5 Causes of a Leggy Succulent

This is "Lenny" the leggy succulent. Succulents that look tall or leggy are usually not getting enough sunlight.

A tall, leggy succulent can be an unsightly piece. Thankfully, stretched out plants can be fixed and avoided with a few simple steps.

What is a Leggy Succulent?

Succulents, as well as cacti, are subject to a list of problems despite their tolerance to extreme climate conditions.

One of the major issues of owning a succulent is when it starts to grow leggy.

Its stems become long and skinny; leaves may start to fall off and grow back short and sparse. This process is known as etiolation.

Overall, leggy succulents are an indication that the plant is unhealthy and needs attention. Quick action can save it before permanent damage or wilting occurs.

Additionally, a leggy succulent is more likely to suffer from bacteria and fungal infections.

What Causes a Leggy Succulent? 

There are 5 major factors that contribute the most to etiolation (long stems and sparse leaves) in succulents.

Here are 5 Major Causes for Stretched Out Plants:

1. Lack of Sunlight

2. Too Little Space

3. Improper Watering

4. Lack of Fertilizer

5. There’s a Draft

All of these factors contribute to tall growing succulents, however, it’s usually caused by multiple.

Unfortunately, even with proper care, not all leggy succulents end up returning to normal.

If this has happened and the damage seems irreversible, a process called “topping” is the most effective fix.

When and How to Top Succulents

1. A Lack of Sunlight

Usually, a lack of sunlight is the most common reason for leggy succulents.

Proper lighting is essential for succulents and cacti to grow dense foliage and strong stems.

Plants suffering from insufficient light grow tall as a survival adaptation. They stretch towards the nearest light source to capture its energy.

However, providing plants with enough light promotes robust growth and the production of broad, densely packed leaves.

Furthermore, adequate lighting helps plants develop strong and vibrant leaves, deep in color.

How to Provide More Light:

There are a variety of different ways to provide succulents with enough light to promote more dense growth.

Artificial lights, for example, can entirely replace a plant’s reliance on sunlight for energy through photosynthesis.

Here’s a selection of good light sources to combat leggy succulents:

1. Move succulents to a window silL

Windows are the easiest (and one of the best) ways to quickly provide succulents with enough light.

Also, they won’t be exposed to changes in the weather.

In the Northern Hemisphere of the world, putting a plant near a south-facing window will offer plants the most sunlight.

In contrast, the Southern Hemisphere will receive the most sunlight from a north-facing window.

South and north-facing windows work best because they provide the maximum amount of indirect sun.

Most importantly, avoid drafty windows. Sudden rushes of cold or hot air can cause plants to freeze or dry out.

If a bad draft it introduced, it makes saving a stretched-out succulent even more difficult by adding additional stress on the plant.

2. Move succulents outside

During the summer, moving succulents outside is a great way to provide them with plenty of sunlight without freezing them.

Make sure to take succulents inside in areas where it freezes or gets close to freezing.

The coldest temperatures for succulents are in winter, late fall, and early spring.

In areas near the equator or locations where it seldom drops below 50°F (10°C), most plants can remain outdoors all year round without fear of frost damage or stunted growth.

3. Purchase a light

If succulents aren’t getting enough light and it’s too cold to put them outside, consider purchasing a grow light.

Grow lights range from a few dollars to over a thousand dollars, with plenty of varieties based on your growing needs.

grow lights are great for a leggy succulent

Grow lights can range from fluorescent tubes, ceramics, HID, and LED.

Generally, LED lights are the best variety of grow light for most gardeners and plant enthusiasts.

LED lights come in full spectrum varieties, which ensure that your plants are getting all of the wavelengths of light that they need.

LEDs are also the most cost efficient, produce very little excess heat, and have long lifespans.

Keep growing lights on between 14-16 hours a day for optimal growth and for recovery from leggy stems.

However, the time can be adjusted depending on the season or to induce flowering in plants.

4. Use a Spare Light.

If all else fails, provide succulents with a lamp or flashlight.

Lamps and flashlights are cheap and easy to use but do not have as large of a light spectrum as growing lights, making them less efficient.

