adequate airflow for every plant. They need to breathe. It’s a good idea to repot your succulents every 2-3 years and to separate plants that have gotten too crowded.

Where most plants require regular watering, your succulent can survive for a bit longer without it. However, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t require water at all, just that it will look good for a longer period before wilting (and yes, you can actually cause your succulents to wilt if they’re under-watered enough). As a good rule of thumb, water your succulents thoroughly on a regular basis, but make sure that once the soil is moist, it drains out and doesn’t remain pooled around the plant.

Over-watering is surprisingly common in succulents, but that’s usually the fault of the soil, not the actions of the gardener. If you have it planted in the right place and with the right soil, it should flourish.

Fertilizing Your Succulents

To use the jade plant I mentioned earlier as an example, let’s say you have a smaller succulent and you want to encourage healthy growth. How do you do that?

As succulents tend to hold water, they also can hold a reasonable amount of dissolved nutrients as well. Over-fertilizing your succulent may cause it to try to grow too quickly. Since they are much more robust plants, this can make your jade plant look weedy or stringy. The stems will be weak, the leaves may be smaller and more flexible. So you don’t want to over-fertilize.

But you also don’t want to under-fertilize. If your soil is well-draining but sandy in your garden, under-fertilization can cause the plant to sit in what appears to be a state of suspended animation. It won’t look bad, but it won’t be getting any larger, nor will it typically produce flowers that way.

The goal is to give it what it needs… but just barely enough, so it will grow at a normal rate and be able to manage its own weight and size as it develops. Most succulents can survive without fertilizer, but that tiny boost is enough to convince the plant that it’s in the perfect place for it to get larger.

What Fertilizer To Use

There aren’t a whole lot of generic succulent fertilizers on the market, and that’s in part because there’s such a diversity of them that it’s hard to pinpoint what to use without knowing the specific plant you have. As a lot of garden centers have trays of plants that are just labeled as “assorted succulents”, that can be a problem!

If you can, visit your local succulent club and identify the type of plant that you have, and you can learn from there what the ideal fertilizer mix is for your species. It’s going to be different for a small aloe vera plant than it will be for a large jade plant or a cholla cactus.

But if you don’t have a succulent club, and just can’t identify your plant’s species on your own, don’t fret. You can use a standard, balanced fertilizer for your succulent, just in a smaller quantity. I typically use an 8-8-8 all-purpose fertilizer concentrate. Make a batch up at its normal strength, then dilute it by adding 2-3 times the amount of water, and use that to fertilize with. Once a month is usually enough at that strength.

When You Need A Special Fertilizer

If you’re trying to encourage flowering (which can be really nice, especially in species like the Christmas cactus), you may be tempted to get a special fertilizer. While nitrogen encourages growth of the plant itself, phosphorous and potassium are the ingredients that tend to inspire the plant to bloom, especially the phosphorous.

There are varieties of fertilizers available on the market as “cactus fertilizers”, both organic and inorganic, which are low-nitrogen, high-everything else blends. However, the majority of these are designed to be used straight out of the bottle and far more regularly than other fertilizers, which means they’re already significantly diluted down. Be careful when you’re shopping!

An exception to this rule is Espoma Organic Cactus Food, which is a concentrated liquid fertilizer. When you dilute it with water, it dilutes to a 1-2-2 fertilizer. You can fertilize with that once a week to twice a month with no problem, and it promotes growth and blooming quite well.

Another liquid fertilizer that is slightly more potent is Schultz Cactus Plus, another concentrate which dilutes down in water to a 2-7-7 range. This works especially well to promote blooming, especially in Christmas cactus and other heavily-flowering varieties. It only takes a few drops of this along with your water to do its job, and is something that’s used on a monthly cycle.

Unless you’re trying to promote flowering, these succulent fertilizers aren’t going to add a whole lot of benefit to your plant, and non-flowering succulent varieties aren’t going to need the extra-high levels of flowering nutrients. In those situations, just opting for a balanced fertilizer and diluting it down yourself will be just fine.

