How to Save Overwatered Succulents (3 Easy Fixes!)

Easy-care plants like potted succulents are often loved to death. They are so charming and sweet that it’s hard to walk past them with a full watering can. They deserve all the tender care, but it’s common for that affection to kill them outright. 

It can feel like neglect for a new succulent owner to hold back, fearful a lack of water will drive their new treasure to an early grave.

Instead, too much water becomes a frequent killer of succulents of all types. But it need not be the case, as they’re remarkably tough and can be brought back from the brink with minimal effort.

Fear not; this guide on how to save overwatered succulents is the only guide you’ll need to keep your succulent garden thriving. 

Can I Save an Overwatered Succulent?

Succulents are tough, adaptable plants. They can be saved with a fresh pot of soil and adequate time to dry out.

Alternatively, an overwatered succulent plant with rotten roots will propagate readily from healthy leaves and stems, ensuring the ongoing survival of your overwatered succulents.

What Does an Overwatered Succulent Look Like?

succulent with yellow and brown leaves from overwatering

An overwatered succulent is a sad, sodden mess. Signs of an overwatered succulent include:

  • Yellow leaves, most commonly at the base of the plant
  • Mushy leaves that are slimy and fall apart when touched
  • Large, wet-looking blisters (edema)
  • Black or brown spots on leaves
  • Drooped lower leaves, leaving a soft, exposed stem
  • Rotting succulent stems that have brown or black spots of their own

The plant’s roots are harder to examine but carry the most critical damage. If you aren’t willing to dig around, you can get an idea of what’s happening below from the smell. Excess soil moisture causes everything below the surface to rot, and that stinks on every level.

Fungus gnats also love showing up to dine on soggy potting mix.

While they’re generally benign in their own right, they indicate there’s just too much water in the pot. Their grubs eat decaying organic matter, including rotting roots. As a result, these irritating pests show up when problems develop in your soil.

Don’t confuse the milky white sap of Euphorbia succulents with overwatering symptoms. Almost all Euphorbias contain the substance, which is generally toxic to the touch.

What Happens if I Overwater My Succulent?

brown leaves of an overwatered succulent in outdoor ceramic pot

Succulents are arid climate specialists. They love dry climates with low rainfall and have a host of nifty tactics they use to stretch the usefulness of each drop of water.

One of these adaptations is storing water inside the succulent’s leaves. Those gorgeous fat leaves are water tanks, filled during water-plentiful times to keep them alive during more challenging periods.

They also have a root system primed to suck up every drop and to thrive even when totally dry.

If you make a DIY succulent arrangement, it is crucial not to overwater. Otherwise, you may risk losing the entire lot of plants.

Leaves Begin to Plump

All this makes them very vulnerable to damage from too much water. When the root system is inundated with lots of water, it first tries to take up as much as possible. The leaves plump out and absorb as much as they can.

Eventually Leading to Edema

If this continues, the leaves wind up overfilled. They can develop edema, a type of soft wet blister where moisture collects inside an otherwise healthy leaf. The tissue drowns and begins to rot. 

Root Rot Develops

Down in the soil, the root system starts to drown too. They need air pockets to perform their function; without that air, they die. Dead roots in wet soil soon begin to rot away. 

If not caught, that root rot will spread from the plant roots into the now-sodden succulent leaves and stems. Fungi move in to break down the tissue, and the plant starts to rot away entirely.

3 Tips for How to Save Overwatered Succulents

woman in black demonstrates how to save overwatered succulents by repotting them into new soil and pots

While this sorry state of affairs might sound irredeemably grim, succulents are astonishingly resilient and can be saved from all but complete rot.

Take a good look at your succulent. If the rot is caught early, all you need to do is let the plant dry out, and it won’t take long before it’s back to its old self.

Even extreme cases come with a ray of hope. So long as there’s a single healthy leaf, the plant can be saved.

1. Dry the Overwatered Succulents

When reviving an overwatered succulent, the first thing is to dry it out. If you’ve caught it at the early stages and your soil is otherwise good, you can let it dry on its own. 

  • Remove and discard dead leaves and pop the little patient in a warm, well-lit spot. 
  • After a couple of days, the soil should dry out enough for the plant to recover. But for best results, give the succulent plant a bit of help. 
  • Remove the entire plant from its pot and remove the sodden soil. I often like to do this in a pail of water so I can rinse the roots without too much handling. It’ll remove more mud with less damage.
  • Once you’ve cleared the roots, lay the plant on a tarpaulin or sheet of newspaper and inspect the roots. 

