You’ll want to bookmark this guide on how to identify and fix common problems with succulents. Because let’s face it, at one time or another, most of us have killed a succulent plant.
It’s hard not to fall for succulents with their various shapes, colors and sizes. These social media darlings look beautiful in photos and in our homes and offices. These beauties still need care, even though we sometimes forget, or get busy with travel away from home.
That’s also the beauty of succulents. They can go long periods without watering.
Photo above by Laura K. Mercer
Still, succulents can encounter problems. So we asked gardening and succulent experts John Bagnasco and Bob Reidmuller, authors of “Success with Succulents: Choosing, Growing, and Caring for Cactuses and Other Succulents,” (Cool Springs Press) how to solve and fix these problems.
Bagnasco, also author of “Planting Designs for Cactus & Succulents: Indoor and Outdoor Projects for Unique, Easy-Care Plants–in All Climates,” (Cool Springs Press) is president and co-host of the nationally syndicated Garden America Radio Show, a program that reaches 1.1 million listeners every weekend. Reidmuller is resident horticulturist with Altman Plants, the nation’s largest wholesale producer of cactuses and succulents, which supplies The Home Depot.
How to identify and fix common problems with succulents:
1. Overwatered succulent
Stop watering. If there’s a hole in the pot, it’s difficult to overwater a succulent since the water drains out. However, succulents can get moldy if there’s no drainage.
If you think you overwatered, save your succulent by laying the pot on its side and letting all the water drain out of the pot for a few days. If you notice your succulent is getting worse, pull it out of the pot with the soil ball. If that doesn’t seem to help, rinse the soil off the root and let the succulent sit out to dry for a week in the sun to give them a chance to heal. Then, you can replant them. If you haven’t killed them to the core, give them a reasonable watering. You might save them.
In general, succulents use more moisture during growing periods and the majority of succulents do most of their growing in spring and summer.
Tip: Use a chopstick (or long toothpick that’s round, as seen above), considered the poor man’s soil moisture meter, to determine if your succulents need to be watered. Read on to learn more about this method. Another soil moisture method is the flat Mexican beach pebble. Place it on the soil and leave it laying flat on the soil surface. Any moisture will collect on the bottom and it will look darker if it’s moist on the bottom. If it is moist, your succulent doesn’t need to be watered.
2. Under-watered succulent
Succulents can go an exceedingly long period of time and still be okay without water. But there does come a point where, if you let the plant go too long without water, there’s no moisture to keep them plump and alive. What happens is the roots collapse. Then when you do water them, the succulent rots.
That’s where the chopstick method comes in handy. If the chopstick in your plant is slightly damp 2/3 of the way down or bone dry to the bottom, then you can water at that point.
Hopefully you haven’t let the roots dry out. Also, don’t despair and don’t give up until you’ve killed succulents at least a few times.
Tip: Get two identical succulents and alternate those in your decorating scheme. Keep one inside and the other outside. Every other week (during warm weather growing season) rotate your succulents so they always looks fresh and not in stress.
3. Brown spots
Brown spots on succulents can depend on the cause. Sun scalding, also called succulent sunburn, causes large burned spots or a patch. That’s permanent damage and can’t be corrected. It’s a common occurrence when people move plants from indoors to outdoors and think the succulent (or cactus) can be in direct sun after being indoors after a few months. It’s like introducing your skin to sun without sunscreen. That’s when you need to let your plant adjust by giving it indirect or morning sun for a time.
There’s also freeze damage. Usually, this turns your plant to goo.
Then there’s insects, such as scale, that appear as brown spots and can sometimes be treated using a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol. Just swab the plant and rub off the scale insects.
Fungal rot also causes brown spots. Usually those are from a secondary effect of overwatering causing edema, or water retention, in the plant tissue. Cells explode and cause pockmarking.
4. Leaves turning black
The oldest leaves on the bottom of succulents normally turn black, or brown, and dry out. This is normal.
Other than that, anytime you see black it’s not good on any plant. Sometimes you can come back from it, but other times you cannot. It could be a hidden problem, such as overwatering. If the darkness is farther up the plant, it’s usually not a good sign, indicating that the rotting is creeping up through the plant. If that’s the case, use the overwatering tips above.
5. Stem is rotting
For this one, it depends on the type of succulent. Typically, you can snip off above the rot, where the plant collapsed and reroot the top. If the leaves have not started to rot, you have recourse there, too. You can pull them off and make new plants.
Just let your succulent stems or leaves dry out and callus for three to five days first before planting again in fresh succulent potting soil.
6. Droopy leaves
You don’t know unless you’re there looking at the plant whether it’s under watered, overwatered or rot is starting someplace. The majority of these problems are caused by overwatering.
However, in the case of the plant pictured above, this succulent needs to be repotted, pruned of its lower leaves and watered.
7. Pups and more pups everywhere
Keep doing what you’re doing because it’s working.
Echeveria pups form around the base of the succulent. You need to go in and snip them off close to the parent plant and let it sit around for a week to dry before you plant them in new flowerpots.
Kalanchoe forms full grown little plants that fall down and root again. They wind up in every pot of everything you have. Just dig them up and put them in pots of their own. That’s how kalanchoe earned its nickname “mother of thousands.”
These free plants can be shared with others or save them for your collection. Watch this video and learn how to propagate succulents.
8. Tall, thin and stretched
When you see succulents with etiolated growth, or are tall, thin and stretched looking, it’s a very serious problem. Your plant doesn’t get enough sunlight. You’ll see this in succulents as they grow without much sunlight that they get smaller and smaller and taller and taller and the leaves begin shrinking and losing color.
The only thing you can do is prune the stem near the root base, leaving just a few leaves. Make sure it’s in sufficient light or it will do the same exact thing.
This problem can be pronounced on cactus, especially very old ones. You’ll get this giant tangle of green. Once that happens, the plant is usually ruined forever, though that growth can be cut off and it will branch out from where the cut is made.
With the paddle plant, don’t worry. This succulent grows tall and thin normally.