Have you ever gotten a new plant without knowing exactly what you were getting yourself into? I think everyone has done this at least once or twice. Many people either just assume it needs the same amount of water on the same schedule as every other plant in the house, or they look up care instructions on the all-knowing World Wide Web. This is where things start to get complicated. With general suggestions like “water once every two weeks,” or confusing statements such as “give your plant a good drench, but don’t overwater,” or “keep the soil moist, but not soggy,” how are we ever supposed to know how to appropriately water our houseplants?! Especially when the signs of overwatering appear to be very similar to the signs of underwatering (don't worry, we will address this in further detail below!).
Since every houseplant is different, requiring different amounts of water, light, temperatures, etc., it is hard to give an exact guide on how to water plants. The size and type of container play a role, as well as the type of soil used, what time of year it is, and how much sun it gets. With all these different factors in mind, here are some tips to help you make sure that your plant is getting the water it needs.
Are You Using the Right Soil?
First of all, the soil is SO important. When I first started to develop an interest in houseplants, I thought to myself, “What is the point in buying expensive potting soil when I have a whole garden with tons of dirt in it?” So, for a couple of years, I used soil out of my garden when potting up new houseplants. While I didn’t kill every single plant I owned, there were definitely some casualties. This is not a move I would suggest making! Here’s why…
So many watering guides are based on the assumption that your plant is potted in quality soil that will drain well. The garden soil that I used, while it was great for gardening, was not great for my houseplants. The dirt from my garden was comprised of a lot of clay-like soil. Soil like this is rich, heavy, and holds onto water. So, whenever I would water my plants, the soil would hold all the moisture and the roots of my plants would end up sitting in dense, soggy soil, causing the roots to eventually rot away.
Now you may be wondering, what constitutes quality, well-draining potting soil? While most potting mixes that can be found in any gardening section will work fine on their own, it is best to add some extra perlite, sand, lava rock, or some sort of small wood chips to the soil. This allows your soil will hold onto just the right amount of water, letting the rest drain out the bottom freely. There is no perfect recipe, and people use all sorts of different combinations of soil and soil amendments. So have some fun with it and come up with your own recipe!
What Kind of Container are You Using?
Much advice on watering habits and techniques is also based on the assumption that your plant is potted in the correct container. The most important factor to consider when choosing a container is whether or not it has a drainage hole. Many plants are supposed to be watered until excess water starts to come out of the bottom. So, as you can imagine, if your container doesn’t have a drainage hole, that makes it very hard to know when you have given your plant enough water. This also makes it dangerously easy to overwater your plant, since there is no way for excess water to escape.
Much is dependent on the size of your pot as well. Obviously, a 12-inch pot is going to take more water than a 6-inch pot, so the general "give your plant 2 cups of water every two weeks" cannot really be applied in all situations. The material your pot is made of is also a contributing factor. Terra cotta pots are porous, so the pot itself soaks up some water, while ceramic or plastic pots do not. So if you are using terra cotta, you may have to water just slightly more often. (Pro tip: Since terra cotta does absorb some water, you can often tell how much moisture is in the soil, as the exterior of the pot will look slightly darker where moisture levels sit. This can be a great way to tell if your plant is ready for a drink!)
Seasons Affect Your Houseplants Too!
Even though your plants are houseplants and remain indoors, they still are affected by the change of seasons. Just like your outdoor plants, indoor plants enter a state of dormancy during the winter. They can sense the decreased light during the day and the cooler temperatures around them, and while they don’t stop growing completely, their growth does slow dramatically. Because of this, your plant is not using up nearly as much water as it does in the spring and summer months. Water will also evaporate out of the soil slower in the winter, since it is not as warm, and there likely isn’t as much exposure to sunlight.
All this being said, you do not need to water your plants as much in the winter. Consider cutting back on the amount of water, or simply watering less frequently to avoid overwatering your plants during the cold months!
How Much Light Does Your Plant Need?
This also plays into how much water your houseplant will need. A plant that sits in a shaded spot all day is going to need more water than a plant that sits in a sunny spot. Just as watering needs vary from plant to plant, so do light requirements. If you are interested in learning more about how to make sure your plant is getting the proper amount of light/sun exposure, stay tuned for our blog next week!
Test the Soil for Moisture
Sometimes it is hard to tell if your plant needs water just by looking at it. Especially as the seasons change, how will you know if it is time to water? In my opinion, the best way to tell for sure is just by sticking your finger in the dirt. If you can feel the moisture in the soil around two inches deep, hold off on watering. If the soil feels completely dry, then it is time for a good drench! If you aren’t a fan of sticking your finger in the soil, find a wooden skewer stick and use it as you would your finger. If the end of the skewer stick comes out of the soil looking moist or holding onto any bits of soil, your plant likely does not need water quite yet!
Reading the Signs
So many people see leaves starting to turn yellow and think that their plant needs more water. This is not always the case! The signs of overwatering are very similar to the signs of underwatering, and if you read the signs incorrectly, you could end up killing your plant.
Here are some signs of an overwatered plant:
- Leaves start to turn yellow and may begin to fall off the plant (new growth included) - Plant is wilted, despite the soil being moist - Leaves will be soft and mushy and might appear slightly opaque - Soil is moist to the touch
Here are some signs of an underwatered plant:
- Lower leaves (not new growth) start to turn yellow and may fall off the plant - Plant will begin to wilt - Edges of the leaves start to turn brown and crispy - Soil is dry to the touch
In both cases, the leaves turn yellow, and this is what often gets a plant misdiagnosed. Just remember, it is much easier to save a plant that is underwatered. Overwatered plants can take weeks to dry out, and the danger of root rot is all too real, and once this sets in, there isn’t much that can be done to save the plant.
So, after all that, how should you be watering your houseplants?
Assuming that your plant is potted in the correct container, with a drainage hole, using well-draining soil, it is best to water your plant thoroughly until water starts coming out the bottom. This is what people mean when they say, “Give it a good drench.” Stop watering when water starts to trickle out the bottom, then empty the tray so the base of the pot isn’t just sitting in water. Wait a week or two, feel the soil to make sure it is dry, then repeat! It really is that easy, if you adhere to the tips I detailed for you above. If you are ever unsure as to whether or not your plant needs water, wait another week. Another week won’t hurt your plant, and it will help you avoid the dangers of overwatering! If your plant's leaves start to turn mushy and yellow, hold off on watering for a couple of weeks. If they start to turn yellow or start to get dry and crispy and the ends, consider watering more frequently. Just remember that with any adjustment you make, it will take your plant a couple of weeks to react. So if you don't see a change right away, just be patient!
Does watering your houseplants still sound like a complicated and stressful endeavor? If so, try not to worry too much. As you start to get to know your plants, it will become much easier and you will gain a better understanding of the factors that contribute to a happy houseplant! And as always, never hesitate to reach out to us! Give us a call, fill out a contact form, or message us through social media. We are always happy to help in any way we can!