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As you, learned plant parent extraordinaire that you undoubtedly are, probably already know, overwatering is the no. 2 reason houseplants die.
(The no. 1 reason is, I’m pretty sure, general neglect, but I’m certain the people that neglect their plants
a) know why their plants are dying and
b) aren’t reading this).
So how do you stop overwatering your houseplants?
- Learn to distinguish between the sign of underwatering and overwatering plants
- Stop looking for the perfect watering schedule
- Look for the signs your plants give when they’re asking to be watered, rather than assuming they need watering weekly
- Always do the soil test or invest in a moisture metre.
How can you tell if you’re overwatering plants?
Er, yep, ‘fraid so. You see, when you overwater a plant, you’re essentially drowning it. Not many things survive being drowned for long.
Some plants are far more forgiving than others depending on the species and where you have it in your home.
Overwatering can lead to root rot, so your plant will start to smell, er, rotten. You could also begin to see mould form on the surface of the soil.
Early signs can be an increase in fungus gnats, since they’re attracted to moisture and decaying matter.
For all the information you could ever want on fungus gnats (including how to move them on) click through to this post.
Their leaves droop
Droopy leaves are also a sign of underwatering, so it’s not the be all and end all.
However, droopy leaves are often assumed to be caused by thirst, so many people automatically give their plants a quick water, not realising that instead of providing it with a long, cool, drink, they’re actually waterboarding it.
Their leaves go yellow, brown or spongey
Again, these can easily be mistaken for signs of thirst, so make sure you check the soil with either your finger or a moisture meter to check if it’s dry.
As I mentioned in my last post, I have recently been gifted an aloe vera from a friend who was moving house.
It had been chronically overwatered and was droopy as hell, as you can see in the picture below:
They’re starting to dry out though, and you can see a few healthy leaves in the middle.
I’m not friend shaming, by the way. I used to be an overwaterer too, and had an aloe vera in much the same condition as my friend’s. In just a few short months though, they’re well on the way to recovery:
How do you know when plants are thirsty?
Yep, just like with overwatering, but it tends to happen more slowly depending on the plant. Imagine how long it would take you to drown compared with how long it would take you to die from thirst.
They droop/their leaves go brown
Erm, this is all getting a bit repetitive…
So how do I tell if my plant is over or under watered?
Check your damn soil
Stick your finger in your houseplant’s soil about an inch in. If it’s bone dry, water your plant. If it’s still a bit damp and sticking to your finger, then leave it alone.
If this method is too unscientific/gross for you, then invest about eight of your hard-earned pounds in a moisture meter.
When the pointer points to ‘dry’, water your plant. If it points to anything else, leave it alone.
Whereabouts on the ‘dry’ part of the metre depends. Cacti and succulents can go down to one, calathea, alocasia and ferns like to be watered at 3. I water everyone else at 2. It seems to have worked out ok for me.
What’s the best way to water your plants?
My preferred method is to take my plant to a large, deep tray (I actually use my old rabbit’s litter tray), and pour rainwater in the pot until it runs through the hole in the bottom, making sure to thoroughly wet all of the soil’s surface.
Then just leave them on the draining board until they’ve stopped dripping.
If I have plenty of time, I water them from the bottom up, sitting them in the tray of water for between twenty minutes and an hour, before taking them to the draining board.
The method I use most often isn’t one I’d recommend unless you know your plants well. I go round and water them where they stand, and only give them a little bit of water so it soaks the plant but doesn’t spill out of the bottom.
It’s certainly not the best method, but it’s the quickest in the short term. In the medium term, it’ll probably mean you have to water your plants more often.
It’s been a while since I wrote this, so this has changed. I now bottom water nearly all of my plants. If you’re interested in how I look after 100+ plants, I have an article outlining my schedule.
What should you water your plants with?
Water-wise, there are 4 main types:
- tap water
- filtered water
- distilled water
Oh, and aquarium water is good, but hardly readily available unless, you know, you have an aquarium.
I use rainwater where possible, but make sure I always have plenty for those plants that really don’t like tap water, such as the Sundew and Calathea.
If I use tap water, I keep a bucket of it out (whenever I remember), for two reasons:
- Some of the chlorine may evaporate off. There is a lot of conflicting evidence about how effective this is
- It brings the water up to room temperature. Giving a plant water that is too hot or too cold could cause root shock.
In terms of the receptacle, I use an old ceramic teapot, because I’m a wannabe minimalist, I already had it, and the beautiful copper watering can I bought from TK Maxx had to be returned because it had a hole in the base of the spout.
Any holder with a thin spout will work fine. Don’t use anything too imprecise because some plants (such as African violets) don’t react well to having wet leaves.
I don’t even give myself filtered or distilled water, so I’ll be damned if my plants are getting it.
This is something I’d look into if I got a big, expensive plant that would really benefit from it, but my current future plans don’t involve buying big expensive plants.
I need to buy a house to put it in first.
Tips to stop you from overwatering your houseplants
Throw away your watering schedule
Don’t put a weekly reminder in your phone to water your plants.
Plants just don’t work like that. I have a Dracaena that seems to have an endless thirst, despite me thoroughly watering them all the time, and I have a spider plant that never seems dry out.
Instead, make a point of checking your plants more regularly. It does depend on which plants you have, but I would say that if you check them twice a week, say, Sunday and Thursday, you’ll be ok.
Check for moisture, pests, and other problems such as leaning over too much.
It’s also good practice to give them a quarter turn every week or so so that they don’t move towards the light too much on one side and become uneven.
Make sure all your pots have drainage holes
A couple of years ago I bought all matching plant pots from Ikea and replanted all my plants in them. Many survived because they were cactuses and are very slow to die.
Others, like my beautiful bamboo palm, succumbed, despite my best efforts to save them (obviously by watering them even more)
I’ve learned my lesson now, and now my plants either stay in their nursery pots or go into terracotta pots with drainage holes.
It is possible to water a hole-less pot (water it, then tip the water out), but it’s messy and not worth the hassle in my opinion.
Don’t put rocks in the bottom of your pots
I put one rock in the bottom of my pots, just to stop the soil from leaching out when I water. If you put a lot in, it heightens the saturated water table in the pot and can cause root rot.
Try using terracotta pots
These are perfect for those that want to nurture plants because they can be quite forgiving of overwaterers.
Terracotta is very porous, so water can seep through the clay and evaporate off.
If you have very small plants in small terracotta pots, be prepared to water a lot – maybe even daily for thirsty plants.
Some plants are apparently unsuitable for terracotta pots because their roots stick to the clay, and can break during repotting (hoya are the ones cited most frequently as doing it) HOWEVER I’ve seen a lot of plant YouTubers saying that if you soak the plant before repotting the roots will detach easily and without breakage.
I’m yet to repot my hoya, but I think I’ll err on the side of caution because a) I don’t want to kill them and b) I have a plethora of plastic pots that need using and no spare terracotta ones.
If your plant is wet, don’t water it.
If your plant is wet and you do water it, your plant will probably die (unless it’s a carnivorous or bog plant).