Watering Houseplants is EASY Once You Know These 4 Steps

If you are looking for ways to help you figure out when to water your houseplants, you’ve come to the right place!

This article is all about making houseplant watering easier by giving you clues and tips that took me years to develop through the sacrifice of many plants.

I am going to make houseplant watering easier by:

  • Showing how you can just look at a plant and determine its watering needs
  • Describing a few large categories that most plants can be lumped into for watering requirements
  • And then explaining how to successfully water plants in each of those large categories

Table of Contents

Step #1 Learn how to understand a plant’s water needs by observing the plant

This section will be by far the largest section in this post because I don’t just want to tell you how often to water your plant… as there is no hard or fast rule, unfortunately.

Instead, I want to help you develop the ability to understand what your plant wants and why it wants that.

This will allow you to be able to determine a plant’s watering requirements without having to look up a care guide for the plant a vast majority of the time.

It’s been a total game-changer for me and I hope it will be one for you too!

It is often possible to interpret a plant’s watering requirements just by looking at it.

Here’s what you need to know to be able to do just that with your plants:

All plants develop special characteristics to help them survive and thrive in their natural environment.

Once you learn what some of those characteristics are and why they have developed them, you will have a much deeper understanding of your plants.

For example, many plants that grow in low light will have broad, dark green leaves.

The broad leaves provide more surface area for the plant to absorb light. The dark green coloration is the result of more densely packed chlorophyll to maximize light absorption across the leaf.

Similar to how plants have adapted their leaves to maximize light absorption, plants have also developed characteristics to match precipitation in the area they grow.

For example, succulent, juicy stems and leaves allow a plant to store water for later use during times of drought. This is how desert plants survive in their harsh, hot, dry environment.

Conversely, thin leaves and stems do not hold extra space for water storage. This is likely because the plant has adapted to live in an area where moisture is available all or nearly all of the time.

Maidenhair ferns are incredibly delicate plants. They have hair-like stems and roots with small, nearly translucent leaves. They are found in the wild growing on the forest floor where humidity and moisture levels are high.

Their native environment requires no need for them to store water so these ferns are composed of delicate, thin parts from top to bottom.

In the frequently dry home environment, maidenhair ferns can often be watered every day or every other day.

I grow my maidenhair fern in a self-watering pot so there is a constant influx of moisture to keep the plant well-hydrated.

Clues your plant is giving you about how much water it needs

So now that I’ve covered how a plant’s physical characteristics match what they need to survive in the wild, you can use this knowledge to make pretty accurate guesses about a plant’s watering needs.

For example, if the plant has a thick root system or succulent leaves and stems, you and I can guess that it is storing some water in these parts and doesn’t want to sit wet for long periods of time.

The diagram below shows a fibrous root system on the left and a taproot on the right. You can see that the taproot is much more thick and succulent, so it can store a lot more water in its roots and therefore can handle drought better than a fibrous root system can.

File:Root Systems.svg
Diagram by KaitlynLiu, Source

If the plant is a vining or climbing plant, it is likely to be climbing amongst other plants with its roots exposed.

The roots of climbing plants are used not only to absorb water, air, and nutrients but also to latch onto their climbing surface.

Because these roots are clinging to a surface and not planted within the dirt, the roots do not sit wet and therefore cannot tolerate long periods of wetness in our homes either.

Below you can see a Phalaenopsis orchid in Nepal clinging to a tree. Its roots are radiating out from the plant like spider legs, holding the plant securely in place.

Note how thick and succulent the leaves, roots, and stems are, allowing the orchid to absorb and store more water.

Phalaenopsis difformis var. difformis, Photo by: Shanta Budha-Magar, Source

Here is another example of a climbing plant: this time Anthurium crystallinum clinging to the side of a cliff.

We can’t see its roots in the photo, but you can imagine that they are not planted in rich soil, they are clinging to rock. These roots have to be hardy enough to keep the plant securely in place and absorb the water and nutrients it needs.

Anthurium crystallinum in Colombia, photo by: rozomargarita, Source

If the plant is delicate and thin, it probably can’t withstand periods of drought.

