How to Water Your Houseplants

Use our easy tips to ensure your indoor plants get enough water without risking drowning them.

Watering your houseplants might sound simple enough, but it's something many of us struggle to do correctly. There are actually many variables that can make it tricky to know exactly when—and how often—to water your plant, not to mention how much water each particular plant needs. In this piece, you'll learn how to water your plants properly, learn the best kind of water to use when doing so, and be able to recognize telltale signs of overwatering. Once you start following our guidelines, you'll never have to deal with crispy, dried-out leaves or mushy, brown plants again.

person watering houseplants on window sill

BHG / Phoebe Cheong

How Much to Water Houseplants

Not all plants need the same amount of water, so if you're not sure how much your specific varietals need, take cues from their natural habitats. Many popular houseplants, like philodendrons, come from tropical regions of the world where it rains regularly. These species usually have big leaves that require a lot of water to look good. Plants like these will need more water than desert denizens, like cacti and succulents, which often do better when you let the soil dry out between waterings.

The time of year can make a difference, as well. Many houseplants grow more during the spring and summer, but not as much in the fall and winter. If you notice less growth than usual, ease up on how much water you give your plants until they start growing more again.

If you notice less growth than usual, ease up on how much water you give your plants until they start growing more again.

person testing soil before watering house plants

BHG / Phoebe Cheong

When to Water Your Houseplants

As a rule of thumb, if you see any wilting leaves, it's time to water your plants—but you don't want to let them get to this point. They won't look as good, and it makes them less able to fend off diseases. Instead, try making a habit of checking on your houseplants at least once a week to see if they need a drink. You can also use an app like Waterbug or Happy Plant to help remind you when it's time to make your rounds.

Make a habit of checking on your houseplants at least once a week to see if they need a drink.

The best way to tell if your plants need water is to stick your finger about an inch into the potting mix—if it feels dry, break out the watering can. If you detect dampness, check back again in a day or two. For smaller houseplants, you can also pick up the whole container. If it feels light for its size, add water. Then lift it up again, and you'll get a sense of how heavy the pot should feel when the soil is saturated.

Watering your plants in the morning is preferable to the evening because any extra moisture that gets on the leaves will have a chance to dry and evaporate throughout the day when temperatures tend to be warmer. The longer excess wetness sits on plant leaves, the higher the risk of diseases taking hold.

Best Water for Houseplants

When it comes to watering your houseplants, the exact type of water you choose depends on a few circumstances. Most tap water should be fine for houseplants unless it is softened because softened water contains salts that can build up in the soil over time and cause problems. Chlorinated water is also safe for most houseplants, but if you have a filtration system, that's much better for your plants. Yet another option is collecting rainwater to use. No matter which type of water you choose, using it at room temperature is a must. Either extreme (very cold water, or hot water) can damage your houseplants' leaves and even cause the plant to go into shock.

The Best Ways to Water Houseplants

You have your room-temperature water ready to go and the soil feels dry, so now what? You may be tempted to just dribble on a bit of water to avoid overwatering but, unfortunately, this won't help your plants much. Because most of a plant's roots aren't right at the soil surface, it's better to pour on enough water to fully soak the soil around each plant, continuing until water starts to run out of the container's drainage hole at the base. If you catch the extra water in a saucer, sometimes your plant's soil will absorb a bit more while it sits in it. However, make sure to dump out the saucer after about 10 minutes, or your plant's roots may rot.

Another option is to fill the saucer or other type of basin with water and put your plant containers inside to soak up water from their base. You'll see that in a few minutes, the water will soak into the soil through the drainage holes. Keep filling the saucer until the water no longer gets absorbed. This is the ideal method for watering plants that don't like wetness near their stems, such as cacti, succulents, and African violets.

close up of person watering house plant

BHG / Phoebe Cheong

How to Tell If You’re Overwatering Your Houseplants

There's a reason pots have drainage holes. Too much water will deprive your plant's roots of oxygen, causing them to drown and die. Even with good drainage, keeping the soil constantly wet can make it hard for air to reach the roots. There are a few ways to tell if you are overwatering your plants before it's too late to save them.

There's a reason pots have drainage holes. Too much water will literally drown your plants.

No new growth and yellowing leaves that are dropping off can be sure signs of overwatering. You may also notice wilting, which can be confusing because that is also a sign of too little water. The trick is to check the soil when you notice these problems. If it feels wet, you probably should go easier on the water. If the soil is dry, you may need to give your plant more water. If a drink doesn't improve things, you should look to adjust the temperatures or light levels your plant gets.

You can also use your nose to figure out if you've got an overwatering problem. Lots of moisture encourages fungi and bacteria to grow in the soil, which can cause unpleasant odors, especially when roots are rotting. If you spot any fungus gnats flitting around your plant when you water, you've likely been too heavy-handed with the watering can.

If you think you've been overwatering, it doesn't necessarily mean your plant is doomed. Just let the soil dry out a bit before watering again, then start following the watering techniques we describe above. If that doesn't help your plant bounce back, you can also try repotting it with fresh soil after cutting away any dead or mushy roots with a pair of pruning snips.

Knowing how to water your houseplants definitely requires some experience. The more you do it, the better you'll get at caring for your indoor garden. Try starting with a few varieties that are tough to kill. Then, once you've mastered the basics and feel more confident in your watering skills, you can try taking on a few plants that are more challenging but totally worth the effort.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a self-watering planter?

    A self-watering planter is a vessel that delivers water to your plants (typically the roots) without any intervention on your part. Typically, self-watering planters rely on sub-irrigation and a below-surface water reservoir to allow the plant to drink at its own pace.

  • Can I make my own self-watering planter?

    Yes, it's possible to make your own self-watering planter. Doing so typically involves using a main vessel with holes at the base and a water reservoir below that allows moisture to seep into the soil.

  • What is bottom watering?

    Bottom watering is an effective technique that waters plants from the bottom up. This is typically achieved by placing a planter or vase (with drainage holes in the bottom) in a bowl or tray of water and allowing the soil and roots to soak up the moisture from the base up. This method allows the roots to grow stronger and avoids excess moisture on the foliage or flowers of the plant, which can lead to bacteria growth or disease.

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