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Succulent Stretching: How to Prune Leggy Succulents

Is your succulent stretching out at the stem, leaving more space between leaves? Leggy succulents can often occur when growing these plants indoors. Here’s why your succulent is stretching out, what you can do to fix it, and how to prevent succulent stretching on future plants!

Succulent Stretching: How to Prune Leggy Succulents

Today I am talking about the absolute bane of every indoor succulent grower’s existence: succulent stretching, otherwise referred to as “leggy succulents.” It’s what happens when succulent stems grow longer than usual, and the space between the leaves spreads out. It certainly doesn’t make succulents look their best.

But how can you fix succulent stretching—and what causes leggy succulents? We’re going to talk about both of those using one of my dad’s crassula succulents as a case study. The plant-loving genes in my family run deep, and my dad certainly has them—but this succulent had been sorely neglected for a while. It lived in his bathroom on a shelf, which is a pretty dark spot.

As you can see, it has seen better days. The plant was dying off at the tops of the stems, while new growth at the bottoms/ends of the stems was healthy but leggy. New leaves were spread out far from one another, and the way the plant’s stems curved, it was clear they were reaching—literally—for light!

leggy and unkempt crassula succulent
leggy and unkempt crassula succulent
leggy and unkempt crassula succulent
leggy and unkempt crassula succulent
gorgeous crassula succlent
Here’s how a crassula should look!
gorgeous crassula succlent
And this gorgeous baby!

So what causes succulent stretching and why do they get leggy?

Succulents generally need a lot of light to be happy and healthy. (But not always! See the snake plant, which is a succulent and can survive and thrive in even low-light conditions.) The cause for succulent stretching is simple: the plant’s stems are stretching as it grows to help it reach light. When succulents stretch, you’ll often notice them stretching toward a sunny window or any light source.

Succulents aren’t the only plants that stretch to reach more light. But since many are high-light lovers and since they grow so quickly, their stretching is often evident more quickly than with other plants. Since succulent stretching is generally a result of poor lighting conditions, it makes sense that indoor succulents would get leggy more than outdoor succulents would.

donkey tail succulents growing from seed
Succulent seedlings freshly planted
donkey tail succulents growing from seed reaching toward the light
48 hours later, already stretching to the light!

Why is my indoor succulent stretching out? It’s probably lighting!

This is obviously a problem that plagues indoor succulents more than outdoor succulents. I don’t live in sunny Florida—we have all four seasons here in Maryland. But from late spring to early fall, I can still count on way more sun outside than I can inside. Even in my sunniest window. You just have to be careful where you place it. If a plant is blocked from the light outside, it can still get leggy. Indoor vs. outdoor isn’t necessarily the question: it all comes down to the amount of light. 

Some succulents get leggy with maturity and age, though. You can usually tell pretty easily whether succulent stretching is from lack of light or age. If succulent stretching is from lack of light, the stem will likely seem fragile, and the leaves will be smaller in addition to being more spread out and likely not as vibrant in color.

If your succulent is getting “leggy” from age and maturity, the stem will remain thick. It will just drop leaves. The leaves it retains will still be large, healthy, and relatively close together. You also might notice rouge roots sprouting on the leggy areas or the succulent that lead to new growth. All without you trying!

That is exactly what is happening on the Graptopetalum succulent I have in R’s bathroom window. I have had this succulent for years and years—I can’t even remember when or where I got it!

Graptopetalum trailing succulent
Graptopetalum trailing succulent with a leggy look
Graptopetalum trailing succulent with a leggy look
new growth on a Graptopetalum trailing succulent

Leggy succulents and how to fix them

The first thing to ask yourself is whether you want or need to fix them. The Graptopetalum pictured above—I’m not keen on doing much to this one. I quite like the growth over the side of the pot. However, I’ll likely repot is this spring to give it some fresh soil and more room to grow. If it hadn’t of sprouted that new growth near the soil line, I might have chopped it! But I can cut that off now.

Speaking of chopping. If your succulent is leggy and stretched out because of a lack of light, I’m sorry to be the one to deliver the fatal diagnosis: there is no fixing this guy. There is no “compressing” a succulent stem. What’s done is done. You can either leave it as is, or you can prune your succulent and start a-new with your cuttings! That’s exactly what I’m doing with dad’s crassula. 

crassula succulent reaching toward the light
The window is to the right. See where the succulent is reaching?

What…I have to cut my leggy succulents to fix them?!

No! You don’t have to. It’s just one option, and it’s the route I’m taking. Another option would be to increase the amount of light your succulent gets, either by moving it to a sunnier spot, adding a grow light, or putting it outside for a few hours during the day a few days each week. Since most succulents get leggy in the winter when light is harder to come by, a grow light might be your best bet.

If your goal is to keep your succulent as is, continue to care for your plant and give it as much light as possible. Succulents are pretty cool in that they can pop out roots at seemingly random spots along their stems, creating new plants and filling in gaps just as my Graptopetalum in R’s bathroom did! It’s pretty cool, it just takes longer than the surgery option.

gorgeous succulent
Another crassula of mine nice and healthy outside last summer
crassula succulent reaching toward the light
Inside after a long winter, a bit leggy and worse for the wear!
crassula succulent reaching toward the light
crassula succulent reaching toward the light

Pruning back leggy succulents

Pruning back stretched succulents also has another bonus: it gives you more succulents because it gives you a piece to propagate! Yep, more succulents. It’s a win-win. And it’s easy because succulents are so easy to re-root from cuttings. Here’s how I did it.