Healthy roots are wiry, with a pale color and a tough outer layer. They’re often smaller than you’d expect – most succulents are shallow-rooted. They also should only smell very mildly of soil, if they smell of anything at all.

Rotten roots are another story. They’ll stink to high heaven of rotting eggs or fish. Rotten roots are also brown or black, soft, and squishy. They often break away readily, and if you’ve washed them clear in a bucket, they’ll often stay in the water with the soil.

  • If you have discovered rotten roots, use a clean pair of garden shears or scissors to cut away any dead or decaying material. Don’t be afraid to remove it all – your succulent can be revived without roots if need be!
  • Leave the entire remaining plant – roots and all – uncovered in a cool, dry area away from bright light. After a day or two, you can move on to repotting.

2. Repot the Overwatered Succulents

The pot and the soil it contains are the whole world to your succulent. You need to make sure both suit its needs. For most species, you’ll need to get those roots into well-draining soil with lots of inorganic elements. 

Coarse sand, small stones, and even perlite mimic the dry and dusty conditions in a succulent’s natural range. They also provide critical protection from over-watering by allowing excess water to drain freely. 

Potted Exotics Pro Tip: Use an equal mix of good-quality potting soil, coarse sand, and perlite in your potting soil blend. This gives a light, airy succulent mix that drains well while still holding enough water to encourage growth. 

If you want to avoid blending your own, a commercial cactus and succulent soil blend will work just fine too. Just avoid fine-particle sand and moisture-retaining mediums like peat moss. 

You also need to be mindful of the pot. It must have at least one drainage hole, and the more you can muster, the healthier your succulent will be. There’s no point potting your succulents in free-draining soils if there’s no way for the extra water to leave the pot!

Material matters, too. 

Porous materials like terra cotta, unglazed ceramics, or even concrete are perfect. They wick excess moisture from the soil and help prevent areas of stagnancy from developing inside the soil.

Once dry, you can pot your succulent. Don’t fret if your roots are totally gone. Succulents will regrow the whole root mass from the stump of the old. 

  • Plant the stem or base in the soil, and it will sprout new roots and other new growth in no time. For larger plants, you’ll need to stake them into place.

Many succulent growers will dust the base of rootless plants with a synthetic rooting hormone or even powdered cinnamon. While both are great ways to get roots going, we’ve found over the years that most succulents want to live and will root just fine without it.

3. Propagate Overwatered Succulents from Healthy Leaf Cuttings

If you’ve got more dead leaves than healthy plant, your best bet is to propagate. The good news is you can regrow a whole new plant from as little as a single surviving leaf!

To propagate a single succulent leaf, you’ll need a shallow pan or tray of potting medium in addition to your leaf. 

  • Fill the tray to about a depth of an inch or two and moisten it gently with clean water.
  • Next, examine your cuttings and make sure they’re genuinely healthy. Any with signs of fungal disease, like brown or black spots, are best discarded. You don’t want the new plant struggling against fungal infections instead of developing lots of new leaves.
  • After that, it’s just a matter of resting the leaf, tip down, on the surface of the growing medium. You don’t need to plant the stems. The leaves will grow new roots and a tiny new ‘plantlet’ at the stem of the old leaf. 

They are extremely cute, and once your new succulent has a root mass the same size as the plant’s leaves, you can move them to a new pot. They don’t need a lot of room, but be sure to use the same free draining blend I mentioned above.

You can propagate stems, just like with the string of turtles plant. In fact, they’re even easier. Once the tip is dry, you can plant the lot a few inches into a pot of new soil. It won’t take a long time at all until it has new roots.

How to Avoid Damage from Over-Watering

water droplets on green succulent leaves

To prevent over-watering in the future, you’ll need to water less frequently or with less water. While succulents don’t need a lot of water, they still need some to live.

Only Water When Soil is Dry

Only water succulents when their soil is completely dry. You can poke around in the pot to check or use one of the many different soil moisture meters available for home growers.

Water Heavily, Not Frequently

Once dry, it’s best to flood the pot from top to bottom. 

Some growers prefer to water from below. This tactic involves placing your succulent in a tub of water that reaches about halfway up the pot. Leave the succulent to rest in the water for half an hour, allowing water to seep into the bottom of the pot through the drainage holes.

Potted Exotics Pro Tip: Take a more drastic approach and submerge the whole plant. Sandy potting mix is heavy enough to stay in the pot while dust, pests, and other nasties float to the top for you to easily discard. 

