How to Fertilize Succulents: The Ultimate Guide

With every succulent and its circumstances being unique, it’s hard to figure out if succulents need fertilizer at all. If they do, what kind is necessary and what all the ingredients do can be a daunting topic. In this article, we’ll go over all of these topics and help you approach the fertilizer section with confidence!

Should Succulents Be Fertilized?

Maybe!

It depends on your succulent. Since succulents span so many regions of the world with so many growing conditions, each succulent is a little different.

For the most part, you can feed your succulents when they emerge from dormancy. Avoid feeding them right after you purchase them unless you know how they have or have not been fed.

Most succulents will emerge from dormancy in the spring. With many succulents being evergreen perennials, just watch its growth to determine when it emerges if you’re not sure. It is dormant when it is not growing and using little to no water.

If you never fertilize your succulent, then that is just fine. You may even enjoy smaller, more compact succulents that stay in tight arrangements for more of their lives.

You should still replace your soil every now and then to ensure the soil is still draining and providing small amounts of nutrients. Repotting also removes the build-up of minerals from the water or any fertilizer that your plant isn’t using.

How Often Should I Fertilize My Succulents?

If you’re ever unsure, err on the side of less or no fertilizer. Over-fertilized succulents can become leggy and unattractive, and monocarpic species can risk blooming very early into their lives.

On the other hand, some nurseries will feed minute amounts with every watering. This results in succulents that are not as hardy but grow more quickly.

For hardier, thicker succulents, stick with your regular minimal fertilizing.

If you’d like a clearer answer about whether to fertilize and what to offer, you can have your soil tested by a lab. They can provide a report of what, exactly, is in your soil. From there, you can tell if you should be fertilizing or not. These tests are best for outdoor gardening spaces.

What Does Fertilizer Do for Succulents?

In nature, plants and organisms break down and pass chemicals and nutrients from this into the soil.

In our homes and gardens, this doesn’t happen at quite the same rate. We can compensate for this by adding fertilizers to the soil that mimic those nutrients!

Plenty of succulents are from more barren ecosystems that won’t carry as many nutrients and may not handle strong fertilizers as well. These fertilizers can burn them or cause undesirable effects—like severe legginess and premature blooming.

Used properly and just enough for your succulents, however, fertilizers provide necessary building blocks for your plants! Without these nutrients, growth can slow or even stop.

Fertilizing your plant helps it to continue growing and thriving for years to come!

How Should a Succulent Be Fertilized?

In most cases, by first wetting the soil. Do not add the full-strength mixture of fertilizer to dry soil, it can burn your plant.

Some growers and nurseries fertilize with every watering. You can also add a top dressing of compost. In these situations, the nutrients are very dilute so you can avoid over-fertilizing and issues with burning.

For ease and to slow the dispersion, many gardeners find success in top dressing a succulent. This can be done with organic fertilizers like compost and slow-release granules. Use slow-release granules cautiously as they can release too much at once and burn your plants.

How Much Fertilizer Should Be Used?

Very, very little.

For succulents adapted to nutrient-poor ecosystems, half or even a quarter-strength dilution for standard fertilizers will be perfect. Detailed care sheets for most plants will tell you how much to use for a 20-20-20 or 8-8-8 fertilizer as a base, but you can start at 25% and go from there. If you have tropical succulents, 25% is the standard dilution.

Fertilizers designed for succulents will give instructions just for succulents, and this may not need to be adjusted unless you have a special circumstance—like knowing you have a species that likes more or less fertilizer.

Reading Fertilizer Labels

Fertilizer solutions often have 3 numbers on the label in the format of “x-x-x.”

Most commonly, we’ll see 20-20-20 for a standard, all-purpose fertilizer.

The first number is nitrogen, the second phosphorous, and the third potassium.

Each of these numbers is a ratio representing the percent of a nutrient. So, 20-20-20 can be read 20% nitrogen, 20% phosphorous, and 20% potassium. This remains constant (unless stated otherwise) for any fertilizer. If a fertilizer reads 8-10-12, it would be 8% nitrogen, 10% phosphorous, and 12% potassium.

