How to Know Whether You are Watering Your Plant Too Much or Too Little

It can be super frustrating to figure out how often to water your plant. This is especially true when some of the symptoms of over watering and under watering are so similar to each other.

The good news is that there are some common signs and symptoms a plant will use to communicate to us whether it needs to be watered more frequently or less frequently.

Today we will cover exactly what those signs are so that you can more easily interpret your plant’s needs.

Table of Contents

Signs your plant needs less water:

  • The leaves are becoming mushy and discolored
  • Both older and newer leaves are dying and falling off of the plant
  • The soil has a musty, mildewy smell
  • White mold is growing on the surface of the soil
  • If you remove the plant from its pot, the roots may feel squishy, fall apart easily, or appear discolored
  • Leaves may curl and then drop off of the plant
  • Leaves may show signs of edema, where cells in the leaf burst from absorbing too much water

A plant receiving too much water is lacking a healthy amount of oxygen around its roots.

The combination of root suffocation with stagnant water allows bacteria, fungus, mold, and other “fun stuff” to grow on or around our plants.

We may see leaves turning to mush, the stems turning black/brown and mushy, or the roots rotting and mushy.

The bad smell of the soil is the rot or decaying matter creating an odor. The excess water provides an environment that fosters mold growth on the top of the soil (usually white mold) and sometimes mold or mildew (usually green) on the outside of the pot if porous.

When caught super early, correcting the care conditions will be enough to reverse the issue.

When caught in a bit more of an advanced stage, some work will be needed to save the plant. To try to rehab the plant, remove all of rotten plant parts above and below soil and pot the plant in fresh potting mix using a new or sterilized pot.

If all of the roots are rotten, the plant will either need to be propagated from cuttings (if possible) or composted, unfortunately.

For more information regarding root rot and what you can do to save your plant, click here.

Below is an example of a succulent receiving too much water. The leaves are discolored and collapsing into mush.

Signs your plant needs more water:

  • The older leaves turn yellow. You pluck them off and more mature leaves start to yellow
  • The leaves are curling
  • The stems are puckering
  • The leaves are browning and crisping on the edges
  • The plant has stopped growing
  • The plant appears wilted
  • If you remove the plant from its pot, the roots are browning and drying at the ends.
  • The soil may look and feel super duper dry and may even be brick-like or like a solid chunk
  • Flowers are drying up and dropping
  • Vines are drying up and crisping

When a plant is suffering from drought, its leaves may curl because it doesn’t have enough moisture to spread the leaves properly. The plant may look wilted, emaciated, or a bit lifeless.

Older leaves will turn yellow in times of drought. The plant will consume the water and nutrient in those leaves to try to sustain the rest of the plant.

Vining plants have a tendency to dry up and crisp the ends of their vines. Note how the vine in the first photo is brown and crispy. The vine in the second photo is green and full of life.

The roots may start to dry up and die back.

The plant won’t have enough water to photosynthesize and create energy to grow so you will likely see little to no growth.

The soil may be super dry and brick-like. When soil dries into a nearly solid state, water may not make it to the roots, but rather runs around the soil mass. This means that you could be watering the plant perfectly, but none of it is reaching the plant.

Below is an example of a succulent that isn’t receiving enough water. The older leaves are drying up/becoming crispy, and dying.

Here you can see a succulent that has lost its lower leaves to underwatering and produced roots at the places of leaf loss is an attempt to have additional places to absorb moisture.


When the signs get confusing

There are times where a plant will exhibit signs of thirst when its really receiving too much water.

If a plant receives too much water for too long, it develops advanced stages of root rot which will damage the roots so severely that the plant can no longer take up water. The result is that the plant looks incredibly thirsty, but in reality was given too much water.

How do you know if that is happening to your plant?

If you think your plant needs more water and you water it only to have its condition worsen or to see the plant not perk up, you could be dealing with advanced stages of root rot.

To confirm your suspicions, remove the plant from its pot and investigate the roots.

Do the roots feel soft and mushy? Do they break apart easily? Do they appear discolored in areas? When you remove the soil, do pieces of the roots fall off with it?

If so, you are probably dealing with root rot. To learn more about what to do when a plant is suffering from root rot, check out my blog post here.

When overwatering is really a lack of light

The amount of water a plant needs is dictated by the amount of light the plant receives. A plant can only use water if it has the energy from light to photosynthesize.

So, if a plant is sitting in a dark corner, it will start exhibiting signs of overwatering because it isn’t receiving the light it needs to use the water.

How do you know if it is overwatering or lack of light?

If the plant is more than a few feet from a window, I would assume it needs more light and move it closer to a light source.

If the plant is sitting right in a window and is still exhibiting signs of being overwatered, I would then start to look at how often the plant is being watered, how well aerated the soil is, whether the pot has a drainage hole, and other factors that may cause the plant to sit in wet soil for too long.

When underwatering is really too much light or a rootbound plant

As we discussed in the last section, the amount of water a plant needs is dictated by the amount of light a plant receives.

If a plant is receiving a huge amount of light, it is using water much more rapidly. Similarly, you need to drink a lot more water to stay hydrated in the hot sun than you do in the shade.

So, you may think you are providing your plant a sufficient amount of water, but it might be drying out rapidly if in a hot, sunny window. If you are wondering whether that is the issue for your plant, try watering the plant when you would normally and then check it daily to see how fast it dries out.

If your plant is fading in color, often wilting, or exhibiting signs of sun burn (white or brown crispy leaf patches), you may need to move the plant to a slightly less sunny area. Even pulling the plant back from the window a foot or two will likely do the trick.

Underwatering can also happen when a plant is severely root bound and has very little room to grow or to retain moisture for any length of time.

To solve, repot your plant in a larger pot, usually about 2 inches larger in diameter than the previous pot, with fresh potting mix. The plant should begin to perk up pretty quickly.

Have any questions or comments? Leave them in the comments below!

Are you an overwaterer or an underwaterer? Or are you like me and you’ve been both!?

Happy growing, everyone. See you next week!



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