One of the greatest conundrums with any succulent (or any plant for that matter) is trying to tell if the plant is over watered or under watered. So how do you tell if your succulent has been overwatered or underwatered? Thankfully, there are telltale signs that you can learn to look out for.
In this guide, we will detail how to tell when your succulent has become over or under-watered. This will include looking at the leaves and how the appearance will differ between an under-watered and an over-watered succulent.
We’ll tell you how to water your succulent correctly and the best watering technique to use.
We’ll also take into account the soil, the growing seasons, and the climate when deciding when and how often to water your succulent.
Look At The Leaves
The biggest tell for if your succulent is being watered properly will be from the leaves and their appearance.Should the succulent be under-watered, you can expect shriveled-up and wrinkly-looking leaves.
An over-watered succulent should have none of those signs and will have mushy, soft, and almost translucent leaves.
A healthy succulent will have plump, firm leaves.
The Appearance Of An Under-Watered Succulent
There is some comfort in knowing that succulents can withstand extended periods of time in exceedingly dry, arid environments. They can withstand drought by storing water in their leaves, as well as their tissues and stems.
Their adaptability is impressive, yet they do still need to be watered from time to time. Despite this ability to withstand harsh, dry conditions for weeks, even months, succulents adore a drink of water.
Without water, the leaves of a succulent begin to shrivel up and droop.
The leaves closest to the ground will start to show signs of distress first. A severely under-watered succulent will have dried up and dead bottom leaves.
These bottom leaves are the ones that start to dry up first as the succulent loses its storage of water. If you feel the leaves, they may feel soft and flat, but they should feel plump and firm instead.
The leaves will start to dry from the end, furthest away from the stem.
To tell the difference between leaves that have shriveled up from under-watering and old leaves that have died, check near the stem of the plant. Leaves on a under-watered succulent will be soft nearer the stem and starting to dry towards the end. They’ll also be thinner than the plump, firm healthier leaves higher up the plant. Underwatered plants will have less moisture pressure within the tissue of the leaves and stem resulting in wrinkles on the skin of the leaves. The leaves may also droop with the tips sagging.
Leaves that are dying from old age will die from the stem. Rather than shriveling up, these leaves will turn brown and then thin out. They should become so dry that they feel like crisp newspaper and they will eventually drop off. You can even take those leaves off yourself if you want the plant to look its best.
If you feel that your succulent is suffering from being underwatered, follow the instructions in the section below on the best way to water succulents to bring it back to full health.
The Appearance Of An Over-Watered Succulent
A succulent can store water in its leaves but only to a point. Each succulent cell can only take so much water, including the stems and leaves. Once those cells are fully hydrated, additional water can result in their structures becoming severely damaged. Like balloons, should a succulent receive too much water, the leaves can swell up and even burst.
When the succulent is over-watered, the leaves stop being plump and firm and start turning soft and mushy. They may turn yellow, or translucent, or even brown or black. The leaves may fall off.
The leaves will start to show signs of distress from the stem, where they will start to feel mushy of even show signs of rot. The ends of the leaves may still look relatively healthy.
Overwatering can also result in the leaves of a succulent turning black from rot. The stem may also rot if the succulent is receiving too much water.
Typically, the succulent will look unwell and almost bloated if it receives too much water. With black and yellowing leaves, the succulent can look to be rotting too. A lot of that rotting can be down to excessive water resulting in fungal disease.
Give your succulent some tender loving care and touch the leaves; if they drop off far too easily that can be a sign of over-watering.
If your succulent is overwatered and starts to lose a few leaves, it can be rescued if you catch it early enough, before rot has set in. Give the plant and soil ample time to dry out (even out of the soil entirely) and you should see some new growth which is a surefire sign that your succulent is back to being healthy. If the soil is very moist you might consider repotting the plant in new, dry well-draining soil suitable for succulents.
Look at the Leaves!
The lowest leaves show distress first.
Underwatering shows from the leaf-tip first as shriveled, browning drooping tips
Overwatering shows where the leaf joins the stem first as mushy, yellowing, softness in the leaf.
Look at the image below which shows 3 images from the same agave plant.
On the left you see the lower leaves are showing signs of distress from underwatering at the ends. The tips are curling and the leaves are starting to yellow.
In the center, you see the upper leaves of the plant look plump, firm and healthy.
And to the right, you see the old leaves that have died as a part of normal growth. They are dry and crisp.
Your Watering Technique Needs Some Work
How you water your indoor succulents will differ from how you water your outdoor plants. Bear in mind that outdoor plants will receive much more direct sunlight and will dry out much faster.
Plants that are kept indoors will have more protection against the elements and will keep their moisture more readily. As a result, you can be more conservative with how much and how often they get watered.
Like a pet, each plant will be different, so try to work out how your succulent likes to be watered. Some may need to be watered every week and others may prefer to go weeks without watering. It will change with the seasons too – a plant will generally need less water during it’s dormant phase. A plant will usually need more water during hotter seasons.
Once you have got to know your succulent, decide on a watering schedule but keep looking out for signs of under or overwatering. As soon as you see those signs, adjust your watering schedule accordingly.
Certain succulents will require more water than others. For instance, a Sedum burrito (known as a donkey or burro’s tail – pictured above) is quite water-sensitive and will rot relatively quickly if it receives too much water. In Echeverias, for example, the color of its center will become lighter if it is overwatered. Echeverias are very sensitive to over-watering.
The signs of under or over-watering will look similar between all varieties of succulents, so keep an eye out for them.
What Is The Best Way To Water Succulents
The best way to water succulents is by soaking them from the bottom of the pot. For this to work, you will need to have your succulents planted in pots with drainage holes at the bottom and placed on a tray.