If you want to water from above, use enough to thoroughly flush the pot. Don’t be coy – think how heavy a desert rainstorm can be. This has the added benefit of washing leaves and clearing the soil of mineral salts that sometimes build up over time.

Provide Good Drainage

No matter what watering technique you choose, allow the pot to drain completely before returning the succulent to its spot.

It’s a good idea to rehydrate the water every now and then rather than trickle a little water in more frequently. Often small quantities applied like that never really get down into the root ball and encourage even shallower roots than normal.

The top layer of the potting soil mix winds up stewing in too much moisture. Wet conditions don’t need to be deep to cause problems.

Dont Water On a Schedule

Finally, while using a watering schedule is tempting, you should always check before adding any water to the pot. Watering blindly because the task came up on a calendar is one of the most common reasons people overdo it with the watering can. The best way is to check first.

Also, remember that succulents require even less water during their dormancy period, so be mindful of the seasons. 

How To Care for Succulent Plants

The proper care needed by your little cutie will vary a bit depending on the type of succulent you grow. 

Some, like Aloe Vera, are shy and retiring, needing dappled light and infrequent watering. Others, like crassulas or black rose succulent love to bask in direct sunlight all day long.

In general, to get the most from your potted succulents, you need to:

  • Water only when the soil is totally dry
  • Provide bright indirect light
  • Keep them between 68 and 77 °F (20 to 25°C)
  • Maintain low humidity
  • Provide free draining soil and a suitable pot with good drainage
  • Fertilize once during the growing season with a dilute liquid fertilizer

Signs of Underwatered Succulents

hand holding potting soil to check moisture

Knowing how to save overwatered succulents is crucial, but first, you need to know how to tell if a succulent is overwatered or underwater. 

Dull, Deflated, and Damaged Leaves

The most significant difference between an overwatered and an underwatered succulent is the state of the leaves. Like other moisture-retaining plants like the ZZ Plant, succulents will show the first signs of struggle in their leaves.

Under-watering is a test for which succulents are well prepared. Their leaves will slowly empty of water, losing their plumpness and shine. Instead, they become puckered, wrinkled, or curled.

Leaves darken from the tip in and can become crisp and sharp in some species. If they go a long time without water, older leaves will drop away from the bottom of the succulents. Those leaves will dry out instead of decomposing.

Dry, Crumbly, and Lightweight Soil

The other big clue is in the pot. No matter the species, an overwatered plant has a heavy pot full of wet, stinking medium. That excess water is heavy enough to notice.

On the other hand, dry soil is very light, crumbly, and dusty. It’s a noticeable difference and one you can use to guide your diagnosis.

The best way to remember it is “mushy vs. crispy.” Over-watering leads to fungal disease and wet rot. Underwatering dries everything out instead.

Other Frequently Asked Questions

How Do You Reverse Over-Watered Succulents?

Once the damage is done, it is impossible to reverse. Succulent stem rot and the decomposing leaves of an overwatered succulent are decomposing on the plant. You need to remove them so the healthy parts can have a chance to recover rather than try to bring them back from the grave. This is why it’s so important to spot the early signs of overwatered succulents so you can act promptly.

But once the damaged stems and leaves of overwatered succulents have been removed, the remaining plant will endure.

Furthermore, if you propagate from last-ditch cuttings, you’ll have a whole new healthy succulent plant with a bit of patience. Stem cuttings with healthy tissue and surviving leaves in good condition may be the ray of hope to bring the plant back to life.

Should You Remove Over-Watered Leaves?

Dead leaves will rot on the plant, so if any leaves show obvious signs of overwatering damage, it’s best to remove them. They’ll often come away with a gentle tug, a good indicator they’re done. The first sign to watch out for can include:

1. Yellow, translucent leaves
2. Brown or black spots or areas of rot
3. Curling leaves that are dark at the tips or edges
4. Mushy leaves

Why is My Succulent Dying?

Over-watering is one of the most common reasons for a succulent to die. Underwatering is close on its heels. Both conditions worsen with bad soil that doesn’t drain appropriately or has too little organic matter to hold water. Getting them in the right soil makes a big difference.

If your watering regime is under control, look at your light levels. Plants with visible sun damage will want less, so look for brown patches that resemble sunburn. Plants with too little light to survive become pale and elongated.

If you’re light is good, the next thing to consider is pests and diseases. While generally resistant to both, no plant is immune to nibbling insects, ravaging fungi, or stealthy bacteria.

It’s also possible your succulent is too cold or too warm. While it varies from species to species, most want to be kept somewhere between 68 and 77 °F (20 to 25°C).

Leave a Comment