What about the other 40% of the fertilizer? It’s called “ballast.” These are simply materials or ingredients that don’t add anything of nutritional value but bind the other ingredients and can mitigate them. Without the added ballast, your fertilizer wouldn’t stay well-mixed and would likely burn your poor plants.

What Kind of Fertilizer Should I Use?

It depends on what kind of succulent you have.

If you’re not sure what you have or you aren’t able to find a guide on what to fertilize your plant with, you can try a generic method. An all-purpose houseplant 8-8-8 fertilizer can be prepared at 25% strength.

Low-nitrogen fertilizers—where the first number is the lowest—will encourage blooming, which can be desirable in plants like the Christmas cactus! It can also be undesirable for encouraging plants like Agave to bloom prematurely.

Specialized succulent and cactus fertilizers can come extremely dilute, even at 1-2-2 mixtures. These are not only designed to be dilute enough to avoid burning your plants but also dilute enough to fertilize with each watering. If you use this type of fertilizer and your plants are becoming leggy or will be in harsher, outdoor conditions, consider using it less frequently or diluting it further.

If you’re just hoping for all-around growth without blooms, specialized succulent fertilizers, more diluted all-purpose fertilizers, or weak organic methods will be your best choice.

You can also get slow-release fertilizers, but many succulent keepers recommend against it as these fertilizers have a habit of burning succulents.

What Nutrients Do Succulents Need?

Much like the nutrients list a nutritionist will advise us, humans, on, plants have a list they need as well.  The following lists are a quick overview of these nutrients and their effects for better or worse with a focus on the most common functions and symptoms. They are certainly not comprehensive, so it’s worth a more thorough check if you suspect something is amiss!

Primary Nutrients

In general, plants almost always need these three nutrients most frequently.

  • Nitrogen
    • Vital for chlorophyll and photosynthesis
    • Building block for amino acids, protein, and enzymes
    • Deficiency symptoms: Light green or yellow leaves (chlorosis)
    • Cool weather can cause a temporary deficiency that isn’t due to a deficiency of the soil
    • Toxicity symptoms: Stunted growth mimicking signs of root rot and soil-based pests.
  • Phosphorous
    • Component for photosynthesis
    • Helps produce enzymes, proteins, sugars, and starches
    • Important for cell division
    • Deficiency symptoms: Older leaf tissue turn purple-red hues, mostly on the underside. Leaf tips may turn black.
    • Toxicity symptoms: Reduces zinc and iron uptake. Symptoms mimic zinc and iron deficiencies.
  • Potassium (sometimes referred to as potash)
    • Important for the uptake of water, respiration, and photosynthesis.
    • Deficiency symptoms: Yellowing and burning of edges on older leaves.
    • Toxicity symptoms: Reduces calcium and magnesium uptake. Symptoms mimic zinc and iron deficiencies.

These three are the primary building blocks plants will use to grow and produce more leaves, blooms, and even pups, fruits, and seeds. These nutrients are necessary for plants to produce energy and thrive. Without fertilizer, they normally get these from any existing nutrients in their soil.

Nearly every general fertilizer contains at least these three, and it will tell you with the format of N-P-K. If it doesn’t include one of these three, there will still be a 0. For no-nitrogen fertilizers, that looks like 0-10-12.

Most succulent growers find that any granular fertilizer with an equal N-P-K ratio will work well if it’s appropriately diluted.

Secondary Nutrients

Next, plants have a secondary set of another three nutrients they need to function best.

  • Calcium
    • Component of cell walls and cell nucleus
    • Important for metabolism
    • Cell walls with calcium pectate create a barrier for disease
    • Deficiency symptoms: Death of growing point, buds dropping, young leaves curling
      • Sources: Eggshells, gypsum, limestone powder, oyster shells
    • Toxicity symptoms: Not visually obvious in succulents.
    • Not necessary to supplement when using quality soil and repotting regularly.
  • Magnesium
    • Important for chlorophyll
    • Helps form sugars, oils, and fats
    • Deficiency symptoms: Tissue between veins turns yellow; leaf edges curl in more severe deficiencies
      • Sources: Dolomite, Epsom salt, K-Mag, magnesia
    • Toxicity symptoms: Reduces uptake of calcium and potassium; symptoms mimic these deficiencies. Rare.
  • Sulfur
    • Important for chlorophyll and seed production
    • Deficiency symptoms: Mimics iron deficiency; pale, stunted plants, with signs across whole plant rather than older foliage
      • Sources: Gypsum, iron sulfate, sulfur
    • Toxicity symptoms: Stunted leaf size and growth. Scorched or yellow leaf edges.