Placing succulents next to a window and turning on a nearby lamp helps give them a boost while growing.

Keep in mind that plants grow toward nearby light sources, so rotate them to keep them growing upright.

2. Too Little Space

Sometimes, succulents stretch out because of limited growing space in a pot. Often times, succulent roots will grow much faster than the rest of the plant, crowding the pot and forcing them upwards.

If a plant remains leggy weeks after receiving more light, repotting might solve the issue.

Directions for repotting succulents: 

Firstly, repot succulents every two years to provide roots with enough room to grow.

Secondly, add fresh soil to newly repotted plants to provide them with enough nutrients and growing medium.

1. Provide Edge Space

There should be 1-1.5 inches (2-4 centimeters) of space between the edge of the pot and the succulent at all times.

if there’s less than 1 inch (2 centimeters) of space, repot the succulent. Too little space and soil forces the plant to grow upwards in search of more space.

2. Provide Drainage 

Above all, pots must have drainage. Without it succulents will have stunted growth, loose leaves, or even rot.

Often, succulents sold in stores come in pots without drainage holes.

If possible, either repot them into pots with drainage or carefully add them.

Drainage holes let excess water escape from the soil and prevent damp conditions that support bacterial and fungal growth.

Likewise, adding rocks to the bottom of pots can help with drainage, especially if the pot has fewer holes.

Rocks help separate soil from the base of a pot, allowing water to sit in gaps at the bottom without the medium becoming soggy.

Additionally, visit our webpage on Succulent Aesthetic Design to find out the benefits of different types of pots and rocks that can aid in drainage.

3. Provide Fresh Soil

Succulent soil needs to be fresh and full of proper nutrients. If the soil holds too much water or has moss/algae growing on its surface, it’s time for a repot.

Sometimes, good drainage isn’t always enough to pull excess water out of the soil. Certain types of soil, especially old and compacted soil, holds too much water and is a detriment to the health of succulents.

If the soil has a gray or red color, it has probably been drained of its nutrients and needs replaced.

It’s best to replace potting soil once every one to two years.

To learn more about succulent/cactus soils and how to build beautiful living rock gardens, visit our webpage on Succulent Rock Gardens.

3. Improper Watering

Another issue that may cause a leggy succulent to grow is incorrect watering. Too much or too little water can be devastating to the health of succulents.

Too much water can cause roots to rot, and too little water can cause plants to dry up completely.

Signs of Succulents Getting Too Much Water:

Identifying overwatering in plants isn’t difficult. In fact, there are 4 easy ways to tell if a succulent is getting too much water.

1. Soft, Squishy, and Translucent Leaves

Succulents will try to soak up and store as much water as possible, causing the leaves to become wet, mushy, and colorless. If this happens, immediately reduce watering.

2. Leaves turning black or dark brown

Succulents that get too much water will begin to rot as bacteria build up in their root systems. This bacteria can spread to succulent leaves and cause them to rot away into a black paste.

3. Leaves falling off

When succulents are unhealthy they will begin to die and drop leaves. This is usually caused by overwatering, but it can also be caused if the plant is severely underwatered.

4. Droopy leaves or leggy plants.

If succulents have sparse, drooping leaves, yet have plenty of light, then they are likely overwatered.

Let them dry out for a few weeks after being watered to allow them to grow in new leaves and repair older ones.

Signs of Succulents Not Getting Enough Water:

There are 3 telltale signs of succulents not getting enough water, which results in leggy growth.

1. Shriveled or dried up leaves

Dried up leaves, or leaves that are falling off, are a telltale sign of under-watering. Without enough water to support all of its leaves, some will start to fall off.

As a result, watering should be increased slowly over the course of a few weeks. This provides the plant with enough water to promote new growth without jump starting fungal and bacterial development.

2. Light brown colored leaves

Browning leaves are an early indication of succulent underwatering, as the leaves are physically drying out and changing color.

Additionally, brown leaves are an indication of fungal or bacterial infection, however, it’s usually one of many symptoms.

Once again, slowly increase watering to promote new plant growth. Be cautious of overwatering, which often leads to rotting.

