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Plant Watering Basics

Own some houseplants that are looking a little sad? Or maybe you have a track record of greenery that quickly turns brown and kicks the bucket in your care. We get it! Plant care can sometimes feel like an art form, and the world is split between green-thumbs and brown-thumbs.

As much as plant care can feel difficult, it is possible to teach yourself how to become in-tune with your leafy friends. Below we'll talk about the two most common ailments that affect plant parents: Over- and under-watering. 


Overwatering is the most common cause of death for houseplants. Many plant owners tend to think of watering as a scheduled activity, with every plant having instructions as simple as "water two or three times a week".

In truth, you should water when your plant tells you it needs water, because everyone's environment is different. If your home is exceptionally dry, three times a week may not be enough; a plant in brighter light will need more water than one in low light, etc.

Overwatering presents itself as "mushy", soft, browned leaves and often crunchy brown tips. Many plants, like spathiphyllums, will start to show brown leaf-tips. If not remedied the plant will rot.

Why does this happen? Water is good, right? Yes, but so is oxygen! When roots are in heavily-watered soil for too long, the roots' ability to absorb oxygen is greatly reduced and can suffocate the plant. Just like humans—when we chug a glass of water we have to catch our breath between gulps. Think of watering as offering hydration between breaths of air. We'll talk about how best to time your watering in a section below. 

Wet Footed Plants

But what about the term "wet feet"? You may have heard this thrown around, especially if you're familiar with aquatic or swamp area plants. Specific plants can handle higher hydration and are designed to thrive in water. Some of the most famous are African Violets.

Plants that like wet feet can tolerate some standing water in the saucer of their pot. Plants that like wet feet include spathiphyllums, syngoniums and spider plants. Plants that cannot stand wet feet include crotons, begonias, and calatheas.

If you're unsure whether or not to drain the excess water that sits in your plant's saucer, it's a good move to look up whether or not that particular plant likes wet feet. Plant species, like animals, all have different environmental preferences. It's a good first step to be aware of the living conditions for your particular plant. Leaving a plant that doesn't tolerate wet feet in standing water leads to root rot (overwatering). If you can't figure out whether or not your plant likes wet feet, drain the standing water from the saucer anyway. Better safe than sorry! 


Plants may need oxygen, but they still need water to live. Allowing a plant to completely dry out for long periods of time can result in dried, shriveled leaves, and eventually a dead plant. It's very easy to tell when a plant is thirsty. If the soil is dry and the pot it super light when you pick it up, it's probably time for water.

The good news is that underwatering is much easier to bounce back from. Water the plant until water runs through the bottom and keep an eye on the soil over the next week. If water runs through a plant instantly, it's time to freshen the soil. Sometimes super dry soil will have a hard time retaining moisture and create large crevices under the surface that causes water to run past instead of being absorbed. Repotting the plant in the same pot with new soil is a quick fix for this. 

How to Water Correctly

For most tropical plants, vines, and ferns, the soil moisture will be your first indicator. The golden rule with these is "moist, not wet," meaning you want the soil evenly saturated but not sopping; imagine a soil that's just wet enough to get a handful that sticks together without that handful dripping. That's the kind of soil your plants will do best in.

When the top inch of soil is dry but further down it's still moist, you can water. I say can and not need to because that moisture further down means the plant still has some water to take in. If you're about to go away for the weekend and only the top inch of soil is dry in your favorite houseplant, go ahead and water. You won't overwater it to death but also won't come back on Monday to a shriveled dried-up plant either.

If your soil is dry further down than an inch or two, or completely dry, you need to water. To save yourself from getting dirty, become familiar with the weight of your plant as an indication of watering. The weight of the pot is a great tell for how much water a plant needs, as a heavy pot has water, and a light pot is usually dry. I like to pot things in dry (or dry-ish) soil so I can feel the difference in weight before and after watering. If you don't know the weight variations of your plant already, or have trouble remembering, try putting in a wooden chopstick for a minute or so and then pulling it and touching it to gauge moisture, kind of like people stick a toothpick in baked goods to see if it's cooked all the way through.

Do not water a plant that is noticeably still wet. If that top inch of soil isn't dry, leave it be. 

What Does the Sun Have To Do With It?

Being able to recognize the visual signs of over- and underwatering will get you far, but what will get you farthest is understanding the way plants take up water. A lot of people think that soil dries passively, evaporation doing most of (if not all of) the work. The truth is that plants take up that water at a rate that is consistent with their size, condition, and environment.

I've heard it said that, when it comes to houseplants, "people think about water first, but plants think about light first," and that's a good way to understand plants needs. It doesn't matter how perfectly you water—if your plant isn't getting enough light it isn't going to do well. A plant kept in direct sun will dry out faster than one in indirect sun. If you feel like your plant takes an eternity to dry out, it's a good idea to reassess its location. Is it close enough to the window? Is anything shading it, like curtains or blinds? What direction does the window face? A direct correlation exists between light and water; more light means it will need more water. An inverse correlation exists between airflow and light; The less light a plant gets the more airflow it will need to stay alive. So if you can't provide perfect lighting, what you CAN do is provide more airflow.

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