Tips and Tricks

Overwatered Succulents: How to Identify and Save

December 10, 2020
Succulent in pot with watering can

As a plant enthusiast, I know how easy it is to end up with overwatered succulents. This is an extremely common mistake that beginners make, and can be especially easy to do when you have numerous types of plants with different watering needs.

Succulents have much different watering needs than most other plants. They have evolved to thrive in dry, arid climates, utilizing their fleshy stems and leaves to retain water. This being said, succulents don’t need to be watered as often as other plants. 

If you notice your plant has been receiving too much water, don’t panic, there are things you can do to both prevent and save overwatered succulents.

Is it possible to save overwatered succulents?

That would be a big YES YES and YES! Depending on the severity of damage done to the plant, many times it will make a full recovery if you adjust the type of TLC you’re providing.

Over watering can come about based on numerous factors. One being just simply too much water; maybe you’re just a bit too heavy handed when it comes to the watering can. The type of soil used has a large impact on water retention. Pots with or without drainage holes play a factor as well.

If the damage is more extensive, there are ways in which to save parts of the succulents for propagation. This is why succulents are so great; even if parts of your plant has rotted, any healthy parts can be saved and grown into healthy new succulents.

Being able to recognize an overwatered succulent vs an underwatered succulent and then to identify the severity of the damage done is the important first step in saving your dying succulent.

What do they look like?

Identifying an overwatered succulent can take some experience, as some of the symptoms of underwatering and overwatering can look a bit similar. There are 3 main things to look for that will help you diagnose an overwatered succulent.

Overwatered green lithops
You can see this Lithops succulent has been overwatered. The base is wrinkled and mushy. The color has also begun to turn translucent.

Sign 1: Take a look at the leaves. Wrinkled, mushy leaves are a telltale sign that your plant has gotten too much water; think about the way your fingers look when you’ve been in the bathtub for too long.

Succulents have adapted to dry, arid conditions in nature and thus have evolved to be excellent water savers. Overwatering a succulent will cause the cells to burst from being overfilled which is why the plant tissue appears wrinkly and squishy.

Sign 2: Leaves on an overwatered succulent will be not only wrinkled and mushy, but will appear lighter than those on a healthy plant. They may even begin to appear somewhat translucent.

Sign 3: The leaves of overwatered succulents will fall off very easily. As the cellular structure of the plant is damaged, the outer structure begins to fall apart. The more severe the over watering, the easier a leaf will fall off, even with just a light brush of a finger.

Sign 4: The most extreme symptom of over watering is rot which usually begins in the stem and will show itself first on the leaves closest to the soil. When a succulent is rotting, the normal healthy colors will turn brown to black.

Rot, just like the above symptoms of over watering, occurs when the succulent has either had too much water on a too frequent basis or is not planted in the correct soil to allow for fast drainage.

Telling the difference between overwatered and underwatered succulents

This is where it can get a bit tricky; both overwatered and underwatered succulents will have wrinkly leaves. While an overwatered succulent leaf will look wrinkly, it will also appear swollen and mushy. An underwatered succulent leaf will have a more shriveled, wrinkled and deflated appearance.

The first sign that a plant needs more water will not be wrinkly leaves but that it will have a softer, more velvety texture rather than its usual plump appearance. The leaf will feel more flat than it’s perfectly watered counterpart.

As the succulent continues to be deprived of water, the leaves will shrivel and dry out, even becoming brown in extreme instances.

When determining if your succulent is underwatered, look at the plant as a whole. Some plant’s bottom-most leaves, such as Echeveria, will dry out at the base of the plant as a part of its growing process. An underwatered Echeveria will show signs throughout all of its leaves and appear limp.

How to identify the cause

There are a number of reasons as to why a succulent may get too much water. However, most of the time it’s one of the following three reasons:

  • The amount of water
  • The type of soil
  • The type of pot

First things first, determine why your succulent is showing signs of being overwatered. Have you increased the number of times you water the plant? Have you changed soil? Do you have the right pot?

If the soil is drying out adequately but your plant still looks overwatered, you are most likely just watering too much! Succulents grow best when you water them sparingly using the “soak-and-dry” method. 

When watering succulents, completely drench the soil. Allow the excess water to drain out from the drainage hole in the bottom. Do not water again until ¾ of the soil in the pot is dry and crumbly.

The “soak-and-dry” method mimics a succulent’s natural water intake. In the desert, rains come infrequently. When it does rain, it pours, soaking the soil.

Lengthening the period between watering encourages a succulent to extend its roots out, looking for more water. This in turn establishes a strong root system under the soil.

Before watering again, give the soil time to dry completely and then wait an additional week before the next watering. When you resume watering, adjust the schedule so there are more days in between.

I water my succulents once every 7-10 days in the summer and once every 12-15 days in the winter. 