Micronutrients

These little guys are only needed in very small amounts to support your plants. These are often considered “trace elements” and often aren’t necessary to supplement individually. Most of the time, a balanced micronutrient fertilizer like kelp as well as repotting will help keep your plants up to date on these nutrients.

There are more micronutrients (such as silicon), but this list includes the most common ones.

  • Boron
    • Regulates nutrients
    • Important for seed and fruit production
    • Deficiency symptoms: Dying stems; root tips that die or become swollen and discolored; rotting internal tissue; leaves that are dry or thick, distorted, wilted, dotted with holes (necrosis), or pale (chlorosis)
      • Sources: Powdered boron
    • Toxicity symptoms: Yellowing tips with necrosis (dotted holes) that move inward
  • Copper
    • Important for reproduction and root metabolism
    • Deficiency symptoms: Stunted growth; young leaves darken, twist, die and develop dotted holes (necrosis)
      • Sources: Extremely toxic when overdosed; use a well-balanced fertilizer to supplement
    • Toxicity symptoms: Resembles iron deficiency’s pale leaves (chlorosis); slowed, stunted growth; dark, thick roots
  • Chloride/Chlorine
    • Important for plant metabolism
    • Combines with Potassium to control water intake
    • Deficiency symptoms: Stubby roots; wilted, yellow, bronze leaves
      • Sources: Extremely toxic when overdosed; use a well-balanced fertilizer to supplement
      • Do not supplement the necessary micronutrient Chloride (Cl¯) with toxic Chlorine (Cl2)
    • Toxicity symptoms: Burned leaf tips; stunted growing; bronze, yellow leaves with splitting; resembled salt damage
  • Iron
    • Important for chlorophyll production
    • Deficiency symptoms: Yellowing on leaves between dark green veins (interveinal chlorosis); resembles magnesium deficiency but yellowing appears on younger leaves instead of older
      • Sources: Chelated iron and well-balanced fertilizers
    • Toxicity symptoms: Leaves with bronzing or tiny brown spots. Rare.
  • Manganese
    • Helps with enzymes and breaks down carbohydrates
    • Important for photosynthesis
    • Deficiency symptoms: Necrotic lesions and leaf shedding; poor growth and failure to mature; yellowing of leaves between veins (interveinal chlorosis) on both older and younger leaves, beginning with younger
      • If your plant is simply shedding leaves, you may be watering too much or have a species prone to this, such as Sedum morganianum.
      • Sources: Manganese sulfate (highly diluted) and well-balanced fertilizers
    • Toxicity symptoms: Slowed growth rate; pale or blotchy leaves
  • Molybdenum
    • Aids in nitrogen use.
    • Deficiency symptoms: Yellowing leaves between veins (interveinal chlorosis) beginning with older leaves and spreading throughout the plant; severely twisted young leaves that die
      • Sources: A well-balanced fertilizers will be the best option.
    • Toxicity symptoms: Discoloration of leaves. Very rare and is usually from continuous application.
  • Zinc
    • Important in plant growth enzymes and converting carbohydrates into sugars. Deficiency symptoms: Pale leaves (chlorosis); less space between layers of leaves (internodes); smaller leaves; distorted, wrinkled leaf margins.
      • Sources: Zinc oxate, zinc sulfate, zinc chelate, and well-balanced fertilizers
    • Toxicity symptoms: Impacts iron uptake so symptoms mirror iron deficiency: Pale leaves (chlorosis). Extremely toxic, will kill a plant rapidly.

