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House plants can recover from overwatering pretty quickly if given:
- bright light, preferably from an indirect source a grow light so it won’t burn
- High humidity
- warm temperatures
I also like to take the plant out of the potting mix and put it in water or leca so I can keep an eye on new root growth (if it’s really bad).
Treat a plant with root rot like you would a cutting you want to root. You can use the same principles to reroot your plant and start again.
What is overwatering?
Overwatering is one of the most common ways house plants meet their demise.
It’s exactly what its name would suggest: the plant is receiving too much water.
The issue is almost always that the plant is staying wet for too long - so it's more about not watering too frequently, rather than the amount of water you give when it is time to water
What causes overwatering?
Watering too often
Even in the middle of summer, my plants rarely need watering more than once a week. Your plant is unlikely to tell you when it needs watering, so you need to check the soil.
If it’s wet, don’t water it.
The soil is too dense
Root rot is caused by a lack of oxygen. If your soil is too dense, there are fewer air pockets, so less oxygen. When you water, the air pockets are filled with water, and the oxygen is forced out.
Unless you can get the soil dried out quickly, the roots will suffocate.
Add orchid bark or leca to your soil to create air pockets.
The pot is too big
Soil retains water. The more soil, the more water is retained. This doesn’t matter if the mix is super chunky, but if it’s not, it can take weeks for the soil to dry out, so we end up with root rot.
If you keep your plant in low light, it takes longer for the soil to dry out. Not only does water not evaporate as quickly, but the plant isn’t using as much water because it isn’t growing as quickly as it would in higher light.
This is also why it’s common to overwater in winter, when light is lower. Cold temperatures also slow growth and evaporation further.
How to tell if your plant is overwatered
If you’re watering your plant daily, that’s almost certainly too much.
Even the most moisture-loving plants are unlikely to want water more frequently than every three days, and that’s rare.
Only water when the soil is practically dry. Even plants like ferns and Calathea need to dry out a bit – not completely, but they don’t like to stay wet all the time.
Look out for these signs of overwatering:
- If all your plant’s leaves are turning yellow and dropping off, that’s probs a sign of overwatering.
- Your plant’s soil can be moist, but not wet and muddy. Decrease the water if it’s sitting in a quagmire.
- If your plant is droopy, it could be a sign of root rot, probably caused by overwatering.
- If you have a LOT of fungus gnats or problems with moisture-loving pests, then you may be overwatering.
- If you’ve been watering your plant plenty, and it dies anyway, I’m afraid you probably killed it with kindness.
- If your plant is growing leaves but drops one every time a new leaf emerges, you may be overwatering
What to do when your plant is overwatered
1 – STOP WATERING IT
I know it’s hard, and you want to help your plant child, but helicopter parenting won’t help you here.
Give your buddy some space.
If you’re not sure it’s overwatered, get yourself a moisture probe. I recommend one on my resources page that’s less than a tenner. It’ll pay for itself after it saves a couple of plants! If the probe reads ‘wet’ or ‘moist’, leave it until it reads about 2/3. Then you may water it again.
2 – Assess the damage.
If you’ve got a few leaves that are completely yellow, snip ’em off. Check the roots. If they’re brown or mushy or give off a grim smell, you may be too late (don’t give up quite yet though).
Some plants are massive drama queens that pretend to be dead when they’re actually just a bit under the weather. Give them the benefit of the doubt before unceremoniously tossing them in the bin.
3 – Re-pot if necessary
This is a bit of a what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger type of situation. Repotting can be stressful for plants (especially ones that have been victims of an overzealous watering can), but you may not have a choice.
If the soil is wet or muddy or unlikely to dry out in the next few days, then change it. Mix up some potting soil, add some perlite (I do anything from half to a third perlite, the rest potting mix OR make my own), repot as gently as you can.
4 – Snip off any dead or gross roots
Root rot is caused by bacteria that proliferate in an oxygen-less environment. If the rot isn’t dealt with, the rot will spread.
You can’t completely eliminate the bacteria that cause root rot. They come as a package deal with soil. BUT you need to keep your soil aerated enough so that they can’t build up to dangerous levels in the soil
Don’t worry about cutting off too many roots. You can convince plants with zero roots to regrow them!
Contrary to popular belief, plants do actually want to grow.