Step 1: Take a cutting

Since these were so long and leggy, I opted to save only the very top part (or end) of each stem. That part was the only part of the plant that hadn’t stretched yet, so I figured I could save it. I took a pair of clean scissors and snipped about an inch down from the area I wanted to save and re-root. 

succulent stretching on the stem
succulent stretching on the stem

Step 2: Strip leaves from the bottom

I then gently removed the leaves on the 1-inch area I wanted to rebury. You have to be very careful; since the stem is likely very weak, you might break the stem (and I did on a couple). Try to remove the leaves as cleanly as you can. 

cutting off the top of a stem with succulent stretching

Step 3: Let cutting dry and plant

Place the cutting in a clean, dry spot and let the cut areas and areas you removed the leaves from dry and scab over for a few days. Or don’t. You’re technically supposed to, but I often don’t and it turns out fine. Your highest chance of success will be if you let them callous over. 🙂

To plant my new cuttings, I used a small plastic planter—the kind that new plants come in from the store. I like to save these for soil scooping or rooting new plants to give away. Since they have a bunch of holes in the bottom and have great drainage, they are also nice for propagating and rooting plants.

I filled the container with well-draining succulent soil and dampened it in the container. Then I used toothpicks to create perfect little slots for each of the tiny stems. I planted seven saved succulent stems (hehe) in this container. I didn’t need to water immediately since I had already moistened the soil.

succulent cuttings
soil in a container

Note: To propagate new plants from the leaves, follow the steps in this post I have on propagating succulents from leaves and cuttings. Yes! You can grow new succulents from the LEAVES you removed. Extra extra read all about it. It’s pretty cool. 

Step 4: Water and monitor

Water and monitor the cuttings as necessary. While succulents are not happy being overwatered and you usually want to let the soil dry out completely between watering, this process is a bit different. Slightly moist soil helps to encourage root growth and get the new plants established. 

Set in a mildly sunny spot like a windowsill. I watered mine every few days when the soil dried out, letting the water drain completely out the bottom of the planter in the sink and setting it back in the window. After a few weeks, I started gently tugging on the little plant tops to see if they were rooting. If you encounter any resistance, it’s starting to root. Yay!

As your plant begins to root and establish itself, you can move it to a spot with more direct sunlight like a super bright window or outside. When you notice new growth sprouting from the tops of your babies, start watering the succulents as normal. You can also repot them to something they’ll live in for a while after a month or so when you’re sure the plant has begun to establish its own root system. 

planting a piece of succulent to propagate it
planting a piece of succulent to propagate it
planting a piece of succulent to propagate it
planting a piece of succulent to propagate it
planting a piece of succulent to propagate it

Update! After having these planted cuttings in a sunny windowsill for a few weeks, I moved them outdoors to a sunny spot. One of the cuttings died, and 3 my daughter pulled out one day while playing on the deck. But four are still going strong about a month after planting them! They are definitely rooted and growing taller. Can’t wait to see how they continue growing.

planting a piece of succulent to propagate it
new growth on the planted succulents
new growth on the planted succulents

So I fixed my plant. How do I stop succulent stretching?

To prevent your new succulents from getting all stretched out and leggy again, remember these key steps:

  • Provide them as much light as possible; 6+ hours of sunlight per day is the best. 
  • If indoors, find a sunny window that gets bright midday/afternoon sun. Morning sun is often not enough.
  • If you don’t have a window that gets bright midday/afternoon sun, consider investing in a grow light during late fall, winter, and early spring. Our days are so short during this time of the year, so a grow light helps me out!
  • If outdoors, they can thrive in full sunlight all day, but if you’re moving indoor succulents outdoors, transition them over a few weeks. For example, start them in the shade, then a few hours of direct sun. Work your way up to full sun so the plant doesn’t burn.
  • Much like I recommend in my peperomia plant care guide, rotating your plants can help them grow evenly. Your succulents will grow toward the sun, so rotating them about a quarter (you don’t need to be precise) every few weeks will help them grow evenly.  

Update: Hacking up another succulent!

I’m updating this post because I hacked up another leggy, busted-looking succulent 🙂 This one was all out of sorts. He was okay but a bit leggy indoors over the winter. See this poor guy reaching for the light…remember him from earlier in the post?!

cute little succulent in a pot

I was eager to get him outside for the summer and jumped the gun a little bit, which burned some of its leaves. 🙁 Succulents tolerate a lot of light—in fact, they thrive with a lot of light! But the transition from indoors to outdoors in full sun was just too much. My bad.

So between the leggy growth during the winter and burnt spots on the leaves, he needed some help. The new growth looked beautiful and healthy, though, so I just snipped all of the tips off. And tinier clusters up along the sides of the stems.

burnt succulent leaves
burnt succulent leaves

Then I popped those pieces into the same pot (after removing the root system for the previous plant). Not only does it look a million times healthy, each one of these is going to root and start its own plant! I’ll update as it grows.

Good luck with your succulents!

planting succulent babies in soil
planting succulent babies in soil

Want more great succulent info? Check out my top indoor succulent care tips, how to make your own succulent soil at home, how to plant succulents in pots without drainage holes, and how to grow succulents from seed!

Pin my tips about succulent stretching & how to prune a leggy succulent!

image collage of succulent stretching with text how to prune your succulents keep your succulents looking full and healthy with these tips

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