Issues with obvious nutrient deficiencies, especially with micronutrients, is rare in succulents. However, they do happen, especially when you are keeping fast-growing species. If you are seeing these issues pop up, check the quality of your current fertilizer or consider offering a well-rounded fertilizer. You may also repot your succulent if it’s been a while.

How to Treat Toxicity

The best treatment is often to flush your plant.

In the case of time-release fertilizers added to the top, remove as much as possible before flushing.

Salt build-up is rare, but low-quality fertilizers might use salt as a source for nutrients or even for the ballast. In this case, distilled water would be best.

Flush your plant very well, allowing water to drain off, for a few days in a row.

If repotting your plant is an option, you can do that, but the roots and remaining soil will still need to be flushed.

Does all hope seem lost or is root rot involved? Take solace in a succulent’s forgiveness! Most succulent stems can be cut away from the root.

Allow the stem to callous over before beginning your preferred propagation method—such as placing the stem or leaves in damp soil. At this stage, more organic matter than normal is important to keep the stem or leaves damp enough to root.

Once your succulent begins producing new roots, you can plant it in new, clean soil where it can start fresh.

Organic and Alternative Fertilizers

These options are alternatives from the pre-blended solutions found in stores. A few of these are the go-to choice for nutrient deficiencies of only one or a few types. Many keepers even swear by these options to offer succulents just the right amount of nutrients.

Coffee grounds

Coffee grounds are best reserved for outdoor situations. This amendment is praised for increasing nitrogen and aeration in the soil as well as—in a slight oxymoron—drainage and water retention.

However, coffee grounds don’t immediately add nitrogen. Nitrogen is produced in the process of breaking the grounds down. Microorganisms and earthworms will be responsible for this, so coffee grounds are also praised for feeding these organisms already present in the garden.

If you’re unsure about adding it to your garden or want to use it for indoor plants and you already have a compost heap, simply add a little to your heap.

There is concern over coffee grounds increasing the acidity of the soil. This should only be an issue if the grounds are unwashed. In other words, if they’re used and brewed grounds, their pH should be close to neutral.

Compost

Compost is a nutrient dense mixture of organic matter that’s been broken down by organisms. In nature, there are a plethora of organisms that do this, from springtails to millipedes to earthworms. Most of these composting organisms are harmless and happy to make wonderful, rich soil for our plants.

A dressing of compost over the top of your soil, whether for indoor and outdoor succulents, is highly recommended by many gardeners. Compost will naturally add a large variety of nutrients little by little as you water your succulents—and other plants—throughout their growing season. Most succulent keepers find that they never have an issue with over-feeding or burning. Succulents are top dressed when they come out of dormancy.

If you would like to start your own compost pile or bin, you’ll find vermicomposting is the most common form. This is simply using worms to compost, most commonly the red wigglers Eisenia fetida and Lumbricus rubellus are used. You can add most of your kitchen scraps as long as you avoid or minimize things like citrus and odiferous foods like meat, dairy, oil, etc.

They’ll need a layer of browns (newspaper, dry leaves, twigs, dry hay, etc.), a layer of greens (vegetables, fruits, grass clippings, coffee grounds, eggshells, etc.), and just enough water to keep everything moist but not soaked. Worms like it dark, so keep it covered with air circulation. This will keep them safe and their humidity regulated.

You can have compost within a month if you give it constant attention and turn it frequently. You’ll have compost in about 3 to 6 months if only turn it occasionally.

Don’t have or want a compost bin? Can’t have one? You can still buy high-quality compost! Hardware stores, agricultural stores, landscaping suppliers, or nurseries will sell them depending on your location. In many rural areas, you may have a local resident looking to offload extra compost for little to no cost. Look for signs while driving aimlessly or check local forums and online groups.

Epsom salt

Keepers are divided on the topic of using Epsom salts on succulents. Some succulent keepers insist it has saved their plants while others insist it made their plants ill.

In most cases, you probably won’t need it for indoor succulents. Most Epsom salt success is seen with other varieties of plants instead. Any well-balanced fertilizer and soil should provide the magnesium and sulfate your succulent needs.

