It took me a long time to find success with house plants and there were many casualties. I used to think I couldn’t grow plants at all – I had no idea why they lived and why they died. It’s okay, it’s how we learn – we make mistakes and then we figure out how to avoid making those mistakes again.
The consequences of not watering are pretty clear. The plant dries up, the leaves get crispy and your plant will eventually die. Most beginners, myself included, put their plants on a weekly watering schedule. It feels like a good solution because a weekly reminder in your phone can prevent you from skipping a watering altogether. It often works because there are plenty of plants that love consistency. BUT, time is not the only factor that determines if a plant needs water or not. There are two things you should ask yourself before you water and they are:
- Has the soil become more dry? and
- Is the plant thirsty.
It is difficult to figure out how often to water a houseplant. Soil that is watered too often remains wet in the bottom of the pot and will not allow oxygen to get to the roots. Roots without oxygen will eventually die and rot. Sometimes the damage from root rot can go unseen for weeks before all of a sudden the plant dies and you’re left not knowing what went wrong.
Keep in mind that there are many factors that help or hinder the ability of a plant to dry out. Light levels, temperature, relative humidity in the air, furnace or air conditioning, and the type of soil substrate used will all affect how quickly a plant will want water. And some plants can be in dry dry soil and still not want water. For this reason, time alone isn’t enough of a factor. In winter it might take 13 days for a plant to become dry where in summer the same plant might need water every 6 days. Sounds complicated right? This problem of watering too much can be compacted because plants with root rot can’t hydrate the leaves adequately. So, you may see a crispy leaf and think ‘my plant is thirsty!’ which is true – but it’s not because you haven’t watered, it’s because the roots aren’t working.
Stick your finger in the pot
It sounds so simple because it is, but this is the piece of advice that turned it all around for me. Does the plant need water? Stick your finger in the pot. Does it feel dry? Does it feel damp? Does dirt stick to your finger when you remove it or is it just dusty. Make sure to stick your finger deep enough so you can tell what’s going on inside the pot – not just at the surface. If it’s dry, you can likely go ahead and water. If you’d prefer to not let your finger do the dirty work, use a stand in like a popsicle stick or bamboo skewer. The wood should darken if the soil is damp and damp soil will also stick to it.
Touch the leaves
This is especially helpful for plants you might typically let sit longer after the soil has dried like succulents, peperomia and string of hearts. If the leaves feel full and plump, you can leave them be. If they feel limp, are easy to bend or look wrinkly then they’re thirsty and need water. Touching the leaves on a regular basis will help you get a feel for how the plant is right before you water it (with dry soil) vs how it feels the day after you water it (damp soil.) There are some plants in my collection that I know right away when I touch the leaves if they are thirsty or not and I gained that knowledge from handling them often.
Use a Moisture Meter
Moisture meters (affiliate link) are inexpensive tools that can really help you know when it’s time to water. I like to use these for deep pots and larger plants when it can be difficult to feel down far enough in the soil to know what’s going on closer to the root ball. It will show you the moisture level on a scale from dry – moist. People often like these for plants that like to stay on the wetter side like ferns.
Use an Indicator Plant
Some plants are great at indicating to us when they need water. They might flop over and go limp or the leaves might curl up. I love use indicators like a canary in a coal mine and pair them with a plant that gives no indication that it might want water until it’s too late. For example Pothos. Pothos will go limp when it needs water and be quite perky and bouncy when it’s well hydrated. I will often place a pothos next to a plant that needs water on a similar schedule like say – a snake plant. Snake plants are difficult to judge – they can dry right out between waterings but it doesn’t mean they need a drink the second the soil is dry. Watering pothos and snake plants on the same schedule typically works out well. When I feel the leaves getting thin and limp on the pothos, I’ll water them both.
Every plant is a unique individual. Watering your succulents the same way you water your ferns and your dragon tree is a recipe for disaster – they all have different needs! The best way to figure your plant out is to learn about it’s specific needs. What kind of environment is it found in in nature? If it’s a jungle or swamp plant you might need to water it more than if it’s a desert plant. Also consider what type of soil it should be grown in. Soil composition has so much to do with the frequency a plant might need water and it is also paramount for maintaining root health and growth. Some plants love a loamy soil that keeps fine, hair-like roots protected and others like to grow in rocks, moss and bark so the roots get loads of air.
Use the Right Pot
It’s highly recommended to use pots that have drainage in the bottom and if you can, you really should. Pots with drainage allow for water to flush built up minerals out the bottom and they can increase airflow too. Other pot considerations? Material and Size. Terra Cotta pots will wick water from the soil and improve breathability. Plastic nursery pots can maintain moisture inside the pot and are very versatile, allowing you to dress them up with pretty cover pots in any colour scheme yet maintain great drainage. Make sure you have the right size of pot for the root ball. A pot that is too large will hold more water than the plant can use, and a pot that’s too small won’t hold enough.
It’s best to take your plant to the sink so you can water until it starts running from the bottom. Let it drain and then water it again. You really do want all of the soil to be moistened so there are no dry pockets. Shallow watering will prevent the roots from growing deep and anchoring the plant. If you’d prefer, you can also consider placing your plant in a pan of water so it can soak up what it needs. Leave your plant in an inch or two of water for about 20 min, then take it out and place it back in it’s spot. You’ll know it’s well watered when it feels heavy.
Mind the leftovers
If you’ve watered your plant thoroughly and water is draining out the bottom be sure that draining water isn’t puddling in a cover pot or drip tray. Very few plants like to sit in standing water and it can cause rot quickly. Make sure you pour any leftovers down the sink.
Mind the Leaves
Avoid watering over the leaves if possible. Some plants just outright hate getting their leaves wet but it will also save you from developing hard water stains or fungal rot in areas of your home where you might not have optimal air flow to dry them out well. Yes, outdoors plants get wet in the rain, but they also have plenty of wind and airflow to dry them out again. If you have dusty leaves and wish to freshen things up with a shower, maybe put a fan on them gently until they’ve dried.
Use the Right Water
Isn’t water, water? What’s the right water? Well, most plants will be happy with tap water at a tepid temperature. Don’t give them hot or ice cold water as it can shock them, but typically watering them from the tap is just what they need. Some plants like Anthruium and Goeppertia varieties may require filtered or even distilled water as they are sensitive to additives like chlorine and fluorides that are found in tap water. This is a case where getting specific and researching your plant is helpful.
Plant watering seems like a simple thing, pour the water in and done. But there’s so much more to it than that. I hope following these 10 tips helps you with your indoor plant watering. It was the most important thing for me to learn – and it’s not that difficult when you get going with it. Learning how often to water takes time and if you have read all of this and you still aren’t sure if you should water or not, wait one or two more days. It’s much easier for a plant to recover from drought than a rotted out root system – that’s a lesson I learned the hard way!