One of the most common reasons houseplants die is overwatering, but this doesn’t have to happen to you!
Why is overwatering often a problem? Because we overly care for our plants – so worried about not watering enough that we actually water too much.
I am guilty first-hand of loving some plants to death by overwatering. I was so concerned with forgetting to water the new plants that I drowned them accidentally.
I’ve heard many houseplant enthusiasts say that going through this stage is a rite of passage. I am hoping that this post will save some of you from having to go through this yourselves!
The truth is that very few plants will die because they were slightly underwatered. But, all plants will suffer from overwatering.
The trick is to know HOW to water properly and WHEN to water, both of which we will cover today in this post!
How do you know when it is time to water?
For most plants, it is time to water when the soil has dried out. Dry means that the soil looks dry, feels dry, and remains dry if you stick your finger deep into the soil.
It is also helpful to buy a moisture meter, especially for deep pots. They are very inexpensive (about $10) and can reach the bottom of the pot.
Moisture meters are more accurate than using a finger. A finger has a hard time differentiating between soil that is dry and cold versus soil that is moist and cold. The result is that you may think your plant has wet soil because the soil feels cold, but in reality, the soil is dry. The moisture meter eliminates this confusion.
Whenever the plant registers on the moisture meter as dry or usually as the numbers 1 or 2, you know it is time to water!
If you are checking multiple plants, it is recommended to use a paper towel to wipe off the meter between pots so you aren’t spreading potential pests or contaminants from one pot to another. I’ll admit that sometimes I am good about doing this and other times I’m not. 🙂
Some plants will also tell you visually when it is time to water. For example, my coffee plant will begin to droop if I haven’t watered it. Within a few hours of watering, the plant perks back up and look better than ever.
To know whether your plant will give you visual cues, you have to observe your plant over time. You can also research the plant itself to see if other people have found telltale signs.
Some additional examples:
More succulent-leaf peperomias will show they need to be watered by changing from a firm leaf texture to a more easily bendable texture. The same is true of many hoyas.
Pilea peperomioides, also known as the Chinese money plant, will droop when needing to be watered. However, you have to be particularly careful with this one. It will also droop if it has been overwatered!! How can you tell the difference?
- Feel the soil!
- Look at the health of the leaves – yellowing of the leaves, brown spots on the leaves, or other signs of poor health could be signs of overwatering, especially if the soil is also moist or wet to the touch
- Consider the soil mix and pot it is in. Does it have well-draining soil in a well-draining pot? If not, it is more likely to be experiencing overwatering.
How to Thoroughly Water Your Plant + Why It Matters!
When you water, you want to water thoroughly. Watering thoroughly means that you water your plant evenly across the surface of its soil until water drains out of the drainage holes of the pot.
Watering thoroughly ensures that water reaches down to where the root tips are, which is where the plant is absorbing water.
If too little water is added to the pot, the roots will start to cluster near the top of the soil where the plant detects water.
Eventually, the plant will only have roots near the top of the soil. This creates instability as the plant grows heavier and taller. The plant will become top-heavy and is likely to topple over.
I water my plants in the sink. Here I can monitor the process very easily and eliminate the mess.
After allowing water to pass through the pot until it slows to a drip, the plant is then placed back on its saucer or in its cover pot.
If sitting water has collected on the saucer (or in the cover pot), dump the excess water as it is unneeded. Plants sitting in excess water, unless specifically evolved to do so, are likely to develop root rot.
Water Temperature and Quality
Most plants respond best to water that is room temperature. Many houseplant care experts recommend leaving the water to sit out to acclimate to room temperature, whenever possible, before watering your plants to prevent shocking the roots.
Think of taking an ice-cold shower when you expected it to be warm. That is essentially what happens to our plants if we water them with cold water.
Additionally, using tap water can sometimes be harmful to your plants if they are from sensitive genera (like marantas and calatheas from the Prayer plant family). There are additives in drinking water, like chlorine, that can damage your plant. Some of these additives can also build up in the plant’s soil over time.
The recommendation to mitigate these issues is to use filtered or distilled water when possible.
Plants from the Prayer plant family develop brown spots on their leaves in response to chloramines and chlorine typically found in tap water, which is why people often use filtered water for them.
Can you use tap water and still have a Prayer plant? Yes! You will just have to accept some imperfections in your plant – but plants will have imperfections anyway. It’s up to you!
Are there exceptions to the watering rules stated above?
Yep!! There are plants that do prefer some level of soil moisture most of the time. And there are plants that do not want to be watered even when their soil is dry.
Plants that like to maintain some level of moisture (some examples are calathea, maranta, and alocasia) are more difficult to take care of because of these requirements. They can still be overwatered, but are more easily underwatered as well.
There are still many people who care for them successfully, but they are not generally recommended as beginner-friendly plants. This is because even people who have successfully taken care of easier plants sometimes struggle with them.
There are beginners who do take one of these more demanding plants home, however, and find great success with them! You decide what you are ready for!
Plants who do not want to be watered EVEN WHEN their soil is dry are typically desert cacti. These plants want to go longer periods of time between watering because they are designed to thrive in hot, dry climates with very little rainfall.
It doesn’t mean they never need to be watered, but that they rarely do. I once heard someone say that if they are watering most of their cacti more often than they are paying their rent, they know they are overwatering. 🙂
There are also other methods of watering that can be used. Some people use bottom-up watering, which is where you place the pot in a bucket or container of water so the soil can absorb water through the drainage holes. Once enough water has been absorbed, the pot is removed from the container, allowed to drain, and then replaced on its saucer or in its cover pot.
Some people also house plants in pots without drainage holes directly and carefully learn to add enough water to sufficiently water the plant without over-watering it.
I personally find both of these methods more challenging and allow more room for error, but people certainly do both successfully!