If succulents don’t get enough sunlight they begin to grow tall and stretch out. Find out how to prevent stretching and how to “fix” succulents that are already stretched out.
I get emails from time to time from panicked readers whose succulents “look different than when I bought them.” Most of the time, their succulents have become much taller and spread out. This is quite a common occurrence, especially when you’re growing succulents indoors.
While succulents are fairly slow growing, its amazing how quickly they seem to stretch when they aren’t getting the light they need. The technical term for this is etiolation. You are likely here because you are wondering what can you do to prevent etiolation (stretching) and how to fix a succulent that is already stretched out. Let me share what I know!
Lack of Sunlight
Succulents stretch out when they aren’t getting enough sunlight. Oddly, this often causes the plant to grow faster. You’ll first notice the succulent start to turn and bend toward the light source. Then as it continues to grow it will get taller with more space between the leaves.
Most of the time the leaves will be smaller and lighter in color than normal. Generally, lack of sunlight will also cause the succulent to turn green or lose the intensity of it’s original color. Notice how this Echeveria ‘Lola’ is starting to bend toward the light and it’s not quite as colorful as when I photographed it for the top dressings post.
Is it unhealthy?
While succulents will look better if they get adequate sunlight, they will continue to grow in low lighting. They won’t be as healthy or look as good as they should, but it will generally take a very long time (a year or two) for them to die completely in low light. If they aren’t getting any light, they’ll die much more quickly.
How to save stretched out succulents
Once a succulent is stretched out, it won’t revert back to it’s more compact height and shape. Don’t worry though! There is a way to get back to a tight, compact garden again.
Start by cutting off the top of the succulent using sharp scissors (I love, love, love this pair! Absolutely worth every penny!). Leave at least an inch or two on the base with 2-3 leaves. The base will do best if you leave a few leaves to catch the sunlight.
While I’ve had bare stems send out new offshoots, generally they put out new offshoots faster if you keep a few leaves. If the cutting (the top part you cut off) is too tall for your liking you can cut off some of the stem to make the cutting shorter. Be sure to leave some stem so you can plant it in soil later.
Let both the cutting and the base dry out for a few days. Once the end of the cutting has calloused over (dried out completely and looks “scabbed”) you can plant it in soil and begin watering it. I’ve found that cuttings need to be watered slightly more often than a fully rooted plant, but not much. Make sure you are using a really well draining soil so the stem doesn’t get too mushy and rot. You can learn more about propagating succulents from cuttings here.
The cutting should start to put off roots, possibly within a couple days, but definitely within 2-3 weeks. As the roots become more established you’ll want to cut back on watering so it’s on the same “schedule” as fully rooted plants.
The base, or original plant, will start to put off new offshoots within a few weeks. You can continue to care for this plant the same as you were before making the cut. If you aren’t sure the best way to care for succulents, be sure to check out my succulent care page!
The leaves you left on the base plant originally may fall off or die at some point. This is very normal, but won’t happen all the time. Don’t be alarmed if they do fall off though! The new rosettes will still be able to grow without the “parent” leaves.
Give them more light
If you have stretched out plants, you can follow the procedure above to promote new growth, but unless you give the plants more light, the cutting and new offshoots will eventually get stretched out as well. So, before you make the “cut”, try to find an area for your succulents where they will get more indirect sunlight than they did before. If moving them isn’t an option, you can also add a grow light to supplement the light they are already getting.
Generally, you want your succulents to get as much indirect sunlight as possible. Indoors this is really difficult. Especially in the winter, it is almost impossible to grow succulents without some stretching. Again, using a grow light can help and the best option is to put them near the window that gets the most sunlight throughout the day.
So now, the next time you notice your succulents are leaning toward the light or getting a little too tall you’ll know what to do! Don’t be afraid to jump right in and chop off the head of your succulents. Although be warned… it may start a new addiction since this is the first step to propagation and growing new plants…