How to Prevent Underwatering Your Houseplants in 3 Easy Steps

Underwatering can cause issues for plants over time, including lack of growth, a dull appearance, leaf drop, and even root rot.

Do you wonder whether you might be watering your plants too little? Do you want to make sure they are receiving the water they need? If yes, today’s post is here to help you!

We will discuss 3 easy steps you can take to correct or prevent underwatering.

If you would like to learn more about the damage that underwatering causes, check out last week’s blog post here.

If you would like to know what the signs are of underwatering versus overwatering, check out that blog post here.

Table of Contents

Step #1: Prevent underwatering your houseplants by routinely checking if they are thirsty

The easiest way to combat underwatering is to develop a schedule to check if your plant is thirsty and ready for water.

I check most of my plants once per week on a designated day, which is what I would recommend most people try at first.

For example, every Friday, I check my large plants and trees (my Fiddle Leaf Figs, Ficus Audrey, Ficus umbellata, Norfolk Island Pine, and Bird of Paradise). Most of them are thirsty and ready to be watered every Friday.

I check my rare and thirsty aroids (Anthuriums, Alocasias, etcetera) every Tuesday and Friday because they don’t like to dry out.

On Wednesday’s I check all of my African violets.

I won’t bore you with the rest of my schedule, but you get the idea!

How to decide whether to check the plant once a week or several times a week

I recommend choosing a schedule that matches how thirsty and tolerant of drying out a plant is.

If a plant is okay with drying out, check it only once per week (or less if it is super succulent like cacti are)

If a plant isn’t okay with drying out and wants to always have some level of moisture, check it 2 or 3 times per week to ensure it never goes dry,

Most super common houseplants can tolerate drying out for a short time so checking them once a week is typically fine.

However, Prayer Plants (Calathea, Maranta, Ctenanthe, etcetera) and Peace Lilies do not like to dry out and will slowly decline if allowed to remain dry. So those should likely be checked a couple of times each week.

Here’s an example of the list I use:

Check 1 time per week

  • Pothos
  • Ficus
  • Snake Plants
  • Hoyas
  • String of Hearts
  • Philodendrons
  • Phalaenopsis Orchids
  • Monsteras
  • African Violets
  • Trailing succulents
  • Peperomias
  • Orchid Cacti
  • Holiday Cacti
  • Rhipsalis
  • Dischidia
  • Coffee Tree
  • Lemon Tree
  • Norfolk Island Pine

Check 2 times per week

  • Prayer Plants
  • Peace Lilies
  • Tiny pots that dry quickly
  • More sensitive orchids
  • Anthuriums
  • Alocasias
  • Carnivorous Plants
  • Seedlings
  • Miracle Berry Tree

Check every couple weeks

  • ZZ Plants
  • Aloes
  • Cacti
  • Jade Plants
  • Lithops
  • Rosette Succulents
  • Most Euphorbia

If you don’t have a huge plant collection, your list will likely be far less complicated. 🙂

How do I check whether they are thirsty?

I use two main methods, one for large plants and another for smaller plants.

For large plants: I use a water meter and stick it several inches into the soil. If it reads a 2 or 3, I water.

Here’s my Ficus umbellata that I’m checking using a moisture meter. Time to water!

Here’s an Amazon affiliate link to the moisture meter shown in the photos below.

For small plants, I check either by

  • using a finger to see how moist the potting mix feels
  • lifting the plant and its pot to see how heavy it is (lightweight pots are dry, heavier pots are still wet)

I’ve also started potting a lot of my more precious plants in clear plastic pots. This allows me to see how much moisture is in the pot from top to bottom.

Below is my Anthurium forgettii ‘White Stripe’ potted in a clear pot with a close-up shot of its roots. You can see how there is still some moisture around the roots and in the soil, but not a huge amount. It will need to be watered soon.

Here’s an Amazon affiliate link to some translucent pots I use.

