Houseplants & Water 101: A Guide to Understanding Watering for New Plant Parents

One of the topics that new houseplant owners spend the most time trying to understand is watering.

If you are looking for some easy and straightforward information on how to get started with watering your houseplants, you’ve come to the right place!

The post will answer several common questions, including:

  • How often to water a plant?
  • How much water to give the plant?
  • How to know whether the plant is receiving too much or too little water?

Table of Contents

How often should you water your houseplant?

A houseplant should be watered as often as it needs to be watered.

I know, that’s a super frustrating answer. But the truth is that every plant will use up the water you provide in a different amount of time.

Instead, we can learn the signs a plant gives us when it is thirsty.

Why can’t you just water your plant on a schedule? Why do plants use water at different intervals? Click to expand.

Lots of factors change how often the plant needs water.

Just like lots of factors change how often we humans need water and need to eat.

For example: If a plant is out in the full sun on a super hot day, it is likely to need a lot more water to stay hydrated than if that same plant is several feet back from a window in an air-conditioned room.  Just like your own thirst would change in each of these scenarios.

What are some factors that influence a plant’s water needs?

  • How hot it is
    • The hotter it is, the more water living things need
  • How sunny it is
    • The more sun there is, the hotter it is and the more the plant’s able to photosynthesize (which requires water)
  • How humid it is
    • The more humid the environment is, the more slowly water will evaporate keeping potting mix moist for longer periods of time
  • Whether the plant is growing
    • Just like growing humans need more food and water, so do growing plants
  • How dense the potting mix is
    • If the potting mix has lots of aerating, loose materials, the water is going to pass through quickly and dry out more quickly.
    • If the potting mix has very little aerating materials, the water is going to saturate the potting mix more fully and it will stay wet for much longer.
    • Think of it as the difference between getting a thin tank top wet and getting a thick sweater wet.  The thick sweater is going to take much longer to dry than the thin tank top.
  • How extensive the root system in the pot is
    • The larger the root system is in the pot, the less space there is for potting mix.  The less space there is for potting mix, the less areas there are for water to saturate the potting mix.
  • What kind of a plant it is / How much water the plant can store for itself
    • Plants can store water in their leaves, stems, and roots.
    • The thicker the leaves/stems/roots are, the more water they can store. So, they can tolerate drought better and need water less often.
    • The thinner the leaves/stems/roots are, the less water they can store. So, they are less drought tolerate and need water more often.
    • This is the most important thing to understand because if you can look at a plant and observe how often it might need to be watered, it demystifies a lot of the confusion about how often to check whether its ready for more water

How do you know whether a plant is thirsty or ready to be watered? We will talk about that next!

How do you know when your houseplant needs to be watered?

Most houseplants need to be watered when the potting mix is mostly dry, but hasn’t been dry for very long.

Some examples of houseplants that fall into this category:

  • Pothos (Epipremnums and Scindapsus)
  • Dracaenas
  • Hoyas
  • Peperomias
  • Holiday Cactus
  • Ficus
  • Bird of Paradise
  • Philodendrons
  • Tradescantias (Wandering Dudes)
  • Monsteras
  • Orchids

To check whether your houseplant has mostly dried out, you can:

  1. Stick a finger an inch or two into the potting mix and see if it feels dry or if wet potting mix sticks to your finger
  2. Pick up the pot and see how light it is. When the pot is freshly watered, it will feel heavy. When its dry or mostly dry, it will feel light.
  3. Use a moisture meter to determine how wet the potting mix is by inserting the meter and checking to see if it registers a 2 or 3. If it does, the plant is ready for water.

To check out an inexpensive moisture meter on Amazon, click here

Common houseplants that need LESS water:

  • Snake plants
  • ZZ plants
  • Cacti
  • Succulents
  • Jade Plants

These plants prefer to dry out completely and stay dry for a while. Snake plants and Jade plants can stay dry for a week or two before watering again. ZZ plants and Cactus can happily stay dry for up to a month before watering again.

Common houseplants that need MORE water:

  • Ferns
  • Peace Lilies
  • Prayer plants (Calathea, Maranta, Stromanthe, Ctenanthe, Calathea, etcetera)

These plants don’t want to dry out completely. It is harmful to them if they do. This makes their care more difficult because they can not tolerate periods of neglect & cannot tolerate being too wet either.

If you want to learn how to care for plants that need to stay consistently or evenly moist all the time, click here to read how to do that: Houseplant Care: How to Keep a Plant Evenly Moist

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What is the right way to water a houseplant?

The best way to water, in my opinion, is to take a plant to the sink and water the entire plant until water comes out through the drainage holes of the pot.

Why?

Watering the entire plant helps to remove dust from the leaves, potential pests, and pathogens on the plant itself.

It also ensures that the entire pot and root mass receives an even amount of water.

Why does it matter if the entire root mass is watered?

Keeping all of the roots well-watered will:

  • Keep the plant fully hydrated
  • Ensure that the roots stay alive and healthy
  • Prevent part of the roots from dying
    • Dead roots can cause the plant to topple because it doesn’t have enough roots anchoring it evenly
    • Root dieback can also create decaying matter in the soil which can invite bacteria and fungus to move in and rot the roots, even the ones you are watering

If you have a large collection of plants (like I do), it may not be practical to take every plant to the sink to water for every watering.

Instead, you can fully water using a watering can and then dump any excess water in the saucer, if needed.

You could carry a bucket or container with you to drain excess water from saucers so you don’t need to walk back and forth to the sink.

It is still beneficial to occasionally move plants to the sink or a shower to fully bathe the plants, when possible.

What are some common watering issues that you should be aware of?

Uneven watering

Uneven watering can look like using a watering can to saturate only one side of the pot over and over causing the other side of the rootball to die and the plant to eventually topple

It can also look like not watering deeply enough in the pot so the roots stay near the surface, which doesn’t anchor the plant deeply enough to stay upright.

The easiest way to solve this issue is to water the plant until water comes out of the drainage holes.

Excess water sitting in a saucer

If you water a plant on the window sill and water drains into the saucer, that water may sit and provide too much moisture for the roots causing the roots to begin to suffocate and die.

The easiest way to solve this issue is to check if there is water in drainage trays or saucers after watering and then dump any excess water out.

Pots without drainage

Plants that are in pots without drainage are very difficult to care for because you have to guess how much water to give to ensure the roots are getting fully saturated without being too wet.

It is extremely easy to provide too much water and rot the roots. It is also extremely easy to provide too little water and cause the roots to dry up and die back.

The easiest way to solve this issue is to not pot up plants directly in pots without drainage holes so you don’t need to guess how much water to provide.

What are the signs/symptoms of overwatering versus underwatering?

Signs your plant might be overwatered:

  • leaves that are becoming mushy and falling off
  • stems that are turning black and mushy
  • new growth that is turning yellow and falling off or turning yellow and mushy
  • smelly potting mix (smells of mildew or decay)
  • roots, when removed from the pot, that are mushy, smelly, discolored, and falling apart
  • plants that are wilted and do not perk up after watering (the roots are too rotted to successfully take up water for the plant so the plant looks underwatered or thirsty, but it is actually overwatered)

Signs your plant might be underwatered:

  • leaves near the base of the potting mix that are turning yellow, crisping up, and falling off
  • vines that are drying out, turning brown and crispy
  • potting mix that becomes so dry it pulls away from the side of the pot
  • roots, when removed from the pot, that are dried out and crumble in your hands
  • plants that are wilting often (plant isn’t getting enough water to stay perky and lifelike) or not perking up after watering (plant has gone thirsty for too long and its roots and stems are too dried out to recover)

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