How To Tell If Your Houseplants Need Watering

The number one killer of houseplants is the watering can. And behind every watering can is a well-intentioned gardener wondering “should I or shouldn’t I?” More houseplants are killed by overwatering than all other problems combined. DSCF1024

Overwatering doesn’t mean we apply too much at one time. Excess water can run out the bottom drainage holes and be emptied immediately from its saucer with no ill effects. Overwatering means we keep the soil continually too moist. Constant moisture in the soil displaces oxygen. Roots can’t breathe, and the plant drowns. Houseplants often respond to drowning with droopy, wilted leaves, which gives the impression that the plant is wilting from dryness. This can be midsdiagnosed, leading to more water being poured on, resulting in an irreversible death spiral.

The age-old rule of thumb still holds true: When you water,  water thoroughly by applying enough to wet the entire soil ball until some seeps out the bottom drain holes. Discard excess immediately. Then let the soil dry out before the next thorough watering.

But how do you know when the soil has dried sufficiently before the next watering? Luckily we can use a combination approach. If all indicators say “water me” we know we’re safe. Here’s what to examine when you’re deciding whether to water:

  1. Look at the soil. Most quality potting soils are high in peatmoss, which is light brown in color when dry and dark, chocolate-brown when moist enough. Observe the soil in it’s different moisture phases, to tell the difference visually between wet and dry mix.
  2. Develop a “feel” for  whether a plant needs watering by its weight. Lift the potted plant slightly when it’s dry, then again immediately after watering. Try to remember the feel of this weight difference when it’s time to make the next watering decision.
  3. Houseplant literature often recommends watering when the soil is “dry to the touch.” That means to poke a finger into the soil at least up to the first finger joint. If the upper inch of soil is dry, but you can feel a little moisture below your finger, then it’s time to water.
  4. Scheduling a certain day of the week for definite watering is risky. It’s wise to schedule certain days to check the watering, but trying to conform a plant’s watering needs to specific calendar days is iffy. Check on those days, water if necessary, but wait if need be. Frequency depends greatly on plant type, soil type, light exposure, room temperature, humidity and season. Most plants are fine watered once a week. Cacti and succulents every two weeks or so. Orchids and violets like slightly more moisture.

If you’ve examined a plant with these four steps, and are still in doubt, wait a day – then water. It is always better to err on the dry side. If it seems difficult, take heart: watering decisions usually become easier with experience. Until next time “Happy Gardening!”