It can be just as difficult to figure out how to feed your succulents as it is to decide how to feed yourself. If you’ve researched succulents, you’ve probably come across opinions ranging from “succulents never need to be fertilized” to “fertilize with Miracle Grow monthly” and everything in between.
In this article, we’ll explain how to fertilize if you want to grow succulents that will really thrive.
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How To Know If My Succulents Need Fertilizing
Succulents are famously slow growers. In fact, a succulent that gets tall quickly is probably doing so because it is starved of light and getting leggy.
When it comes to succulents, typically slow and steady growth is healthy growth. This is especially true of indoor succulents, which are more likely to grow gradually all year long. In contrast, outdoor succulents are more likely to have a winter dormancy and faster summer growth.
So, if you can’t determine a succulent’s fertilizer needs based on the growth rate, how do you know if your succulent needs fertilizing? There are two types of clues that will help you determine if your succulent needs added nutrients: environmental clues, and clues based on the appearance of the succulent itself.
Environmental Clues That You Need To Fertilize
You can pick up a lot of clues just by being aware of the environment in which your succulent is growing. For example, the first question is whether you have recently fertilized or repotted the plant. If you have, there is no need to fertilize — your succulent probably has access to plenty of nitrogen and other essential micronutrients.
The season is also important. Many succulents have a winter dormancy, and a few have both a summer and winter dormancy (particularly when planted outdoors).
Note: You should only fertilize in the spring and summer (assuming no summer dormancy; otherwise, fertilize only in the spring and fall). Do not fertilize when the plant is not actively growing. Nutrients will not get absorbed and will remain in the potting mix, which may burn the roots.
Is your succulent root-bound and overgrowing its pot? Or is it growing in a planter with many other succulents competing for access to nutrients? If so, fertilizer will be more necessary because the potting mix is less likely to have sufficient available nutrients.
Another environmental factor is the type of potting mix. I accidentally re-potted several succulents in a potting mix I’d blended for propagating succulents. My propagation blend uses a very high ratio of gritty amendment (perlite and coarse sand) and a very low proportion of organic matter.
When I realized what I’d done, I knew I’d need to fertilize those plants more frequently than normal until I could repot them again. This is because the lack of organic matter in the potting mix did not provide adequate nutrition for fully rooted plants.
Note: In contrast, if you plant your succulents in a fresh standard store-bought potting mix (i.e., not one specifically blended for succulents), the potting mix will have a higher than necessary percentage of organic matter. In that case, there will be an abundance of nutrients in the soil, and fertilizing will be unnecessary.
A Plant-Based Clue That You Need To Fertilize
When the leaves of your succulent become pale and yellowish, that’s also a clue it needs fertilizer.
This discoloration is called chlorosis. Chlorosis is the yellowing of leaves due to a lack of chlorophyll. It is often the result of the plant lacking certain essential nutrients (such as iron, manganese, or zinc) that they need to absorb and synthesize chlorophyll. Chlorosis can also result from nitrogen deficiency.
Without a soil test (which may be a reasonable approach if you have outdoor succulents but don’t make any sense for houseplants), there’s no real way to know what specific deficiency your paling plant may have. So, it’s best to use a balanced fertilizer that will address any potential deficiencies.
Fertilizing vs. Repotting
Whenever you repot your succulent, you are fertilizing it. You are replacing the old, nutrient-depleted soil with new organic matter full of the nutrients your plant needs. In our experience, a succulent that has been repotted within the last year does not need additional fertilizer.
That means that if you’re the type of gardener who likes to re-pot your plants every spring, you will probably never need to add additional fertilizer. If you re-pot less frequently (once every three years is typical), we recommend beginning your fertilizing routine when the plant starts its second growth cycle in the potting mix.
Which Fertilizer Should You Use on Succulents?
Commercial Succulent Fertilizers
Luckily for those of us who don’t want to go the effort of cobbling together a homemade fertilizer solution, there are now many commercially available organic fertilizers specifically designed for succulents. We recommend looking for options based primarily on decomposed plant matter rather than based primarily on animal manure or urea.
Personally, I’ve had good results with Dr. Earth Organic & Natural Pump & Grow Succulence Cactus & Succulent Plant Food. They advertise that you can pump it directly into the pot, but I prefer to add it to water.
