What is a succulent and how do I grow one?

They have a reputation for being the easiest houseplants to keep alive, but even succulents need some TLC. Learn how to keep these plants happy and healthy in your apartment garden.

Three different small succulent plants in white pots.

Table of contents

What is a succulent?What are popular succulents to keep as houseplants?What is the difference between a cactus and a succulent?How to care for and grow succulents at home

What is a succulent?

A succulent is any plant with thick, fleshy leaves or stems that store water. The term describes plants from over 60 different groups of plants found all over the world, from tall, spiky desert-dwellers to tiny, ground-hugging plants. Although each succulent plant species has unique needs, most thrive on limited water, plenty of sunshine, and low humidity. 

There are too many plants that store water in their leaves and stems to list. Here are a few that might be at home on your windowsill.

  • Aloe (Aloe barbadensis). Also known as the medicine plant, aloe stores water in its long, upward-reaching leaves. Cut open one of the bright green leaves, and you’ll find a clear goo that’s excellent for healing sunburns.

  • Jade plant (Crassula arborescens). This has round, fleshy, green leaves sometimes bordered with red. Often sold in its infancy, the plant can grow to a large shrub.

  • Snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata). This member of the asparagus family is also related to the ponytail palm and the yucca. Its long leaves—sometimes striped with green, sometimes outlined in yellow—have remarkable water storage capabilities. Snake plants can also tolerate low light, making them one of the hardest houseplants to kill.

  • Hens and Chicks (Sempervivum tectorum). When you think succulent, the image in your mind probably looks something like this: plump rosettes of round or pointy leaves. They grow together in clumps and can be green, blue, purple-red, or pale yellow.

What is the difference between a cactus and a succulent?

Cacti are succulents from the Cactaceae family. Lacking pronounced leaves (most have no leaves; some have tiny leaves), cacti prevent water loss with their thick stems. Their spines are thought to help them withstand intense heat. 

Most cacti require less water and more sunlight than other types of succulents. This is why they’re able to survive long periods of drought.

How to care for and grow succulents at home

Here are basic tips on giving your succulent the best possible care.

Identify your succulent by name. 

The first step to nourishing your succulent is finding its scientific name, so that you can understand your plant’s unique needs. If your succulent didn’t come with a name tag, try bringing it to a local nursery or sending a picture to a plant-loving friend and asking them to ID it. Many houseplants are also easy to classify with a quick internet search describing the plant. 

Find a sunny spot. 

Familiarizing yourself with your plant’s natural habitat will help you determine the best spot in your home. Most succulents thrive on sunlight, but not all love the bright, direct heat. If your plant is getting too much light, it might start to look bleached. Not enough light, and you’ll find your succulent desperately stretching towards the light source. 

A sunny windowsill is a great option for most indoor succulents, allowing them to receive plenty of sunlight and a bit of nighttime chill.

Water consistently. 

Just because succulents can survive long stretches without water doesn't mean you should never water them. If you want your succulents to thrive, water them whenever the top layer of soil dries out. For most succulents, plan to water once every week or two during the growing season (March through October). 

Each time you water, make sure the soil is thoroughly soaked. You can tell the soil is properly hydrated when water starts to pour out of the pot’s drainage hole. Dry, shriveled leaves may be a sign of under-watering.

Prevent root rot. 

Although you want to soak your plants enough that water comes out of the drainage hole, you don’t want to let that water sit in the saucer. Leaving succulent roots in excess water for too long can cause root rot. Monitor your succulent, pouring water out of the saucer if needed. Yellow leaves may be a sign of overwatering or root rot.

Allow the plant to rest. 

When the days get shorter, most succulents enter a dormancy period. During the winter, refrain from using fertilizer. Be sure to also increase the time between waterings, allowing the soil to dry out before soaking.

Use the right fertilizer. 

Choose a formula with equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Look for the words “balanced” or “10-10-10” on the label, and dilute to half the recommended volume. Most succulents only need to be fertilized one to three times a year, and only during the growing season.These plants are accustomed to living in nutrient-poor soil and don’t need more than that.


Moving your succulent to a larger pot every one to three years will facilitate growth. Kept in a small pot for years, a plant can become “rootbound,” or squished into the shape of the pot. Repotting is also a great time to refresh your succulent’s soil. Over time, old soil leaches nutrients and accumulates minerals from tap water. 

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