Succulents have earned a reputation of being plants that can thrive in the harshest of conditions. Many of these plants grow in areas where the soil offers little to no nutrition. And if the best way to keep a plant is to mimic the conditions of its natural habitat, why should you fertilize your succulent? Are you not just wasting your money on something that your plant does not need?
Do your succulents need fertilizers?
Succulents, including cacti, do not need fertilizers to survive. However, if you want your plants to thrive and reach their full potential, giving them fertilizers is essential, depending on the conditions.
Technically speaking, succulents do not need fertilizers to survive. After all, these plants have adapted to live with few resources readily available in their places of origin. But surviving is not the same as thriving and feeding your succulents with the appropriate nutrients benefits them in many ways.
For starters, well-fed succulents grow faster compared to those that can barely get nutrients from the soil they are planted. Fertilizers also enable succulents to better respond to environmental conditions that can cause stress.
And even if your succulents derive nutrients from the soil, over time, these nutrients are washed away the more you water your plants. From time to time, the nutrients in the soil need to be replenished.
What fertilizer should you use for succulents?
Before discussing which fertilizers are suitable for your succulents, it is worthwhile to know which ones to avoid.
As much as possible, avoid giving your plants fertilizers that have a high amount of nitrogen. The high concentration of nutrients in this type of fertilizer is detrimental to the health and form of your plants. If you overfeed your succulents, you will notice that your plants become more prone to leaf and root problems.
1. Commercial fertilizers
If you have no other option but use a commercial fertilizer, choose one with an 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 formulation. More importantly, lower the strength of the fertilizer by half or even a quarter.
For example, if it says on the label that you should dissolve a tablespoon of the fertilizer for every gallon of water, use half or a quarter tablespoon of the fertilizer. The quarter-strength formulation works best for tropical succulents like the Christmas Cactus.
2. Manure tea
Since time immemorial, farmers and savvy gardeners have relied upon manure to fertilize their crops.
The droppings from grazing animals like cows, horses, and sheep contain a diverse number of nutrients and minerals. These nutrients and minerals do not just feed crops. More importantly, manure conditions the soil to make it viable for longer periods. Animal droppings also feed the beneficial microorganisms that live in the soil.
Studies also indicate that manure offers other benefits like improving soil aeration and making the soil’s carbon content more available to plants. But despite these benefits, it is understandable why manure can be off-putting to some people.
If you want to reap these benefits without the associated hassles like the smell of manure, consider using manure tea. Manure tea offers all the benefits of animal droppings without the smell and other downsides. Plus, you are assured that your plants get the nutrients they need without the risk of getting burned and disfigured.
To use manure tea as a fertilizer, you will need to soak one tea bag for every five-gallon of water. You need to soak the tea bag anywhere between 24 to 36 hours. Once the nutrients leach into the water, you will notice that the water will turn brown. You can then use this solution to water your succulents. One batch is enough to water several succulents.
You can use one tea bag to create another batch of fertilized water. However, you will need to steep the tea bag longer, usually for three days.
Because manure tea is milder than commercial fertilizers, you can use it to fertilize your succulents monthly, especially during the growing season of your plants. Most succulents enter their growth phase during the summer.
3. Worm castings
Another organic alternative to chemical fertilizers that you might want to consider using is worm castings i.e. the droppings of worms. Almost all plants, including your succulents, can benefit from worm castings.
Worm castings contain over 60 minerals and other nutrients that are essential for plant growth and health. These include magnesium, nitrogen, zinc, carbon, and iron.
Worm castings can fix a few problems related to soil quality. These can be used to balance soil with high or low pH and even protect the plants from the presence of heavy metals in the soil. Worm castings also improve soil aeration.
Finally, worm castings protect plants from pests in two ways. First, the enzymes found in these repel common succulent pests like mealybugs and aphids. Second, worm castings contain the enzyme known as chitinase. When your succulents absorb this enzyme, they become more resilient against insects that feed on their leaves.
Insects instinctively sense chitinase in plants because the enzyme breaks down their exoskeleton. Better yet, chitinase poses no harm to beneficial insects like the ladybug.
You can add worm castings to the soil before planting your succulents. Alternatively, you can just put a few spoons to a handful of worm castings over the soil.
When should you fertilize succulents?
Succulents can be fertilized once a month in perfect conditions and this is a common practice among professional nurseries. The main drawback of monthly fertilization is that the plant seems to be incapable of thriving or even surviving in an environment where there is less control of the conditions, like in a home or a garden. In short, the plant loses its inherent ability to adapt. This is why it is advisable to feed your succulents just once a year.
If you want to fertilize your succulents, whether you keep them outdoors or indoors, the best time to do that would be spring, except for some succulents that go dormant in the summer. The logic behind this schedule is that you should feed your succulents when they need more nutrients, which is during their growth phase.
There is no need to feed your plant when it is about to go into hibernation. You are only wasting precious resources and you might end up doing more harm than good.
You should also be aware that when you feed your succulents, they will go into overdrive and grow at a faster pace. If you do not provide your plants with enough sunlight, they will stretch themselves even further to gather more light.
Providing adequate light for your succulents after feeding them allows them to remain compact.
Should you fertilize your succulents?
Succulents are exceptionally resilient plants, able to survive in environments that are downright hostile. It is amazing to see them thrive in their natural habitats with little to no nutrients available to them. But of course, using the right type of fertilizers, given at the right dosage and timing, can help your plant to thrive.
Image: istockphoto.com / Singkham