So you tried the suggestion above and your succulent is still showing signs of being overwatered. The soil in which the succulent is either planted in outside or potted in inside may not allow for adequate drainage. Some soils will hold onto water for long periods of time, which is great for other plants, but NOT for succulents.

The best soil for succulents is soil that is gritty, gravelly and sandy. There are numerous name brands that I like and two of my favorites are:

  • Organic Cactus Mix by Espoma
  • Succulent & Cactus Soil by Bonsai Jack.

Bonsai Jack is a great unique soil blend that can be bought online and is great for new succulent growers or those who have a heavy hand when it comes to watering. The makeup of this soil allows for maximum drainage so it is hard to overwater succulents when planted in this.

A lot of succulent lovers prefer to make their own soil mix. This is nice because it allows for customization based on the plant and the climate in which you live. The most suggested ratio for homemade soil is ⅓ organic material and ⅔ coarse mineral.

If you suspect soil is the issue, remove the succulent from the soil, shake off the excess soil from the roots and allow the roots to dry (about 1 week) before replanting in new soil.

The last thing to consider is if your pot has a drainage hole at the bottom or not. Drainage holes help facilitate the drainage of excess water out of the pot and away from the roots. I do have some succulents planted in pots without drainage holes and have success. You just have to be very strict with your watering schedule.

How to save an overwatered succulent

There are a couple ways you can save an overwatered succulent. If you are just beginning to notice signs of over watering, try the steps above. However if you notice extensive damage with wrinkly soggy leaves or black rotted areas, you still have some options.

Method 1: Propagate

You can propagate the healthy leaves. Make sure you remove the whole leaf in its entirety; firmly grasp the base of the leaf closest to the stem and gently pull, wiggling back and forth.

Removing healthy leaves from a succulent
Only propagate the healthy leaves. All of the damaged, mushy leaves lower down the stem have been removed

Let the leaves dry out for 3-5 days in a cool dry area of your house. Once the end of the leaf forms a callus (the end will look slightly dried out) place the leaf in soil. At this point you can use rooting hormone to encourage root growth, however I do not and have great success. Keep in full sun and mist the leaves and soil as often as you need to keep the soil moist.

Person holding a succulent leaf
Here is a healthy stem that has been fully removed from the stem. Allow the end of this leaf to harden, or callous over, before placing on top of soil.

It can take a couple of weeks before you notice roots growing so don’t give up. Not all leaves, however, will successfully grow roots, so know this doesn’t mean you have done something wrong.

Once roots appear, expect new baby plants to start appearing within about a month.

Method 2: Pruning

You can also save an overwatered succulent that has developed stem rot by “pruning” and separating the damaged part of the plant from the healthy part of the plant. 

To do this, remove the entire succulent from the soil and look to see where the damage ends. If you notice the damage occurs approximately ½ up the stem but see that the upper half is healthy, cut the stem approximately 1 cm above the damaged point.

Succulent stem cut in half for propagation
This Echeveria has not been overwatered so both parts of the stem look healthy. However, the image shown here displays the same technique to be used when separating the damaged lower stem from the healthy upper stem.

Once the healthy stem and leaves are separated from the unhealthy portion, look to ensure the inner tissue of the stem is healthy by looking at the site that was cut. If everything looks healthy and green, you cut in the right place. If not, try cutting the stem a bit higher until you see only healthy tissue.

Before replanting, remove enough leaves so there is 1 inch of healthy stem; since rot starts from the bottom up, the top leaves will most likely be healthy. Leave the healthy plant in a cool dry place for 3-5 days until the cut stem forms a callus.

Replant this new succulent in fresh soil and do not water for a week. After the first week, adjust the watering schedule as needed to avoid over watering in the future.

Tips to avoid overwatering in the future

Setting a loose schedule can help prevent overwatering. Creating a schedule can initially come about with some trial and error, especially if you are just beginning a succulent collection.

A watering schedule will differ if you live in a humid environment or one that is dry; so someone in Florida will mostly likely water their succulents much less frequently than someone else who lives in Arizona.

A loose schedule takes into consideration that not all times of the year are the same. It’s great to have ballpark times in which to water your succulents but make sure you check the soil every time before watering.

Using a knife or a chopstick, stick the utensil ¾ of the way to the bottom of the pot. If there is a small dusting of soil on the utensil, it’s time to water. If there is wet soil sticking to the utensil, wait a few more days for the soil to dry out.

Wrapping Up

The best thing about succulents is that they are resilient. They can take a lot of neglect and some extra love. It can take a bit of time to figure out the perfect routine for a new succulent and that’s ok. 

Keeping a close eye on their growth will help you catch a problem of over watering before it becomes damaging. However, don’t worry if damage happens; the techniques above are great ways to save your plant.