If you do decide to use it, a dilute solution of, at most, a teaspoon per gallon of water once per growing season is recommended.

Eggshells

Have you ever made meringues, custards, quiches, or deviled eggs and been left with a shocking amount of eggshells?

In addition to making adorable make-shift succulent planters, eggshells used for fertilizer!

In the outdoor garden, eggshells make great slug and snail barriers by crushing them up and bordering at-risk plants with them.

Indoors, or just for ease of fertilizing, you can make a tea. After rinsing and cleaning your shells of any egg white and other leftover egg remnants, place your eggshells in a heat-safe container and pour boiling water over them. For a one-dish tea, add your eggs to the boiling water and remove it from heat.

Leave your tea to brew overnight. Remove the eggshells.

Try it once and go from there. If you’re unsure, dilute it further before trying it.

Eggshells contain calcium and potassium.

Fertilizer teas

Fertilizer teas are made by steeping leaves in water and letting them brew, just like tea! These are easily diluted and can be nearly free to prepare if you already have an outdoor garden or don’t mind an awkward conversation asking for landscapers’ or other gardeners’ pulled weeds and clippings.

These teas can be made by scratch from pesky weeds and hard-collected grass clippings. These leaves and stems are packed full of nutrients the plants have absorbed through the soil, and some of these nutrients are water soluble and can be regained for the rest of your plants.

Simply chop up large leaves and plants and place them in a bucket with distilled water or rainwater and cover with window screen to repel insects. Stir your tea daily and allow it to brew for 3 days to 2 weeks. Your grass clippings will need only 3 days.  

For succulents, you should dilute your tea to avoid burning your plants. Offer it like any other fertilizer. For the rest of your garden, apply as often as every 2 weeks.

Don’t have a discarded plant matter source? You can buy tea bags! Just place your tea bag in a bucket of water and leave it to brew. The producer will have instructions for how long and how much water. For succulents, make the most dilute solution recommended.

Most succulents won’t need this more than once a growing season. This is another option for very dilute regular watering if you have a way to keep it.

Fish emulsion

Fish emulsion is an organic fertilizer made from whole fish and fish parts. This fertilizer features a ratio of about 4-1-1.

Fish emulsion has a mixed reputation.

Yes, it’s organic! It’s also non-toxic for the environment! It’s not too powerful for your succulents! It has a high ratio of nitrogen!

It also smells awful, and there are other organic solutions that can be diluted if they’re too strong.

If you have fish emulsion or just want to use it, there’s nothing wrong with that. Treat it like a normal low-strength fertilizer.

Fish emulsion fertilizers are sometimes combined with seaweed for a more rounded source of nutrients.

Kelp

Packed with micronutrients, organic, and not as smelly as fish emulsion, kelp makes a great fertilizer.

This is often a weak fertilizer, sometimes offered at 1-1-2.  Quite a few succulent keepers love the results of it on their plants.

Kelp comes in meal and liquid form. Simply follow the directions for application!

Manure and compost tea

These have similar benefits to compost and fertilizer teas.

Simply soak your compost or cured manure at 5-parts water to 1-part compost or manure ratio. Allow it to soak for a few days, stirring thoroughly throughout the steeping time. In some cases, especially for pre-prepared teabags, one night may be plenty of time to steep. Once it’s complete, strain the mixture unless you used a burlap bag as a tea bag.

You can dilute it a little for succulents and spread it through your garden.

Manure and compost tea, like the fertilizer tea, also come in prepared tea bags with instructions.

How Do I Know if It’s Working?

It might take a while in slow-growing succulents.

If they don’t seem happy, follow the troubleshooting steps. For leggy plants, use less fertilizer or offer more light. If they have other symptoms, you can look over the deficiency and toxicity symptoms to determine if too much or little is being used.

Most commonly, succulents will show signs of being burned from too much sun or lose leaves from too much water. Consider these if you have unclear symptoms in your plants.

If your succulents are full and growing, then you can rest assured that they’re happy with your choices! You’ve done a lot of reading and research, and your plants will thrive thanks to your efforts!