The main downside is that it is rather stinky (this a common problem for fertilizers, not specific to Dr. Earth), but the smell fades pretty quickly. It is nontoxic for people and pets because it is based on high-grade plant and animal sources suitable for human consumption (although based on the smell, we wholeheartedly recommend that you do not take a swig to test that claim!).
Even if you prefer to use a non-liquid fertilizer, you have some options, such as EarthPods capsules for succulents (based on earthworm castings). Another potentially good option would be the slow-release pellets from The Grow Co. (the sources of its ingredients are unspecified, but this brand has a good reputation, and their liquid formulation is advertised as vegan).
Succulent Specific Fertilizer vs. Generic Plant Fertilizers
Whenever possible, we recommend using succulent-specific fertilizer. In addition to being targeted at the specific micro-nutritional balance that suits succulents, they are formulated at a strength that will feed succulents rather than burning their roots.
If you use generic fertilizers, you will need to pay much more attention to the balance of nutrients and the concentration/dilution of the fertilizer. We suggest diluting to one quarter (or at most half) of the package instructions.
Organic vs. Inorganic Fertilizers
We recommend that you always choose organic fertilizers over inorganic (synthetic chemical) fertilizers. This isn’t because organic is a fashionable buzzword, and it isn’t because of the overwhelming environmental damage caused by the widespread and excessive use of chemical fertilizers (after all, fertilizing indoor succulents won’t poison your landscape).
You should always opt for organic fertilizers because they are slow-release, which means they gradually become bioavailable to the plant as they decompose.
Slow-release provides a steady supply of nutrients for your plant rather than a quick burst. It also ensures that you don’t create a situation where your plant’s failure to absorb a big dose of nitrogen leaves enough residual nitrogen in the soil to burn the plant’s roots.
Commercially Succulent Fertilizers To Avoid
We always recommend reading the label. We recommend avoiding fertilizers based on chicken manure, such as this fertilizer from Espoma. Likewise, we would not recommend Miracle Grow’s succulent option or this fertilizer from EON, because in both the primary ingredient is urea (from urine).
Although these products are advertised as “all-natural,” “organic” and specifically formulated for succulents, chicken manure and urea are generally higher in nitrogen and more likely to cause root burn. For example, the NPK ratio of the EON fertilizer is 3:1:2. While the reviews of these products are generally good, we prefer to use an option based primarily on decomposed plant matter.
Homemade Succulent Fertilizer
Sometimes homemade is just as good as store-bought, and that can be true in the context of succulents. Two of the best forms of fertilizer for succulents are compost tea and worm castings tea. These contain a wide array of natural micronutrients that are great for your plant.
If you have a vermiculture bin at home, you can use your homemade worm castings to make fertilizer. Simply soak one part of worm castings in three parts water for at least a day before applying. Since succulents dislike having wet leaves, we generally recommend against using it as a foliar spray.
If you have homemade compost, you can make compost tea using the same process — simply brew your compost tea and then use that to water your plant.
There are two downsides to using homemade worm tea or compost tea to fertilize your succulents:
- You won’t know the actual NPK number
- These products tend to have slightly higher nitrogen content than being truly balanced.
That means that you should use them sparingly, but that’s true regardless of whatever fertilizer you use.
Homemade Succulent Fertilizers To Avoid
You may see websites recommending various alternative options for homemade fertilizers and amendments that you could add to your succulents (coffee grounds, eggshells, or fish tank water, for example). We do not recommend using these sorts of amendments for a few reasons.
First, individually these products do not provide balanced nutrition for your plant. Coffee grounds provide lots of nitrogen, and eggshells provide lots of calcium, for example, but neither provides a full or balanced range of micronutrients. To put together a homemade mixture with an adequately balanced mixture of micronutrients would require an excessive amount of research and effort.
Second, it is difficult to determine the concentration and dosage for these homemade amendments. This makes over-fertilization more likely. It would be very easy, for example, to burn your succulent’s roots by adding an excess of nitrogen-rich coffee grounds.
Third, while ingredients like eggshells technically do contain valuable micronutrients like calcium, those nutrients may not be bioavailable (meaning that your succulent won’t be able to absorb them). Eggshells, for example, need time to decompose (or you can speed up the process by grinding them into a powder in a coffee grinder), but simply adding crushed eggshells to your potting mix will do virtually nothing.
Generally, you’re better off adding these ingredients to your compost pile and then using the compost (or compost tea) to fertilize.
