Your plants are more likely to die from too much water than too little. Here's what you need to know to avoid either scenario.

By Andrea Beck
Updated January 07, 2020
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Watering your houseplants sounds simple enough, yet it's something many of us struggle with. That's because there are actually many variables that can make it tricky to know exactly when to water and how often, never mind how much each particular plant needs. We'll help you get a better feel for how to water your plants properly. Plus we have tips on the best kind of water to use for houseplants and how to recognize the dreaded signs of overwatering. Once you start following our guidelines, you may never have to be haunted by the memory of crispy, dried out leaves or mushy, brown plants again.

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Best Water for Houseplants

Wondering if tap water is OK for your plants? The short answer is, it depends. Most tap water should be fine for your houseplants unless it is softened because it has salts that can build up in the soil over time and eventually cause problems. Chlorinated water is also safe for most houseplants, but if you have a filtration system, that's even better for your plants. Another option is collecting rainwater to use.

No matter what type of water you choose, room-temperature liquid is better than either warm or cold. Either extreme can damage your houseplants' leaves, so it's best to refill your watering can right away after each session and let it sit until next time. That way, it has plenty of time to even out to the right temperature.

How Much to Water

Not all plants need the same amount of water, so if you're not sure how much yours need, take cues from nature. Many popular houseplants like philodendrons come from tropical regions of the world where it rains regularly. These species usually have big leaves that use up 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, too. 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.

When to Water Your Plants

If you see any wilting leaves, it's time to water your plants. But you don't want to let your plants get to this point because 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 use an app like Waterbug or Happy Plant to help remind you when to make your rounds.

The best way to tell if your plants need water is to stick your finger about an inch into the soil mix, and 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 in the morning is preferable to evening. That way, any splashes on the leaves have a chance to dry and evaporate faster throughout the day when temperatures tend to be warmer. The longer that wetness sits on plant leaves, the higher the risk of diseases taking hold.

Best Ways to Water

You have room temp water ready to go and the soil feels dry, so now what? You might be tempted to just dribble on a bit so you don't risk overwatering. Unfortunately, this won't help your plants much at all because most of their roots aren't right up at the soil surface. It's better to pour enough on to fully soak the soil around each plant, continuing until water starts to run out of the container's drainage hole. 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 another type of basin under your containers with water. 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 certain plants such as cacti, succulents, and African violets that don't like wetness near their stems.

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How to Tell if You're Overwatering Your Houseplants

There's a reason pots have drainage holes—too much water will literally drown your plants. That's because roots do need oxygen or they will rot 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.

No new growth and yellowing leaves that are dropping off can be 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 may need 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. And if you spot any fungus gnats flitting around your plant whenever 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 trimming away any dead or mushy roots.

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.

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