3. Flat and spaced out leaves

Succulents growing long and with shrunken leaves is a major indication of under-watering.

Succulent leaves are naturally dense and plump, as they are filled with water and plant juices.

When they dry out, the leaves will shrink and become flat. The stem will also become more noticeable as the leaves reduce in size.

Slowly increase watering to aid leaves in growing dense and plump once more.

Succulent Watering Overview:

A good rule of thumb is to water succulents once a week. This provides the plants with time to dry out between waterings. Make sure that the soil is thoroughly dampened each time the plant is watered.

If you notice any overwatering signs, then water your succulents once or twice every two weeks.

During the wintertime, most succulents go through a dry period.

Water succulents once or twice every 3-4 weeks during the winter to ensure healthier plants.

Gradually increase watering in the spring, and you may be greeted with flowers in the following weeks.

4. Lack of Fertilizer

Although uncommon, succulents may grow leggy from a lack of fertilizer. Without essential nutrients some plants start to grow longer with less leaves.

Adding a cactus, succulent, or citrus fertilizer can help boost plant growth and prevent leggy succulents. Fertilizer can also help leggy succulents recover.

Also, consider buying liquid or solid fertilizers form the store/online and using them on plants. Make sure to follow each individual product’s instructions for the best result.

Most fertilizers are applied to succulents and cacti in the spring to promote growth through the spring and summer.

5. Drafts Causing a Leggy Succulent

Finally, drafts may be responsible for causing a leggy succulent. If a succulent has proper light, water, room to grow, and fertilizer, sometimes a draft can be the culprit.

For example, a draft may dry out leaves and cause them to drop. As a result, the stem of the plant is tall and bare.

Try keeping succulents out of windy/drafty locations to prevent leaves from drying out and falling off.

Succulent “Topping” and Clipping Leggy Succulents

Succulents that have grown tall have a chance to stay leggy, even when under proper light and water conditions.

The process of “topping” describes the removal of leggy parts of a plant in order to make the plant more appealing and promote the growth of new shoots.

Removing the top of a leggy succulent will cause the plant to put out new shoots at its base, and the plant will begin to grow more dense leaves.

Also, the removed leaves and stems are capable of rooting and growing into full-sized plants. Most succulents have leaves and stems that will root in lightly watered soil, giving an endless supply of plants.


Pruning succulents is easy, and these hardy plants can survive almost anything.

Start with a clean pair of scissors or a sharp razor.

Then, sterilize the blades with rubbing alcohol (hydrogen peroxide also works as an alternative). This helps to prevent bacterial infections in plants.

Use a cloth soaked in rubbing alcohol (or hydrogen peroxide) to carefully wipe down the blades of the scissors or razor.

Next, gently cut away the leggy stems/leaves from the top of the plant.

Be careful not to cut too much away, leaving at least two to three leaves at the base.

Cutting too much off can stress the plant, hurting its chances of survival.

Afterwards, do not water your succulent for at least 5 days after pruning because the open cuts can become infected if the plant is wet. Waiting 5 days lets the plant callus over to protect soft and exposed tissues.

Keeping Leaves and Stems:

After pruning succulents you will be left with clippings of leaves and stems. They can be discarded or saved to grow new plants.

Then, place the fresh cuttings in a sunny area and keep them dry for about 5 days. The leaves and stems will callus over and then can be planted into a pot.

Care for the cuttings like any other succulent, except mist them every few days. In as little as 3 weeks the leaf/stem cuttings will develop tiny white roots that will dig into the soil.

After a few more weeks, the cuttings will shoot up little leaves that will eventually grow into full-size plants.

Young succulents will be genetic clones of their parent plant. This means that they will be exact copies and can be cared for in the same way.

In a few months, you may find yourself with an entire plant clone army that can be sold or given as gifts to friends and family.

For more on succulent topping and propagation, check out afewshortcuts.com to learn more.


If you have further questions on the exact needs of succulents and to prevent leggy succulents, check out succulentplantcare.com. This website offers in-depth explanations of the amount of light and temperature ranges that succulents need to be healthy and happy.

If you have more questions on succulents growing tall or other gardening questions, check out more at sunspotnursery.com.

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