If plants could communicate with us, they would probably put together a non-profit group to raise awareness about the dangers of over-watering. Too much of a good thing can quickly turn bad, and believe it or not: the leading cause of death for houseplants is humans who can’t seem to put away their watering cans. If chronic over-watering doesn’t drown a plant first, then surely root rot or fungal infections will follow up to finish up the job. Although every species of plant has it’s unique qualities and needs, there are a few easy tips to remember that can help you avoid loving your plants to death:
LISTEN TO THE LEAVES
Most botanists today agree that plants do actually communicate, but in their own special way. They adapt their growth patterns to changing environments, or through chemical responses to deal with competition and stress. Unfortunately, houseplants don’t speak our language, and so it’s up to us humans, with our large brains to interpret what they’re really trying to say. Observing changes in leaves is the most obvious method; healthy, vibrant green leaves scream out, “I’m feeling great today!” While wilted, dry, brown leaves solemnly whisper, “I’m dead.”
Somewhere in between those two extremes, we want to watch out for drooping leaves that have a yellow or pale look. This can cause confusion, because plants have a limited vocabulary and yellowing is a sign of both under-watering and over-watering. But with a little common sense, you can figure it out. If a plant was just watered yesterday and the leaves are turning yellow, then don’t water it again today. Leave it alone and check back in a day or two.
Unless you’re blessed with x-ray vision, it’s impossible to determine how much water is in potting soil by looking at it. You can always feel the top of the soil to get a better idea, but that doesn’t tell the complete story of what’s going on, down below. It’s very common for a ‘crust’ of sorts to develop at the surface that will lead us to believe a potted plant is much drier than it really is. The best method is to stick your finger down into the soil, burying it up to at least the first knuckle. If soil isn’t stuck to your finger when you pull out, then there’s no need to water today. Go find something more fun to do instead.
ADDING WATER IS NOT THE SAME AS WATERING
Just because you’ve dumped an entire watering can on a potted plant doesn’t mean it is now well-hydrated. Water can sit on the surface of the soil, then run down along the inside edges of a pot, without ever spreading into the center where most of the roots are. This is especially true if the soil has been allowed to dry out and harden for a while.
If there’s too much drainage in a container, water can also filter right through the soil and form a pool down at the bottom. Remember: drainage is supposed to prevent plants from becoming over-watered, not act as a reservoir that will promote root rot. You are far better off adding water to containers in smaller amounts, waiting a moment, then adding a little more. Repeat the cycle for a total of three times – this allows the soil enough time to act like a sponge and absorb moisture more evenly.
JUST IN CASE YOU DID FORGET TO WATER…
If it turns out that those yellow leaves are actually screaming “Hello! You forgot about me!” then you’ll want to save the day by super-saturating the potting soil. This is not the same thing as a regular watering, and you still don’t want to over water the plants. Instead, fill up a bucket or kitchen sink with water and submerge the plant partially in it. Don’t fill this up above the top of the soil level, or you’ll have a muddy mess on your hands. But do give it at least 5 minutes to really soak in… 15 minutes sounds even better. Just don’t wait an hour or you’ll have an over-watered plant on your hands instead. After the waiting period is over, be sure to let the container drain out as much as possible.