If the plant is extremely succulent, it probably needs periods of drought or else it will have more water than it can use. Excess water often leads to rot in plants.

And, if the plant is somewhere in between succulent and delicate, its watering needs are probably somewhere in between wet and dry too.

As with everything in life, there are plenty of exceptions to the rule and it would be negligent of me not to mention that, but in general, these rules are quite helpful and accurate.

The goal here is to provide you with enough examples so that you can look at a plant and interpret what its watering needs might be even if you have no idea what the name of the plant is or where it is from.

I created a chart below that gives a visual depiction of the range of watering conditions from super dry to super wet.

The cute houseplant icons along the bottom of the diagram are placed purposefully along the spectrum from dry to wet, left to right.

From dry to wet the plants listed are: a Saguaro cactus, a barrel cactus, a succulent, a jade plant, a snake plant, a Phalaenopsis orchid, a hoya, a Monstera deliciosa, an Oxalis triangularis, a Boston fern, a Venus Flytrap, and water lilies.

Step #2 Decide how much water your plant needs

We’ve covered how plants range from thriving in sitting water to preferring to be barely watered.

Understanding where your plant falls on this scale informs how to approach successful watering!

I’ve divided plants into 4 high-level categories to cover the range of watering needs.

Each of them will be listed below with a bit more info about what these levels mean so that you can figure out which level your plant falls into.

You can use the observational skills we discussed above in conjunction with the list of plants that fall into each category to help you decide which category is the right fit.

The levels are:

  • Level 4: Plants that want to be constantly wet
  • Level 3: Plants that like to be consistently moist
  • Level 2: Plants that like to dry before watering
  • Level 1: Plants that want to be dry for a while before watering

Now let’s discuss what each level actually means.

Level 4: Plants that want to be constantly wet

Some plants want to be pretty darn wet ALL of the time. It is common for houseplant advice to tell you that there are no plants that prefer to be wet and I’m here to tell you that this is just not true!

Aquatic plants live immersed in water 100% of the time.

Carnivorous plants, like sundews and butterworts, actually thrive when sitting in trays or bowls of water. They are damaged if allowed to dry out completely.

Many of these plants have adapted to living in super wet conditions. For example, Venus flytraps have adapted to living in bogs or wetlands where there is a high level of moisture throughout the year.

Plants that prefer Level 4 watering:

  • Venus Flytraps
  • Butterworts or Pinguiculas
  • Many other carnivorous plants
  • Maidenhair ferns sort of – they don’t want to be sitting in a bowl of water, but they do want to be thoroughly saturated and never dry

Level 3: Plants that like to be consistently moist

There are many houseplants that do not want to sit in wet potting mix and do not want to sit in dry potting mix. Usually, these plants have care guides that say to keep them evenly moist.

Plants that prefer Level 3 watering:

  • Prayer plants (Calathea, Maranta, Ctenanthe, and more)
  • Many Alocasias (elephant ears) and Anthuriums
  • African violets
  • Most Ferns
  • Most Ficus
  • Bird of Paradise or Strelitzia nicolai
  • Most Palms

Level 2: Plants that like to dry before watering

Most plants that have somewhat succulent leaves, stems, or roots will want to reach dryness before being thoroughly watered again. The majority of houseplants fall into either this category or the evenly moist category above.

These plants don’t want to stay dry for long periods of time, but would rather be a little dry than wet.

Plants that prefer Level 2 watering:

  • Most Peperomias
  • Most Hoyas
  • Most Rhipsalis and jungle cacti
  • Most epiphytes or climbing plants
  • Common phalaenopsis orchids
  • Philodendron
  • Common Pothos or Epipremnums
  • Scindapsus or Satin Pothos
  • Snake plants
  • Monsteras
  • and most other houseplants

Level 1: Plants that want to be dry for a while before watering

This category is mostly representative of those species that live in extreme conditions, like the desert.

Plants that live in the desert have had to develop a unique set of physical characteristics to protect them from the intense sun and lack of water.

These plants have very succulent leaves (if they have leaves at all) and very succulent stems.

This succulence is meant to store a bunch of water for times when there is no rain. They are perfectly equipped for drought and poorly equipped for wet conditions.

