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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.
I believe the reason it’s so common for house plants to be over-watered is that it’s the first thing plant novices do when they notice their plant is looking a bit…sad.
Plant looking sad? Water it!
Plant looking dry and crispy? Water it!
Plant going yellow? Water it!
You see? We know that plants need water to survive (I mean, who doesn’t, amirite?), so we show them our love and concern by watering them. And water them again the next day. And the next. And then cry when a couple of weeks down the lawn, ol’ plant is dead.
Tale as old as time.
How to tell if your plant is overwatered
If you’re watering your plant every day, 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.
- 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.
What to do when your plant is overwatered
1 – STOP WATERING IT.
For Pete’s sake, leave the poor little sod alone.
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 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 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
If this is a bit too surgical for you, feel free to skip this step, but it can help your plant to grow it’s new roots more quickly. Once a root is rotten it can’t be revived, so you’re essentially just removing a bit of dead weight from your plant.
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.
Be sure not to dramatically increase the amount of light you’re giving your plant. Whilst it’ll appreciate the warmth, too much light will get in leaf growing mode, and we’re after roots.
Conditions recovery time is dependent on:
One of the few times you might consider reducing the amount of light you’re giving a plant is if it’s recovering from being overwatered.
You see, plants use light to create energy, and use that energy to grow. But we don’t want growth, we want recovery. Growing leaves and roots at the same time is quite stressful for the plant, so it’s best to reduce the light it has.
Don’t go putting your root-rotted plants in the cupboard. Just move them a couple of feet away from the window so they don’t get any direct light, but they get a couple of hours of bright, indirect light.
Plants find it easier to recover in the growing season (typically mid-spring to early summer) since they have more energy with which to revcover.
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.
On a slightly more obvious note, it\s warner in summer, so if you overwater the water is going to evaporate more quickly.
Be sure to check out this post on how to care for your plants in winter. Don’t just stick to the same watering schedule year-round – be sure to reduce your watering in winter and use a moisture probe.
Ok, it’s not just a case of saying that a humid room will increase growth and therefore improve recovery time because it’s not that simple.
It never is.
You see, whilst humidity is necessary for many plants to help them grow non-crispy leaves, high humidity can also cause root rot.
What a bugger, no?
It’s one of the main reasons that I’ve not gotten a terrarium or BiOrb yet (the actual main reason is that I have no room for it unless it bunks in with the bunny) – sure the humidity is great for the leaves, but not necessarily the roots.
If you have suuuuper high humidity (I’m taking 80%+) it may be an idea to either turn your humidifier down or move the plant somewhere with lower humidity.
How the roots are doing
If the roots are toast (albeit the soggy variety), you will have a greater challenge on your hands. I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that it’ll take a while.
Last July my friend gifted me an Aloe Vera, an African Violet and an orchid. All three were in heavy, badly draining soil and were very overwatered.
I don’t think the aloe will ever recover properly. It’s not dead, but it’ll never look healthy. Its new growth is looking ok, but it’s obvious that it’s had it’s hardships.
The orchid sprung back relatively quickly (I’d say a couple of months). The foliage is looking perkier and my fingers are crossed for a flower spike.
The African Violet has had its ups and downs. I accidentally let it get sunburned and had it in too big a pot. It’s now in a south-facing windowsill (protected by frosted glass and the house next door) and has been putting out quite a lot of new growth, despite it being winter. I have high hopes!
Don’t be discouraged if your plant doesn’t seem to be improving. It can take months. Just be happy that your plant isn’t dying. It’s just taking a moment to get over its ordeal.
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.
What it’s potted in (pot/mix)
If your plant isn’t in a 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 of root.
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).
So there we go, a full essay on overwatering.
If you take one thing away from this, let it be that you don’t need to water your plants as often as you think you do, apart from cacti, which like to be watered every couple of weeks or so in summer.