5 – Wait
Now all you can do is wait and hope that your plant will recover. Recovery time differs depending on the variants we’ll discuss in the next section.
Conditions recovery time is dependent on:
Light is a massive part of helping a plant recover from overwatering.
Plants get energy from light and that energy helps keep them strong. It helps them grow new roots and leaves, but also allows them to produce hormones that fight off pests and disease.
However, too bright of a light can lead to burning if your plant isn’t used to it. A sunny east-facing windowsill is great, but grow lights are another option.
I use the MarsHydro 1000w and the Bestva 100w. The Mars Hydro is better, the Bestva is cheaper. I highly recommend both. If you can afford the Mars Hydro, great. If you can’t, the Bestva is still a massive step up from those purple house plant grow lights that Amazon keeps trying to flog us.
Most of the plants in our homes come from the tropics, so they’re not adapted to deal with the cold.
Plants find it easier to recover in the growing season (typically mid-spring to late summer) since they have more energy with which to recover.
Furthermore, very cold weather can put your plant under a lot of stress, so the effects of overwatering during winter are more likely to be fatal than in winter.
Plants tend to recover more quickly when it’s warm, so a lot of people like to put their plants on heating pads.
This can be a good idea, but be aware that warmer water holds less oxygen, so if your plant is in water, you may need a bubbler or some aquatic oxygenators to keep oxygen levels up.
If your plant is in soil, make sure you don’t go too far in the other direction, and dry the roots out too much.
I always used to say that humidity of around 65% was optimal. Since getting a terrarium that’s at about 90%, I say the higher the better.
What I would say, is that if you’re going to put your plant in a super humid environment to help it recover from overwatering, I would take it out of the soil, wash any remaining roots (preferably in hydrogen peroxide) and put it in water or leca.
How the roots are doing
Sometimes you just need to snip off the gross bits, but you’re left with a decent-sized root ball. It should only take a couple of weeks for them to get back to growing again.
If there are no roots left, it can take longer to regrow your roots, and you may end up losing more leaves (it can still recover though).
Time of year
This may have an effect on how quickly your plant recovers, but my plants seem to push out as much growth in winter than summer, so this really depends on your individual home. Although winter growth is smaller and more pathetic.
Just don’t be surprised if your plant stops growing when the temperature drops. But also don’t automatically assume that it will.
Grow lights can massively help in winter if you’re having issues with root rot.
What it’s potted in (pot/mix)
If your plant isn’t in well-draining soil, it may take longer to recover. Just add a bit of perlite, or failing that some sharp sand or orchid bark. Anything to let the water drain through more effectively.
If your plant is potted in just potting mix or worse, compost, re-pot it in order to give it it’s best chance of recovery.
It can be a good idea to start making your own potting mix (there’s a recipe in this post). This recipe is pretty chunky, especially in comparison to house plant potting mix, so it encourages roots to grow stronger than they would in a finer mix. A chunkier mix also also allows more air to flow to your plant’s roots, which can help stave off rot.
Overwatering isn’t the actual cause of root rot – it just contributes to the cause.
Root rot is caused by lack of oxygen.
How badly your plant was affected
If your plant has been systematically overwatered for years and has quickly gone downhill, recovery may take a while. If it has barely any root system left and very few leaves, you may be waiting a while.
My spider plant survived this and is now thriving. It’s not necessarily the end!
How quickly your plant grows
Some plants grow quickly, others don’t. Plants that grow quickly are likely to recover from overwatering quicker than slow-growing ones. Obvious really, but I have absolutely no doubt there are exceptions to this rule.
Actually, cacti are pretty slow-growing and they recover from overwatering like absolute champs in my experience (and I’ve overwatered a few).
Tips for overwaterers
- Be careful with pot size
You want the pot to be the same size or slightly bigger than the root ball, regardless of the size of the plant. Having your plant in too big of a pot can cause overwatering
- Try terracotta
I find terracotta dries my plants out too much, but if you’re struggling to get your soil dried out, try it.
- Increase light
More light = more energy. It’s the cheat code to awesome plants. Obvs bright, direct light can burn if the plant isn’t acclimated, but it can be worth a couple of burnt leaves if the alternative is root rot.
So there we go, a full essay on overwatering.