How Often To Fertilize Succulents
A Few General Rules
It is better to focus on the health and appearance of your plant rather than adhering to a strict fertilizing schedule. However, a commonly-cited “general rule” that you can use as a baseline is to fertilize plants only a couple of times a year, during the warmer months.
Another good general rule is that cacti typically need to be fertilized less often than other types of succulents. You can go perhaps once or twice a year for cacti versus two to three times for other succulents.
Yet another good option is to focus on your watering schedule, fertilizing once out of every three to four times you water during the plant’s active growing season.
The fact that all of these different fertilizing rules are recommended by gardening experts from Extension Offices demonstrates that there is no definitive right answer.
Note: The best answer to how frequently to fertilize will depend on what kind of potting mix you use, how fresh it is, what kind of fertilizer you use, what type of succulent you are growing, and a host of other factors.
You might assume that it’s better to err on the side of over-fertilizing rather than under-fertilizing. It’s better to be fat than starving, right? In the context of succulents, you’d be wrong.
Why is over-fertilizing such a problem? When you’re already stuffed from dinner, and your grandma hands you a big piece of pie, you have a couple of options: you can stuff yourself by eating the pie anyway (and be fine after a brief period of discomfort), or you can leave the pie on your plate and then dump it into the trash.
Plants don’t have either of these options. They can only absorb a limited amount of nitrogen (and other nutrients) based on the capacity of their tissues.
Note: Too much fertilizer (known as fertilizer toxicity) can be even more damaging to plants than under-fertilizing.
Once they’re full, they can’t force down another few bites. Likewise, your succulent can’t simply throw away the fertilizer it doesn’t want to eat. The leftover fertilizer remains in the potting mix.
This inability to get rid of extra fertilizer means that the roots of over-fertilized plants have to grow in soil full of nitrogen that they can’t consume. This results in root burn. Root burn is a dark discoloration affecting all or part of the plant’s roots. It kills the roots, which can ultimately kill the plant itself.
Fertilizing Outdoor Succulents
Any of the recommended fertilizer options we’ve mentioned can be used for any succulent, whether indoor or outdoor, potted or planted in the ground. However, in the case of outdoor succulents, there is another easy option. You can simply top-dress your succulent periodically with compost (preferably a food/yard waste-based compost, rather than manure-based).
There is no need to dig the compost into the soil around the plant. Simply scatter it on top of the soil around your succulents. When it rains, the nutrients will leach down from the top-dressing into the soil where it can be accessed by the plant’s roots.
This strategy has the additional benefit of providing a mulch layer that will, in the short term, protect the plant from temperature swings and deter weeds. In the long term, it will decompose completely and integrate seamlessly with your garden soil.
Tips For Keeping Your Succulents Healthy
Of all the steps in taking care of a succulent, fertilizer is almost certainly the least important. Higher priority maintenance tasks, in terms of succulent health, include:
- Ensure your plant gets sufficient sunlight for the succulent species (but not so much that it becomes sunburned).
- Learn how to water your plant correctly, both in terms of technique and frequency.
- Plant your succulent in a suitable pot, specifically one that provides adequate room for growth
- Use an appropriate potting mix (with a relatively low ratio of organic matter to gritty amendment), such as our recipe for homemade succulent potting mix.
- Keep your plant tidy by removing dead and dying leaves, especially those that have fallen onto the soil around the base of the plant, as these can attract pests and encourage the growth of fungus.
- Quarantine any new succulents so you can keep an eye out for common pests like mealybugs, and address insect problems promptly before the infestation gets out of hand.
- Repot your succulents every few years to freshen the soil and prevent them from getting root-bound (and between repotting, aerate the soil if needed).
Above all, be a close and diligent observer of your succulents. If you notice any signs of declining health, use our handy flow-chart and comprehensive guide to help diagnose what is wrong with your succulent and determine how to fix it. You can also use our handy tracking card to keep tabs on how often you are watering and fertilizing and make note of how your plant responds.
Food Rules for Succulents
In his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollen wrote that a healthy human diet can be summarized in three basic rules. People should: “Eat [real] food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
This advice works just as well for succulents. Your fertilizer plan can be summarized as “Feed real food (not synthetic chemicals). Not too much. Mostly plant-based.” If you follow those simple rules, and your succulent dies, it probably won’t be because of the fertilizer.