Secrets to Strong, Healthy Succulents

Richard and Cynde Schreiber first started growing succulents and cacti when they lived in Yuma, Arizona in the 1960s. When they moved back to Iowa, they brought their love of desert plants with them to a four-season climate. To support this passion, the Schreibers built a desert greenhouse outside their home in Norwalk and began volunteering at the Botanical Garden nearly 20 years ago, focusing on the conservatory’s collection of cacti and succulents. They also became involved in the Mid-Iowa Cactus and Succulent Society and the Cactus and Succulent Society of America.

Over the years the Schreibers have developed a few tried-and-true techniques to help succulents flourish. If you’ve struggled to find a successful succulent care process, try their advice for proper drainage and watering.

Ensure Proper Drainage

Too much moisture is a succulent’s top threat. Without providing ways for water to filter quickly through its container, you risk saturating your succulent’s roots. Unfortunately, too much root moisture can go undetected for a few months, sabotaging the succulent before any signs of harm appear above the soil.

To prevent this invisible damage, select a porous potting soil and a container with a drainage hole and saucer. One of Cynde’s favorite drainage tips is adding top dressing, such as aquarium gravel or small pebbles, onto the soil. “Top dressing retains soil moisture while keeping the succulent dry, protecting the stems and preventing fungus gnats,” Cynde says. “As a bonus, colorful gravel adds decorative interest to your container.”

Water Wisely

For succulents, it’s not only a question of when to water but also how much water this plant needs, and it’s more than you might think. “It’s best to water succulents generously, continuing to add more water until some runs out into the saucer,” Richard advises. “Then, empty the saucer and let the soil completely dry out before watering again.”

To get a better idea of when to water, try the Schreibers’ soil test, a quick trick for checking root-level moisture: When your succulent’s soil looks dry, take a standard wooden pencil and stick it into the soil about halfway. If soil sticks to the pencil after removing it from the container, hold off on watering. If the pencil comes out clean, give your succulent a healthy dose of water, then wait for it to dry out completely before watering again.

For succulent inspiration, check out the succulents in the conservatory’s desert garden, like our ever-blooming Euphorbia milii, commonly called crown of thorns, or the classic Aloe vera.