Step #2: Prevent underwatering your houseplants by watering thoroughly and evenly when they are ready for a drink

It is possible to underwater a plant even if you are checking the plant and watering it consistently.

If you provide a plant with a small amount of water that doesn’t saturate the root ball, it can cause underwatering

When you don’t give the plant enough water to saturate the root ball, it is considered shallow watering because only the top layer gets the water it needs.

This causes the rest of the root ball to begin to dry up and die back, which can result in root rot if that part of the pot does receive water (dead roots + water = perfect breeding ground for bacteria and fungus).

It also causes the plant to maintain a shallow root system which may not be strong enough to keep the plant upright.

If you provide a plant with water only in part of the pot rather than evenly across the surface of the pot, it can cause underwatering

If the plant only receives adequate watering on one side or one part of the pot, the roots in that well-watered part will continue to live, but the rest of the root system will dry out and die back.

This causes the plant to have a healthy root system on one side of the pot and no root system on the other side.

It’s sort of like staking one side of a tent and providing no stakes to hold the tent down on the other side. What happens when the wind blows? The tent falls over.

Similarly, the plant with a one-sided root system can fall over when the plant becomes too heavy or too tall to support itself.

How do you ensure that your plant is receiving enough water to evenly saturate the root ball?

The easiest way to properly saturate a plant is to:

  • Pot the plant in a container with drainage holes
  • Take the plant to the sink and thoroughly water the entire plant and pot surface until water runs out of the drainage holes
  • Place the plant back in its original location
Person using a watering can to water a large plant underwatering

Step #3: Prevent underwatering your houseplants by knowing the warning signs your plant is using to communicate with you

Signs your plant isn’t getting enough water:

  • Leaves are drooping in between watering
  • Bottom leaves are turning yellow, crisping, and falling off
  • Leaf tips are turning brown and crispy
  • Soil looks super dry and is pulling away from the sides of the pot
  • Plant appears kind of dull rather than lush and vibrant
  • When you look at the roots, some of the roots appear super dry and cripsy
  • The plant doesn’t grow
  • Vines are drying up at the ends where new growth was

What to do if your plant is showing these signs:

  • Check your plant to see if it is thirsty more frequently
  • Remove the plant from its pot and see if it needs to be uppotted into a larger pot
  • Decide whether the plant’s potting mix has too many aerating materials causing the plant to dry out too rapidly.
    • If yes, add more water retentive materials (coco coir, peat moss, etcetera)
  • Check whether the soil mix is drying up and pulling away from the sides of the pot. This may mean that the soil has become brick-like and will actually repel water. The water will run around the potting mix rather than through it, which means your roots aren’t getting any moisture!
    • It’s time to soak the plant’s pot to loosen that brick, carefully remove the plant and roots, and repot into a fresh mix.

Signs your plant is getting too much water:

  • Leaves are becoming discolored and mushy
  • Plant droops and doesn’t perk up after watering
  • Fungus gnats are flying around the plant
  • The soil smells mildewy or musty
  • When you look at the roots, they are discolored, mushy, easily pulled apart, and/or smelly
  • White mold is growing on the potting mix
  • Leaves are randomly dropping from the plant (both new and old)

What to do if your plant is showing these signs:

  • Check the roots for root rot and treat if needed
  • Repot the plant into a smaller pot if the root system is small compared to its current pot (if the root system takes up less than half the pot, it is too small)
  • Repot the plant into a fresh potting mix with more aerating materials like perlite, pumice, orchid bark, horticultural charcoal, etcetera, to increase how quickly the water drains and dries
  • Check your plant’s moisture level before watering every time to ensure you aren’t watering the plant when it is already saturated.

Big Takeaways

  1. Check your houseplant to see if it needs water on a regular and predictable schedule
  2. When it’s time to water a plant, water thoroughly (or until water runs through the drainage holes)
  3. Be aware of warning signs that your plant might be telling you it needs more or less water

Happy Growing! See you next week! 🙂

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