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The easiest way to stop overwatering plants is to only water them when their substrate is dry.
This isn’t great for some types of plants, especially plants that prefer staying moist, like Calathea, but it’ll be better for them than root rot.
If watering isn’t your strong suit (yet), stick to plants that aren’t too bothered about drying out. Avoid ferns, calathea, and anything carnivorous, and you’ll be grand.
Keep peace lilies and fittonias in your line of sight, and trust me, they’ll let you know when they’re ready for a drink.
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.
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
(I have a whole post on this here)
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.
Again, this needs its own post.
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.
Try using grow lights
Grow lights, especially semi-professional ones, are a great way to stop your plants from being overwatered, for a couple of reasons:
- they produce a little bit of heat, so the soil dries up more quickly
- they encourage a lot of growth, so the plant uses more water
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.
This can take a long time. It never ceases to amaze me just how dead-looking a plant can be and yet it can still be resurrected.
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.
Mould isn’t always a sign of overwatering – sometimes it just…turns up.
The plant here is FINE, so mold isn’t always a bad sign.
To be sure your plant has root rot, you need to check the, er, roots.
If they’re brown and mushy, gently pull them off – sometimes healthy roots are growing underneath, so be careful.
You may even find that there’s no root. That happened to my Aglaonema. She was growing, but the leaves kept browning off and going mushy before fully unfurling. I took her out of the soil and found…nothing. Ok, not nothing, but ONE root.
I don’t actually know how many roots a plant needs, but I’m pretty sure it’s more than just the one.
To revive a plant like this, treat it like a propagation. I have a propagation box by the windowsill with about an inch of water in it, and java moss, an aquatic moss that keeps the water well oxygenated.
This is great for lazy, tight people like me that don’t want to:
a) pay to run an air pump or
b) change the water regularly
If you’re a bit confused as to why plants can grow in water, but also die from being overwatered, it’s basically because it’s not the water that’s killing the plant, it’s the lack of oxygen.
As long as the substrate, be it water or soil, is well oxygenated, the roots should be able to grow.
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.
I know it’s frustrating that plants only have a couple of symptoms for a plethora of problems, but that’s because the actual issue (in this case, the roots are having problems) is the same.
The cause of the problem differs, but the symptoms are the same.
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…
There are nine ways you can tell if a plant is thirsty, and they’re detailed in this post.
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?
I’ve kept plants for a long time, and had various preferred methods of watering. Now, I like hybrid approach.
I use the Planta app, but turn the notifications off. I check the tasks off weekly, which is a great way of making sure you’re not neglecting any plants (add your plants to the app as soon as you buy them), and being sure to keep on top of cleaning the leaves and misting with a foliar spray.
Planta recommends misting, but I do not. We compromise by using a foliar spray, which can help add a little nutrition, shifting a bit of dust (not a lot – I tried this and just ended up with weird circles of dust on my plant)
DO NOT WATER YOUR PLANTS JUST BECAUSE AN APP TELLS YOU TO
Planta is very keen on watering plants (and fertilising them). I always, always, ALWAYS check the soil before watering them.
If you’re using plastic nursery pots, after you’ve been in the house plant game for a bit, you’ll be able to tell if your plants need watering just by picking them up.
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.
Here is a terrible photo of my aquarium, because it’s hard taking good photos of aquariums:
I use aquarium water wherever possible. We have a big aquarium so it’d be wasteful not to use it. It has dechlorinator added and has nutrients in it from the fish poop. It’s also nice and warm for the plants without being too warm.
That makes no sense, but if you put your hand in the aquarium, it feels cold. A bath of that temperature would be…awful. But you could comfortably swim in it.
Imagine swimming in an unheated pool in the UK versus, er, somewhere warmer. It’s like that.
Why am I so intent on describing the water temperature to you? It really doesn’t matter.
The fish and the plants actually come from similar parts of the world, so the temperature of the water should be similar to what they’d experience in the wild.
Full disclosure: none of our fish and very few of our plants are likely to have even been anywhere near their South American origins.
The closest they’ll have come to it is if they flew over it on their way from south-east Asia to the UK.
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 this watering can:
It’s very badly designed – if you pour too quickly, even if it’s not very full – water will leak over the edge of the container before any comes out of the spout.
This is actually a good thing, as it forces me to pour slowly, and therefore helps the soil to absorb more water.
Any holder with a thin spout will work fine. Don’t use anything too imprecise because some plants (such as African violets) don’t like having wet leaves.
It can be better to water such plants (basically plants with fuzzy leaves or that come from arid regions) from the bottom.
I don’t even give myself filtered or distilled water, so I’ll be damned if my plants are getting it.
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, but they’ll just find other exciting ways to die).