Our job is to give them the neglectful watering they are used to!

Plants that prefer Level 1 watering are:

  • Aloe
  • Jade
  • Succulents
  • Cacti
  • ZZ Plants
  • Euphorbia

Step #3 Learn how to provide your plant’s preferred amount of water

Level 4: Plants that want to be constantly wet

To keep plants constantly wet, sit them in shallow dishes of water or plant them in self-watering containers where the water will be dispersed regularly and you just need to ensure the water reservoir never dries completely.

Level 3: Plants that like to be consistently moist

To keep plants consistently moist, choose one of the following techniques:

  1. Stick your finger in the plant’s potting mix. When the first inch or 2 is dry, water the plant thoroughly.
  2. Use a moisture meter to gauge how much moisture is left in the pot. When the moisture meter reads a 3, water the plant thoroughly
  3. Use a chopstick to gauge moisture by inserting the chopstick a quarter to half way into the pot.
    • If the chopstick comes out relatively clean, it is time to water.
    • If the chopstick comes out a bit damp with moist or wet potting mix stuck to it, wait longer to water.
  4. Place the plant in a self-watering pot where a consistent amount of moisture is distributed throughout the pot.

Level 2: Plants that like to dry before watering

To ensure plants dry before watering, choose one of the following techniques:

  1. Gauge how heavy the pot is after watering and then wait for the pot to feel extremely light when picked up before watering it thoroughly again
    • Some people use a scale to measure the weight of the pot after watering and then watch the weight decrease until stable through daily weigh-ins
  2. Insert a moisture meter as deep into the pot as it can get. When the moisture meter reads a 2 or 1, you know the plant is dry and ready to be thoroughly watered

Level 1: Plants that want to be dry for a while before watering

To allow super succulent plants to remain dry for a while, choose one of the following techniques:

  1. Gauge how heavy the pot is after watering and then wait for the pot to feel extremely light when picked up then allow it to remain extremely light for several more days before watering
  2. Insert a moisture meter as deep into the pot as it can get. When the moisture meter reads a 2 or 1, you know the plant is dry. Now allow it to stay dry for several more days before watering.

Step #4 Develop a schedule to maintain your plant’s preferred water level

A. Check your plant daily to see if it is ready to be watered

Use one of the techniques above to check your plant daily for when it needs to be watered.

B. Develop a feel for how many days your plant goes between watering

Record how often the plant needs to be watered over several weeks to give yourself an idea of how often you need to check your plant

C. Use the number of days between watering to create a schedule for you to check your plant

D. Water your plant as needed, per your scheduled checks

Even if you know your plant usually likes to be watered once every 10 days, still check the plant on day 10 to ensure it is ready for watering using your finger, a chopstick, how heavy the pot is, or a moisture meter.

This will prevent any chance of overwatering.

E. Expect your schedule to change again

If the plant has grown a lot, is wilting between waterings, or hasn’t been repotted in a year or 2, you may want to try checking the plant daily again to see if it needs to be watered more often.

The larger the plant’s root system becomes, the faster it uses up the water that you provide. A plant that used to only need water once a week may be ready for water every couple of days after a year of good growth.

A plant’s watering schedule will also change as light levels change throughout the year.

Plants need light to use the water that is provided:

  • The more light they receive, the faster they use water
  • The less light they receive, the slower they use water.

A good analogy is our ability to become dehydrated when spending time outside on a sunny day.

The more intense the sun is (during summer), the faster we get dehydrated and need a drink. The less intense the sun is (during winter), the longer we go without becoming dehydrated.

The same is true for our plants.

As such, reassess your watering schedule as the seasons change throughout the year.

This is not true if you are using grow lights of course, since the plants are receiving a consistent amount of light year round.

Big Takeaways

  • Plants have developed physical characteristics to help them to thrive in their natural environment and how much rain that environment receives throughout the year.
  • Use these characteristics to help understand how much water your plant wants to receive
  • Decide what watering technique works for your plant and its watering needs
  • Develop a schedule by tracking how often your plant needs to be watered
  • And expect that schedule to change as light levels and plant size changes

Happy growing!

Have questions, comments, or improvements for this article? Let me know in the comments below!

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