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 BH&G Garden Editors
Updated December 31, 1969

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.

Brie Passano

Best Water for Houseplants

Wondering if tap water is okay 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. If you live somewhere with low air pollution, another option is collecting rainwater to use.

No matter what type of water you choose, room-temperature is better than either warm or cold. Either temperature 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 your 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 (or sometimes the opposite is true). 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 definitely time! But you don't want to let your plants get to this point because it makes them less able to fend off diseases and they won't look as good. 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. Watering in the morning is preferable to evening soaks. That way, any splashes on the leaves have a chance to dry throughout the day when temperatures tend to be warmer so they will evaporate faster. The longer wetness sits on plant leaves, the higher the risk of diseases taking hold.

Marty Baldwin

Best Ways to Water

You've got your 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 will rot.

Over time, your potting mix can also dry out and shed water so that it immediately drains out of the pot and doesn't get absorbed by the soil much at all. If that happens, water more slowly to give the mix more time to soak up moisture. If you can see the soil pulling away from the sides of the pot, push it back into place before you start watering. Otherwise, rather than soaking in, the water can run straight through and out of the drainage hole.

How to Tell if You're Overwatering Your Houseplants

Overwatering is usually a big fear among houseplant owners, and for good reason, since more plants tend to die of overwatering than underwatering. When you overwater a plant, the soil gets so soggy that that oxygen can't reach the roots, which then die and start to rot. But not to worry—if you're giving your plants a little too much attention, they'll let you know.

It sounds a little confusing, but wilting can be a sign of both over- and underwatering. The trick is looking at the soil as well as the plant: If the soil is wet and your plant looks wilted, you've been overwatering. If the soil's dry, it probably needs a drink. Additionally, yellow or brown leaves that are dropping off can be a sign of overwatering or underwatering (look at the soil again to tell).

If you think you've been overwatering, it doesn't necessarily mean your plants are doomed. Just let the soil dry before giving them any more water, and then start following the right watering techniques. If that doesn't help your plant bounce back, you can also try repotting it, and trimming away any dead or mushy roots. Making sure your plants have good drainage is an easy way to save them from overwatering too—look for pots that have drainage holes in the bottom, and make sure your plants are never sitting in water.

Knowing when to water your houseplants get easier with experience, too. But as you learn more about how to take care of your houseplants, our tips for watering can help you develop the right habits to keep them alive. If you're a really new plant parent, you can also make caring for your plants even easier by starting out with a few that are tough to kill. Then, once you've mastered the basics and feel confident in your watering skills, you can try taking on a plant or two that are a little more challenging, but totally worth the effort.

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