Watering from the bottom of the pot encourages the roots of the plant to grow deep and strong in their search for water. Watering from the top of the pot can encourage shallow growth roots.
Your plant is ready for watering when the top few inches of the soil are dry to the touch, or, if you have a pot with a drainage hole, feel the soil through the drainage hole and check to see if it is dry or still moist. Once you have determined that the soil is dry, place the pot in a bucket or sink of water and leave for 10 to 15 minutes to allow the soil to soak up water. Remove the pot from the water and leave it raised somewhere for a few minutes (on a draining board, for example) so any excess water can drain out. Place the plant back on its tray in its normal spot.
If you notice water pooling in the tray, empty the water out of the tray. You could even add a few small stones or pebbles to the tray to ensure the bottom of the pot is raised from the tray and is never left standing in direct contact with water.
If you have your succulent in a pot that doesn’t have drainage holes (and you don’t want to repot it because you just love that pot), ensure that you do not over-water your plant. Wait until the top few inches of the soil are completely dry to the touch. Then add water to the top of the soil until it is moist using a watering can with a long spout, a pouring jug or a squeeze bottle.
Do not use a water spray bottle – you won’t be able to add enough water that way and you’ll end up with water all over the leaves. Try not to pour water over the leaves, if possible. If you do get water on the leaves and you notice it’s still there the next day, try and blot it off with kitchen paper. Excess water on leaves or nestled in the rosette of your succulent can cause rot. Wait a few days (at least) until the soil has completely dried out again at the top before watering again.
If your plant is in a pot with drainage holes but it’s not easy to move your plant to a place where you can soak the pot from the bottom, follow the second method for pots without drainage holes.
Shallow pots will dry out quicker than deeper pots while glazed pots will hold moisture longer than terracotta pots, which are permeable to water.
For outdoor succulents and cacti that are planted in the ground, use the method for pots without drainage holes to water your plants.
As you can see, there’s not one-size-fits-all for how and when and how often to water succulents. It depends on the environment your plant is in, the type of plant, the soil and even the pot your plant is in. Just keep an eye on the signs of over and under-watering and adjust your watering accordingly.
It is always better to err on the side of underwatering your succulent rather than over-watering. An underwatered plant is much easier to treat and recover. Over-watering can result in soggy roots and root rot. Rot of any type is much harder to cure.
You can kill a succulent in a couple of weeks by overwatering but it will take months to kill by underwatering.
Succulents need well-draining, coarse gritty soil that dries out quickly and does not hold water around the roots of your plant. Opt for a sandy soil mixture to make sure that over-watering does not become a issue. Try a combination of coarse sand, perlite, and cactus mix or purchase a succulent-specific soil mix.
Regular plant potting mix is too dense for succulents and will hold too much water.
Always allow the soil to dry out well before watering again.
See our guide to The Best Type of Soil for Succulents and Cacti in Pots.
Consider The Climate
Your watering schedule needs to take your climate into account. A hot, dry environment will result in your succulents drying out faster than those in a cold or humid environment. A humid climate will mean that there is more available moisture, and the succulent will not need to be watered quite as much.
Heating and air-conditioning will also affect indoor plants and you’ll need to keep a close eye out for signs of over or under-watering and adjust your watering schedule accordingly.
The climate will change due to the time of the year too. In summer, you can expect it to be warmer, so your succulent will need more water.
Closer to winter, there should be a lower temperature and less sunlight. You can expect that your succulent does not need watering as often in these conditions.
The Growing Seasons
Pay attention to the growing seasons, too, as it can be easy to under or over-water your succulent as the seasons change. During spring and early summer, your succulent should be actively growing and will need more water to sustain that activity.
However, during the winter months, most succulents remain largely dormant.
The difference between the growing seasons could mean a full two weeks difference between watering. For instance, during summer months you can expect to water your succulent every week to ten days. This gap will be gradually prolonged as you head into the cooler, winter months.
Signs That Your Succulent Is Healthy
If your succulent is healthy it should be displaying a vibrant color, the leaves should be firm and the growth should be slow (succulents are not meant to grow quickly).
You should expect to see some old-growth dried-out leaves at the bottom of the stem from time to time.
While succulents can survive for months in conditions that are close to drought, they do like to be watered. Be careful with the water and you will need to adapt your watering based on several factors. That could be whether it is a growing season, climate changes, or the soil mix. If you do see signs of under or over-watering, change up your watering schedule and keep an eye on your plant as it recovers.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do You Save An Over-Watered Succulent?
Thankfully, there are steps that you can take to save an over-watered succulent. You will need to commit to proper treatment and care, even if parts of the succulent are visibly rotting.
If too much of the succulent looks to be irretrievable then save a stem or a leaf to create a new plant. Decide on how much of the plant can be saved as an over-watered one will be easier to rescue than one that has started to rot from the roots.
To save an over-watered succulent, remove the plant from where it stands and then make sure that the wet soil is taken away from the roots. Allow the succulent to dry out totally for a few days, perhaps for a week until you see some healthy signs.
Leave the succulent to sit in a bright and dry part of your house, but keep it away from direct sunlight as this may burn the plant. As soon as the succulent is dry, replant it in a draining potting mix and give it a week before watering it again.
How Can You Tell If A Succulent Is Rotting?
You can tell if a succulent is rotting as the leaves will have turned from a lush color to black. That starts from the bottom up and the stem will also have turned to a brown or black color.
The texture will also be mushy which is largely down to the over-watering. When left alone, the succulent will rot away until you are left with a dissolved, mushy mess.