Other Fertilizer Options

If you want to try a non-fertilizer alternative, compost tea is a good option. You can either make your own from compost in your own compost pile, or you can purchase compost teabags like Malibu Compost’s version. Premade concentrated compost teas are also available. Compost tea not only provides nutrition to the plant, but it offers nutrients to beneficial soil microbes which help to protect your succulent from pests and soil problems.

If you’d prefer a granular slow-release fertilizer to a liquid fertilizer, you can use almost any balanced NPK fertilizer for them. However, cut the quantity in half from the recommended amount before adding it around the plants, because they really don’t need all that much fertilizer to thrive.

For people who grow their succulents indoors, it might be preferable to opt for the chemical fertilizers over an organic. Many organics have a distinctive aroma that might not be preferable inside. So if you keep indoor succulents, you may wish to consider something along the lines of a popular commercial brand like Miracle-Gro’s succulent formula. It isn’t as pungent in your house!

How To Fertilize Your Succulents

It’s important that you pay attention to how you’re fertilizing your plants. Since some succulents only encounter rain in short bursts, they may not be accustomed to getting wet. Other varieties are jungle-dwelling types which experience water more as a mist rather than regular rainfall. But in all cases, you want to avoid putting the fertilizer on the plant itself.

Most fertilizer blends, especially the liquids, can cause negative results when they’re spread across the leaves or flowers of succulents, and the nutrition isn’t absorbed that way. Feeding your succulents should always be done at the ground level, and ideally all around the outside of the plant over the root mass. Spray directly onto the soil using a garden sprayer, and being careful to try to not splash any onto the succulents directly. You can also use a backpack sprayer for this purpose!

For plants which are more densely packed together, using something like an indoor watering can is a good idea. The slender nozzle of the watering can provides an easy way to keep your plants from getting directly splashed, and helps you to direct the fertilizer at the roots of the plant where they can do the most good.

If you are in an environment that has cold winters, you will want to stop regularly fertilizing for the cold season. Many succulents tend to go into a dormant state in cold weather. Giving them fertilizer in the fall and winter months won’t benefit the plant during that time.

Once spring comes, that is the time to begin fertilizing again, and spring is also an excellent time to separate and re-pot any plants which have become crowded, as it gives them time to establish themselves again before the heat. If you opt to re-pot your plants in the spring, do that first and fertilize afterwards, as it encourages them to wake back up and start to grow once more.

There are winter-growing succulents in some environments, especially those which don’t get hard freezes like parts of California. These can be fertilized year-round, but they tend to do their major growth during those winter months. For those plants, it’s best to fertilize in the fall or early winter, and then check their growth to decide if they need to be fertilized again in the spring.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Is it okay to fertilize my succulents more frequently?

A: Depending on the variety of succulents you have, and the environment in which you live, you will need to establish what works out best for your plants. The nursery industry considers succulents that have been consistently fertilized to be “soft” plants, where those that are irregularly fertilized are “hardened” plants. This mostly refers to how well they will hold up in less fertile conditions. Hardened plants tend to live longer and take more abuse, but soft plants can be incredibly beautiful, so it really depends on how much you feel like babysitting your succulents. Too much fertilizer won’t kill your plant, but it might cause irregular, wiry growth in some species, and it might not be as visually appealing.

Q: Are there any succulents that don’t need fertilizer?

A: Technically, no succulent really needs fertilizer if they’re in reasonably good soil. However, they can certainly benefit from it. If you add a top-dressing of a nice, rich compost to your potted succulents once a year, it’s quite likely that they can survive without fertilizer at all, although they may fall under the “hardened” status mentioned in the last question. Most of the more compact succulents also do well in low fertility situations, so if you have smaller, tightly-compact plants, you may find that they’ll be just fine without fertilizer at all.

Hopefully I’ve answered all of the questions you might have about fertilizing your succulents. Whether they’re large or small, cacti or aloes or some unusual tropical, succulents can be a great addition to your landscape, and keeping them healthy is a breeze! What’s your favorite succulent plant, and what sort of fertilizer do you use? Let me know!


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